Many Ottawa musicians feel right at home when it comes to the DIY approach to making music. Artists can get their music from pen and paper to our ear drums quicker and easier than ever with basic equipment. Not having to worry about surrendering a down payment on a house to record an album in-studio (in some cities this is the case) allows for a little more freedom for independent artists to create, whereas they might not have been able to otherwise.
Jakub Raček, writing music under the pseudonym Pocket Writer, is one such artist. He recently released his debut album Dented Little Scars at the tail end of 2014 and is relatively new in the Ottawa scene. Raček blends folk sensibilities and stories in his lyrics with simple, subtly brilliant instrumental arrangements throughout the album.
Having moved to Ottawa from Bratislava, Slovakia at the age of 4, Raček was the youngest amongst 6 children in his family to be involved in the arts. This upbringing filled with creativity helped set the stage for him to discover his own songwriting abilities.
“My brother Jozef was the first to play guitar and I started playing when I was 9. He taught me the basics and I’ve been self-taught since,” explains Raček. “My brothers and I grew up playing music in our basement, recording lots of random stuff for years but never pursuing it too far.”
It’s no wonder Raček decided to take music more seriously, having been exposed to music, film, art, and creative writing at such a young age. His brother Jozef, with whom he collaborated on Dented Little Scars, started a band called Weather Weather in Montreal, and is currently part of a group called Harvest Soon in that city. The two have played shows together in the past from time to time, but never formally pursued music together in a band.
The idea and songwriting for Dented Little Scars came about around five years ago. It wasn’t until Raček moved to downtown Ottawa while completing a graduate degree in psychology at Carleton in 2010 that he began to take his own musical endeavours more seriously.
“Living in the city definitely brought out some creative energy and I found myself more immersed in music than school. Because of this, I remember feeling a sense of detachment from the formalities of academia and a lot of that is reflected in the songs.
“Other songs describing the uglier sides of the medical world drew from my time working at a pharmacy next to a walk-in clinic prior to starting grad school. I think these themes seem to overlap into a common idea on the album that not everything that should be good for you turns out to be.”
The album was recorded in various living quarters – Raček moved four times while completing the recording process himself. One of the many benefits of taking the DIY approach is that he was not restricted to one space, or having to record the album all at once. His experience becoming detached with academia helped to dictate some of his songwriting, as can be heard in songs such as “Empty Hands”, “Currents” and “Return to Normalcy”. Raček explains the thought behind the final track called “Return to Normalcy” on the album:
“The word ‘normal’ has always sort of bothered me in the way it is thrown around. In my mind nothing is necessarily ever normal, things are either more common or stable or follow a more accepted trajectory but that doesn’t make them right for each person. […] Life is always changing so the idea that you should strive for normalcy is sort of a lost cause. But the song is optimistic because it’s saying that accepting the chaos and embracing it can be more rewarding than striving for the norm.”
Dented Little Scars takes inspiration from such prolific songwriters as Elliott Smith, Conor Oberst, and The National. There is a darkness lying beneath the surface that can be heard if you listen carefully, however it’s not a dark album per se. There are moments where Raček’s disillusionment and disconnectedness with certain aspects of his life come through – however, the album is by and large an optimistic one with respect to its lyrical labyrinth and, quite simply, the feeling the music leaves one with after listening it through a few times.
What I really ended up enjoying about Dented Little Scars after several listens was the subtle layering of instrumental parts, arranged so that the songs are all relatively simple yet contain moments of brilliance that don’t overwhelm the listener. This is particularly evident in my favourite tracks, the title track, “Royal Blood,” and “Ghost Singer,” but are more or less present throughout the entire record.
Raček is not doing anything groundbreaking on this album, nor is he trying to. There are a few points (very, very few) on the album where there was an obvious mistake, or where something doesn’t sound quite right. I suppose this comes along with the territory when making an album completely on your own, and these small mistakes did not detract from its overall appeal and aesthetic. His vocal style and lyrical phrasing throughout Dented Little Scars is fairly consistent, and doesn’t vary much at all. At first one might find his vocals too gentle and lacking enthusiasm. This wasn’t an issue for me, but I can see how some listeners might lose interest if not engaged in the lyrical content or instrumentation.
I, on the other hand, really grew to love his relaxed vocal style and it really did conjure up nostalgic feelings of listening to Elliott Smith in my room alone years back. Music that is longing, and at times absorbing and consuming. So, if one takes Raček’s minimalist approach to songwriting as completely deliberate, we end up with a beautiful, honest album. Although many of the songs may sound similar, each has a slightly unique offering for the listener. There are no gimmicks, no tricks up his sleeve.
To me, Pocket Writer is poised to join the ranks of other incredibly talented local musicians such as Heavy Bedroom, Bosveld, and perhaps even follow in the footsteps of someone like Kalle Mattson by starting with something simple and building something larger with each album released. He’ll certainly be someone to keep an eye on in the future.