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A Pleasing Demeanor

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Issue: 22 Section: Arts Geography: Ontario, West Calgary, Alberta, Guelph

September 30, 2004

A Pleasing Demeanor

This spirited Calgary native has finally found his zone.

by Chris Cwynar

chrisdem.jpg
The "Hockey Song" is available at krisdemeanor.com.
Nearing the end of his set at this summer's Hillside Festival in Guelph, Kris Demeanor arrived at Down in the Zone, his rollicking discourse on Canada's national obsession. It's an excellent song, and it exemplifies Demeanor's irreverent pop artistry.

Though the song is ostensibly about hockey, it actually plays on the banal sexual metaphors ("scoring" etc.) associated with the sport in order to subvert the vacuous machismo that is so pervasive in our nation's rinks and bars. The tune unfolds as a witty and self-deprecating satire in which the singer's macho boasts continually dissolve into the titular lament, "I never have a clue what to do/ When I'm down in the zone."

Clearly, that's a lot to pack into a couple of minutes. Sensing this, Demeanor favoured his uninitiated audience with an introductory anecdote concerning a performance at a high school in Denmark.

"Their English wasn't very good," Demeanor related, "so, much of the lyrical effect of my songs was lost on them. After the set, however, a boy approached me."

Here Demeanor adopted a thick Scandinavian accent in order to recount the young Dane's grave words: "That song, Down in the Zone, it is not about hockey."

With that, Demeanor broke into a huge smile, and his band took off, leaving the audience members to draw their own conclusions about the nature of "the zone." The crowd laughed and lapped the song up, just as they had for the rest of Demeanor's humourous and theatrical performance.

While the audience was cheering by the end of Demeanor's set, it's a good bet that most in attendance didn't know much about him before he hit the stage. That's because, up to this point, Demeanor has devoted his energies to building up a following in Europe and Western Canada.

Though Demeanor hails from Calgary, and his songs often refer to the West, he admits he has a complicated relationship with the region.

"I still can't figure out whether or not I feel a particular connection to the West and its culture," he says. "Some of my songs are direct products of the Western experience, but they tend to be more universal stories of human joy and trouble and could probably have been written in Michigan or Israel."

In fact, many of his songs actually were written in far-flung locales. A youthful wanderlust drove Demeanor to flee the long shadow of the Rockies for the bustling streets of Europe and the Middle East, a move that turned out to be critical to his artistic development.

"[That trip] was a first-rate musical education," Demeanor maintains. "The year and a half busking and writing in Europe gave me the nerve to play live. There's nothing more challenging or humbling than busking in Glasgow in December in the rain, desperately needing another 50 pence for a can of cider."

The experience also helped him develop his theatrical performance style. "My energetic and somewhat spastic playing style was a direct product of having to play everything fast and loud in order to get people's attention on the street."

Returning to Calgary, Demeanor formed the band Tinderbox in 1994. Five years later, he struck out on his own with his self-titled debut album. Since then, Demeanor has toured steadily, and in 2002 he released his second solo album, entitled Lark.

That release heralded his arrival as a singer-songwriter with a lyrical sensibility reminiscent of Dan Bern. The collection of folk-pop songs addresses many societal issues including alienation and superficiality, particularly in the biting spoken-word piece Extreme to Me.

Though Demeanor deconstructs these issues with a sharp and cerebral wit, that force is tempered by an engaging sense of wonder that effectively guards against cynicism. Demeanor attributes this to a creative technique he learned from his father.

"I try to approach songwriting the same way my Dad approaches visual art. He used to tell his students to forget the masters, forget copying famous pieces, forget

technique, and pretend you are the first neanderthal in the first cave picking up a piece of ochre for the first time. What are you going to draw? Why are you drawing it?"

This approach has enabled Demeanor to explore contemporary issues pertaining to prostitution and gender identity in a sensitive and elucidatory manner. Demeanor is adept at crystallizing the essence of complex issues in detailed characterizations, thereby making them tangible and poignantly human.

The songs One of Two Things (about a bookmobile turned prostitute outreach clinic) and Cactus Man exemplify this ability. Demeanor admits that he initially had reservations about the latter song. "I was a little wary of the potential pitfalls of a five and a half minute transvestite suicide ballad. I thought at first it was too heavy and bizarre."

He forged on, however, and the result was a tender narrative that takes the most essential of Western images as its metaphoric centre. "The genesis of the idea for the song came from that life cycle idea, inspired by a near dead cactus in my room that everyone kept telling me to throw out, but that miraculously sprung a bright red shooting star flower one weekend."

That compelling image could also represent the artist himself, as he appears to be in full bloom. Demeanor has a new live album – entitled Party all Night! – and a Scandinavian tour planned for November.

Demeanor will also continue to write because, as he says, "a songwriter is only really happy when he knows he's written a good song." By that measure, this restless spirit should be enthused about his efforts thus far, even as he pushes on in search of the next great chorus or fascinating country.

***

To find out more about Kris Demeanor, and to hear his "hockey" song, check out www.krisdemeanor.com.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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