One day, he watched a band play in his backyard as a kid. Another time, he secretly played around with his younger brother guitar. In fact, he borrowed it so often that he had to get his own. Then, finally, playing guitar started to consume so much of his time that he just knew.
Since then, Symonds has been in numerous bands, playing rock and blues in the beginning, exploring jazz and funk during his VIU years, and then gravitating toward fingerstyle guitar and folk and Americana roots. He currently plays bluegrass with The Hub City Ramblers, and gets the crowds dancing with the eight-piece funk hit Bananafish Dance Orchestra. He also frequently tours with Big River, a Johnny Cash tribute band, which he considers the first opportunity to make his living entirely by playing music. Duncan spoke to The Navigator about his newly released album Bloom, a collection of instrumental fingerstyle guitar compositions with folk and world music influences.
How many guitars do you own?
I have seven guitars: three electrics, an acoustic, a dobro, a tricone, and a pedal steel guitar. I’m not a collector. They are all very different and allow me to express myself in different ways in all different styles of music.
Which one do you value the most?
A father can’t choose between his children.
Do you have a strong connection to Johnny Cash?
No, not really. I knew three or four songs before joining the band. I’m glad for Big River. It’s this kind of a glorified tribute band, and we get to go out on tour and play in theatres and not in bars. I appreciate Johnny Cash a lot more now that I have a better understanding of his music.
What do you take from his music?
I understand why people like it so much; it’s story-driven music. And in the ‘50s, he was like nothing people had ever heard. It tends to be a breaking point when you come up with a completely new sound.
Do you identify with any of his stories?
I think I’m mostly on autopilot too much when I play it to be able to pay attention to the lyrics. But I know some of the bigger songs, like “Hurt.” A lot of people come up to us after the show to tell us how much they identify with a song like that.
Why do you think people come to you when it’s someone else’s music that you play?
Well they come to us because they can’t go to him. They’re at the show—they hear the songs and feel emotional.
What is it like to be the medium between the original artist and his audience?
It’s still a nice thing at the end of the day. They’re still giving you a compliment.
How did Bananafish Dance Orchestra influence your music?
It made me start thinking about writing and playing music with a bigger group of musicians. Usually there are four or five people, but there are eight of us in Bananafish. You have less space to fill. It helped me figure out how to play simpler, stronger parts that fit the song well.
What is the dynamic like in such a big band?
It’s a lot more challenging because we have that many more opinions. Everybody has their own ideas of what sounds good to them. You have to be a lot more diplomatic in the decision-making process, which is what I look forward to when I write my own music—you don’t have to worry about making any compromises; it’s just your own art. I wanted something small and organic-sounding. That’s why there are all the strings. I appreciate being able to play quiet, more nuanced and sensitive music.
How do you work with the other two members of The Duncan Symonds Trio?
I met Marisha [Devoin] and Brad [Shipley] at the jazz program at VIU and played with them in the Hub City Ramblers. With half of the material on the CD, I wrote the songs for solo guitar probably before going to VIU, so maybe eight years ago. Making my own music went on hold for a bit, and then I was too consumed doing school and playing in bands. Three or four years went by after school when I started revisiting my old tunes and realized I don’t want to play this just by myself. I wanted to add more instruments and make the songs bigger.
Why did you choose to add string instruments?
String instruments are folk-y. Lots of people can relate to that sound. It’s an old tradition, built into this culture and all the sounds. Even if you don’t know the music and are not a fan of bluegrass or banjo, you can still kind of know the sound and relate to it in some way. The finger style guitar is acoustic—you don’t just play the melody and strum chords. You play with your fingers and try to play a song as a band would play it. You try to be the whole band on one guitar. You play the bass line, the chords that accompany the melody, and then the melody itself.
Some songs on the album carry strong influences from different cultures. Where did this come from?
I got inspired by watching a kung-fu movie, Kung-Fu Hustle. There’s a scene where two villains are playing these instruments that shoot waves at people and slice them in half. Scary, right? But they’re playing this beautiful music while they do it.
Do you want your music to have a similar impact on listeners?
Maybe not quite that, eh? I hope that when people listen to my music, it will relax them and kind of take them somewhere. All the songs have their own atmosphere and vibe to them. They bring sceneries to mind. The kung-fu movie is one example. Another song can sound like you’re under water, with a peaceful feeling. It depends on who’s listening.
Who do you imagine your listeners are when you write music?
I don’t have any. I just play because I love it. There’s a creative bubble going on, which I’m trying to break out of. You should be playing for people, you should be involving them. Probably not everybody thinks that way, but the artists I like do.
Who are your heroes?
There are a lot of them. But one of my favourite artists that play a similar type of music that’s on my album is Tommy Emanuel, an Australian guitar player. I saw him about six months ago. He’s not only a really good guitar player, but he also involves his audiences a lot—not like some other musicians who just show off or play for themselves; he plays for people and they respond to that.
How do people respond to you?
I guess that depends on what kind of mood I’m in. It’s easy for me to get lost in my head. But when I’m making eye contact with people, they do respond. They don’t want to just see a band and listen to music. They want to feel involved in the act, in the process, whether they know you or not. Otherwise they might as well just stay at home and watch YouTube.
How else do you connect with your audience?
Having a stage presence and not just standing there like a rock: walking and moving around the stage. Talking in between songs, telling stories—that’s what we do a lot in Big River. We introduce the stories of the songs and people really relate to them when they know what’s going on. And playing melodically. People like to hear songs they can sing, and to hear music that sounds familiar to them. I try to be conscious of that on the album.
What is the creative process like for you when you’re in charge?
Although I had the creative control at the end of the day, I asked for a lot of opinions. I wanted Brad and Marisha to feel involved in the process, not just show up and have me dictate how they should play. They need to put their own personalities in it as well. Mostly, I came in with tunes that were 70 percent done and then we’d hash out the arrangements and parts together. It’s good to bounce ideas off other people.
The album is a studio project. We’ve never played together, only one-on-one. Today we’ve actually played for the first time. It was different. My music is technically challenging.
Is there room for improvisation?
There is a mix between highly arranged sections and improvised parts. Improvisation is written into these songs. I like the contrast.
What can we expect from the concerts?
Three nervous players. (Laughs.) The songs aren’t going to change, but the smaller details are going to be different from night to night. That’s the nature of improvisation.
Where do you want to go?
The biggest driving force behind this CD was art for art’s sake. I’ve never had any expectations to make money, because it’s not that kind of music. It’s nichier. A lot of the promoting is going to be done on the internet. That’s the method of all other artists that play this style. It’s not financially feasible to go touring around and play for too-small audiences.
You chose to play a house concert for your CD release event.
I’ve only done one and I loved it. Everyone’s there to see you and listen to the music, not to socialize and drink.