Troubadour of tears On Field Guide’s heartfelt, heartbreaking new album, sad songs say so much
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Field Guide, for all his sad songs, is dressed exclusively in vibrant colours. His beanie is mustard yellow, his jacket and shirt are forest green, his Blundstones are burgundy. His short, scruffy beard is Spalding-ball orange.
He looks as if he’s trying to match the leaves outside the Nook, the West Broadway diner where he’s ordering breakfast in a delightfully elliptical fashion.
“Can I please get two eggs, scrambled, with rye toast and sausage, and in the hashbrowns, can I get banana peppers? And also, can I get the sausage butterflied, please?” His red, round-framed glasses emit “funky aunt energy,” he says.
His given name is Dylan MacDonald, and in the past three years since beginning his solo musical career, the 28-year-old singer-songwriter has become one of the city’s fastest-rising artists, known for his honest — at times brutally so — lyrics, confined within songs that are as much about love found as they are about love lost.
A breaking heart, and its subsequent recovery, is a valuable commodity for a songwriter, and MacDonald’s greatest skill as a lyricist is to reveal his scars without varnish or veneer.
As a member of the poppy trio the Middle Coast — alongside fellow ascendant talents Liam Duncan (Boy Golden) and Roman Clarke — MacDonald’s sadness was hushed. But once the group amicably disbanded in 2018 to pursue solo projects, the Brandon-born redhead was able to enter a confessional booth of his own making, speaking clearly into the microphone and drawing deeply from his personal and romantic lives to develop for the first time in his career a voice, which cracks softly like a window and lands squarely behind the upper left rib cage with a soft thud.
What’s In a Name?
In 2018, when MacDonald was faced with starting his solo career, he had to decide what to call himself.
A friend wanted to help, so sent MacDonald — who was on tour with Don Amero — a PDF of a Field Guide to Manitoba Trees, thinking he might find inspiration between the pines and birch.
MacDonald didn’t have to read too far. “It was right there on the cover,” he says with a laughs. ”I just saw the two words together and said, yeah, that’s it.”
One of the best examples of MacDonald’s balancing act of pain and resolution is his most popular song, 2020’s You Were, a plaintive track that has been streamed more than 16 million times on Spotify. “I don’t ever want to keep you waiting, and you don’t ever want to change my mind / I guess we’re living in a love that’s fading, we’ll be dead by the summertime,” he sings.
He never uses 10-dollar words. He doesn’t stretch his syllables to fit into an over-complicated jigsaw puzzle of melody. In the span of a dozen words, MacDonald is capable of covering the full spectrum of romance; despite all his success, his music is still suffused with a palpable, adolescent, yet ancient sadness.
That was a common emotion as MacDonald’s solo work first began to take off. At the start of the pandemic, he, alongside friend and fellow musicians Duncan and Kris Ulrich, moved to Toronto, which was a shell of its normal self under the pall of COVID-19.
“All of the best things about Toronto were off the table,” he says.
Unable to experience the city in full, he moved home and dipped into his journal, which he says is an essential part of his songwriting practice, especially when he’s feeling low. “I’m so drawn to writing when I’m in a dark place,” he says.
From that darkness emerged the pieces of his latest album, the self-titled Field Guide, out today on local label Birthday Cake Records.
“These are the truest, rawest songs that I’ve ever written… I’ve never felt so sure about something I’ve made before.”–Dylan MacDonald
“These are the truest, rawest songs that I’ve ever written,” he says in an artist’s statement. “I’ve never felt so sure about something I’ve made before.”
Throughout the self-produced LP, Field Guide seems to be singing two different types of song to two different people, all the while singing to himself. It’s a diary set to music, with elements of acoustic folk, jubilant pop and cosmic country. It’s impossible to miss MacDonald’s influences, including the Canadian troubadour Bahamas and the earlier work of Coldplay, whose album Parachutes the Manitoban covered in full last year.
Steel guitar played by Matt Kelly of City and Colour, and drums by Olivier Fairfield, who has worked with Prairie songwriter Andy Shauff, give structure to MacDonald’s nimble writing.
His lyrics are deeply romantic in the dramatic sense. “Break your heart I’m sure I’d rather die,” he chants on You Carry Me. His “drug of choice is always human connection.”
Inside each song is a short story of the risk and reward of indulging in that vice. The melodies are simple and difficult to forget, and it’s quite obvious these songs are not dreamed up out of nothing, but drawn from something true.
In My Ears
Five albums Field Guide has been listening to lately:
1. Two Saviors by Buck Meek
2. Migration Stories by M. Ward
3. Idle by Slow Spirit
4. New Ways by Leif Vollebekk
5. Lost in a Dream by the War on Drugs
That’s all he knows to be. His success, including a European tour earlier this year spanning 18 cities in 12 countries over 30 days, has been dizzying and humbling. He’s opened for personal heroes like Leif Vollebeck, whom Field Guide joins at the West End Cultural Centre next week, and played headlining shows at the Social, a London venue played by both Bon Iver and Adele in their early days.
In a sparkling review, Canadian music magazine Exclaim! calls his latest album “an excellent showcase for MacDonald’s clean, uncomplicated vocals, always emanating from a sincere place within… (it) is the sound of an artist who’s fully settled into their voice.” The next few months will be populated by plans for future tours and local shows — all part of the hustle.
But what’s a songwriter to do when sadness has been his muse and success comes for him?
MacDonald is figuring that out, and has even started writing happy songs. “I’ve been making a bunch of new music, and I can’t say there’s not still some dark undertones, but it is a lot lighter,” he says with a wry smile.
Unable to finish his breakfast, he exits the diner and turns down Westminster Avenue, his yellow toque blending in with the autumn around him.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.