He’s the one with the bag on his head

‘Super-paranoid’ Taylor Kirk is the antithesis of the soul-baring introspective Drake
Mike Doherty
He's the one with the bag on his head
Photograph by James Leighton Bur

It was a banner summer for Canadian musicians: Arcade Fire, Justin Bieber, Drake and K’naan planted our flag proudly atop global charts. But if purveyors of anthems to arenas overwhelm you, may we suggest Timber Timbre. Their self-titled third album is a stark, eerie collection of off-centre blues and folk that sneaks up on listeners like a “night crawler crawlin’ out in the yard”—a typical image from one of singer Taylor Kirk’s songs. With European festivals ahead and a new album in the works, Timber Timbre are ready to bring their music to the world—in as self-effacing a way as possible.

“I’ve always been really shy,” says Kirk, over brunch at a quirky Montreal diner. “That’s amplified by doing something so revealing.” Having learned to play guitar as a child in a church basement in the hamlet of Myrtle, Ont., Kirk made his first recordings alone, while living in a timber-framed cabin in Bobcaygeon, in 2005. In the “scary” isolation, with crickets and the ghostly noises of rural Ontario bleeding into the microphones, he says he felt “uninhibited—totally at liberty to try whatever comes to mind.”

He overdubbed himself on guitar, piano, harmonica and hand-clap percussion, and packaged the crackly, lo-fi results as Timber Timbre’s debut, Cedar Shakes, selling the homemade CDs at Toronto’s indie oasis Soundscapes—the only store that would take them. In Toronto, where he’d found a job delivering kegs of beer, Kirk began to play shows and slowly attracted a cult following.

His second album, Medicinals (2007), was again recorded alone, in an empty Toronto apartment; for Timber Timbre (2009), he was joined by other musicians in a studio, where better microphones coaxed resonance out of his Robert Johnson-esque croon. The writing on this third album, Kirk says, was influenced by the illness of his then-girlfriend. “People who were close with us, even family, moved away from that situation—it became too much of a drag or a burden. I was writing a lot about that—I was resentful.”

The songs sound like fragments of gothic films: against spookily calm backdrops, they conjure images of live burial, burning and electrocution. “My early songwriting attempts were always very literal and too earnest,” Kirk says. But now, he’s “using broad, heavy-handed imagery as a way to disguise what I’m singing about, so that it isn’t overly earnest.”

Kirk is the antithesis of the confessional folkie, and also of the soul-baring introspective Drake. On Timber Timbre’s cover, his face is obscured by a coonskin cap that looks like a smudge on the photo; in recent pictures, he’s taken to wearing a mosquito net on his head. “My folks are super-supportive, but sometimes I wonder if they don’t totally get it—they think I should be on the cover with a guitar,” he shrugs. Similarly, in his electronic press kit, an actor wearing a black cloak plays Kirk. “I think that’s more intriguing,” he says, but he also didn’t want to be in the video.

Yet despite describing himself as “really super-paranoid,” Kirk is thoughtful and friendly; he’s even opened up Timber Timbre to become a full-fledged trio. It includes Simon Trottier, a dryly funny Montrealer who contributes lap steel guitar and electronics, and Toronto violinist Mika Posen. Together, they’ve recorded a new album in a former church outside Montreal. The music is “really different,” Kirk enthuses. “There’s a few numbers you might be able to dance to.” But Trottier says there are “weird” noises, adding, “I’m not sure we can call it pop music.”

Nevertheless, perhaps they have the ability to cross over: Kirk had feared that a recent tour opening for Broken Social Scene in rock clubs would be “catastrophic,” but it turned out to be “pretty good.” And early this year, the self-titled album won the Toronto alternative newspaper Eye Weekly’s 2009 cross-Canada critics’ poll. Still, Timber Timbre’s ambitions are humble: getting their own sound man, making enough money to hire a rhythm section. And maybe, some day, scoring a film.

“It would be really fun to do a horror picture,” says Kirk. “That’s what I thought I would be doing. I never thought I would be fronting a group.”