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A Jazz Family That Rocks Out: The Justin Time And Secret City Interview, Pt. 2

If you listen beyond the surface, they're all the same. The similarity between Justin Time and Secret City is probably that. When you take away the genre, the artists are all very similar, and they're all very eccentric, and they're all very exciting in their own different ways.
Justin West

Patrick Watson was the first performer signed to Secret City Records, and the inspiration for the label's creation. Mathieu Parisien hide caption

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Mathieu Parisien

Patrick Watson was the first performer signed to Secret City Records, and the inspiration for the label's creation.

Mathieu Parisien

Secret City Records, based in Montreal, is one of Canada's hippest new rock and pop outfits. It's also a subsidiary of Justin Time Records, Canada's biggest jazz record label.

Jim West, now 55, started Justin Time Records in 1983, eventually building it up to become a respected name among aficionados and musicians. Many years later, his son Justin, now 29, co-founded Secret City.

Hoping there would be a philosophical connection between father and son businesses — and suspecting that jazz might have something to do with it — I sat down with both Jim and Justin West. Part one, with Jim West, is here. Part two is with son Justin.


Patrick Jarenwattananon: What did you learn from your dad?

Jim West: How to play hockey? [laughter]

Justin West: In reference to music?

PJ: In reference to this business, in reference to everything.

Justin: In terms of the business, what I learned most from my dad was how to work with artists, you know what I mean? I went to the studio a lot with him, and even the Sound on Sound [recording session] with David Murray, I was there for that actually. And with Curtis Lundy. I went to a lot of studio sessions, and just learned how to work with them. ... That's probably one of the biggest things I learned.

And obviously, just the mechanics of the business. I've probably asked about 10 million questions over the years, right? I remember I think I asked the same question 10 times between the ages of 16 and 20: 'I don't understand publishing. You've gotta explain publishing to me. What is this? How does this work? Explain it to me.' And he'd draw me the circle, and say, 'Well, there's this, and you cut the pie in half, and 50% is the writer's share ...' Just the whole thing — and then I'd forget it, and ask again. So the mechanics of the business for sure.

PJ: When and why did you start Secret City?

Justin: It's a funny story, actually, and it's a very interesting connection. I was working with my dad ... And my dad was going to go see the show. And said, 'Oh, Patrick Watson — I went to high school with him.' So we all went down to the show, and it was pretty mind-blowing, actually. It was at a place called Cafe Sarajevo, and he played in the middle of the floor. It wasn't a jam session, but he jammed out, and it was pretty wild. And my dad was super, super into it. I didn't have a label or anything, and he wanted to sign [Watson] to Justin Time. And so they started talking, and I was very forward also — just from the perspective that I thought it was amazing — and Patrick wanted to work with my dad, and wanted to do the deal, but didn't really want to be on a jazz label? And I knew Patrick also from school, like I said. So I just proposed the idea: let's start a new label for it. And that was basically how it went down.

I saw him in the Metro, actually, probably a year before that, Patrick [Watson] on the way to work. And he was on the way to music school, because he was going to Vanier College at the time. And he said, 'Oh, Justin! I'm doing this CD, and I'm really, like — I'm going to get it to you one day! I don't know when it's going to be done, because I don't have any money, but one day, I'm going to sit down with you, I'm going to give you this CD!' I said, 'OK man, I'll see you when I see you!' And then it started from there. And it became exciting, right? I mean, starting a label, putting a brand together. It became kind of an idea. But it wasn't start a label, find an artist — it was like, there was an opportunity, the artist was there, it kind of made sense. There was a relationship existing; let's do it.

PJ: Secret City has become somewhat of a rock/pop label — quote-unquote "indie." Is this the music you grew up with, or the music that you have a connection to in some way?

Justin: I grew up mainly in the grunge era, you know? I remember listening to Nirvana, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins — those kind of things. Radiohead's OK Computer was hugely influential to my life and tastes and everything. But the aesthetic of the label, and the artists which it's signed — it's less about the genre, and less about the music, than it is about the artist, you know what I mean? Often times I get really excited about an artist, and I know I want to sign them after I had lunch with them, and I can kind of see where they can go as an artist. It's not really about the record that they're presenting right now, but where they can go in the future, and often you only get that when you sit with them.

Singer-songwriter Basia Bulat is signed to Secret City Records. courtesy of the artist hide caption

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courtesy of the artist

Singer-songwriter Basia Bulat is signed to Secret City Records.

courtesy of the artist

I find everybody that we work with from an artistic perspective: they're all quirky, they all have this essence about them that's different. So it's less about the genre than it is where it can go. But obviously, it has to fit somewhat within the mold that we do. But it's pretty vast. Like, I have no problem signing hip-hop artists. Our next signing, which we're working on right now, is way, way different from anything we've done before.

Listening to Patrick Watson's music — he's very musical. He's got a lot of things going on there. Do you feel like listening to jazz music has infiltrated the way you think about Secret City?

Justin: Yea, but in a different way. I think the artists that I was always drawn to on Justin Time were always the artists who were the most eccentric, you know? And whether that's from a playing perspective, or from a personality perspective, it didn't really matter. To me, it was all about eccentricity, right? And that's kind of the philosophy in terms of when we sign artists, too. I mean, they have to be good, and I have to be into the music and everything. But they also have to be eccentric. And so I always got into people like David Murray — he's not "crazy eccentric," but he's a little bit eccentric, ok? And Hamiet Bluiett — he was something! [laughs] Those are the people that I really, really liked. ... And Patrick [Watson] is quite eccentric — he really is.

Do you yourself listen to jazz? Do you feel like you grew up with it?

Justin: Well, I definitely grew up with it. I don't put it on at home or in the car or anything, but it doesn't mean I don't like it. Last night, we [Justin and his father] went to go see Matt Hershkowitz [a new Justin Time artist], and it was mind-blowing. It wasn't really jazz, per se — he called it "chamber music"—

Jim: He did, but anybody who loves chamber music would probably ... you know? It's a jazz world classical crossover.

Justin: Yea, that was phenomenal — it was amazing. Yea, I don't really listen to jazz, but I do like Oliver Jones. I love David Murray. The Billy Bang stuff is really, really interesting. Like I said, it's less about genre and more about the idea.

Sure. Do you feel that a lot of fellow young people look at it that way?

Justin: No. I don't think so. I think a lot of young people look at it [as that] it's different — if you're into jazz, then you're in a certain school. Oftentimes there's that barrier between "I'm a jazz fan" and/or "I'm an indie rock fan" or a more conventional [music] fan. Whereas even the indie rock fans, I would find that they never really cross over into the jazz world. Which is disappointing.

So let me rephrase the question that I asked your dad. For customers of Secret City Records, why should they listen to an artist that's on Justin Time?

Justin: Why should they? Because there's so many similarities. They're listening to the surface — that's the problem, right? If you listen beyond the surface, they're all the same. The similarity between Justin Time and Secret City is probably that. When you take away the genre, the artists are all very similar, and they're all very eccentric, and they're all very exciting in their own different ways. If they can get beyond that, they can listen to anything.