The sky may be the limit (as the saying goes), but it’s nowhere near the limit when it comes to Patrick Ballantyne’s latest album. Sky is the veteran Toronto singer/songwriter’s fourth collection and finds him venturing off into new sonic territory unlike anything he’s done before.
Taking an auteur approach in handling nearly all instrumentation and singing, while utilizing the full capabilities of his home studio, Ballantyne built on his established hit-making credentials to craft a record that pays homage to some of rock’s greatest boundary pushers. “My favourite albums over the years are often those where the artist stretches out and allows their muse to take over,” he says. “For example, I prefer Tusk to Rumours, and The White Album to Sgt. Pepper. When artists follow their solitary path and trust their instincts, they can discover wonderful things.”
Indeed, fans of classic AOR will surely feel a familiar rush that comes with embarking on a new journey when they click play—or more appropriately drop the needle—on Sky. As the Pink Floyd-ian opening track “Beneath Your Skin” flows into the Mellotron-drenched “Practicing” (co-written with his Northwood Records label mate Ambre McLean), and the McCartney-esque focus track “Dominos” it’s clear that Ballantyne has melded all of the elements at his fingertips into a clear, defined sound.
“A few of the songs date back a few years,” he says. “At some point, however, I began to hear the songs as part of a larger whole. The album was very much conceived as a single unit, to be digested in a single listening. No song was specifically written FOR the project—they all just FIT the project like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.”
Although Ballantyne admits that he did find some inspiration in ‘70s prog rock (hence the prominence of the Mellotron), excess never overshadowed his sharp songwriting instincts, which over the years have made him a close collaborator with the likes of The Trews’ Colin MacDonald and Big Sugar’s Gordie Johnson. Still, Ballantyne says that making Sky was a much more free-flowing process, especially compared to his previous album, 2017’s Calendar, for which he stuck to a strict regimen of writing and recording a song from scratch each month for an entire year..He explains that setting up these kinds of personal challenges can open up new creative possibilities, and that was definitely the case with Sky. “The title track was my attempt to bash my way out of a minor writer’s slump. I started weaving guitar parts into one another just for fun, but also to see if I could create a song in a different fashion. The original layered guitar parts remain on the track, and it led to the idea of a Cinemascope-type chorus.
“The song ‘Vicious in Your Vanity’ also started as a home recording exercise, trying to kick start my brain into completing a song. I eventually shared a fairly complete version of it with Colin MacDonald, who rearranged the chorus and bridge and verses, then contributed some great lyrics. Easy, right? Songwriting can be both a pain and a thrill, and working with Colin is always in the ‘thrill’ category because he is such a deep and pure songwriter.”
“Deep and pure” are words that easily apply to Ballantyne as well, and amid all the ear candy on Sky, the album’s most poignant moment is the ballad “A Bit Of Make Believe,” which echoes Warren Zevon, another of Ballantyne’s strongest influences. Like the late, great Zevon, Ballantyne has developed a reputation as a “songwriter’s songwriter,” delving into the complexities of adult relationships. And as his personal understanding of that topic continues to develop with age, it’s only helped shape the direction of his music.
“Songs I record for my own projects are done to please myself,” he says. “I do it because I don’t know how not to; I’ve been writing and recording like this for decades. I hate to use the term ‘self-indulgent,’ but it is almost by definition, as I’m allowed to do what I want—to write songs and make records that I want to listen to. In terms of artistic evolution, I’m back at the place where it is self-expression for its own sake, which is perhaps more de-volution than evolution!”
Matt Connell / Northwood Records