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culture

I Want Your Job: David Arcus, Composer, Arranger, and Producer

Juno-nominated musician brings classical training to folk, rock, and Brazilian fusion.

I Want Your Job finds Torontonians who make a living doing exactly what they love to do, in any field, and for any salary, and asks them how they did it.

Photo courtesy of David Arcus.

David Arcus is a lot of music-related things, but most recently he can add “Juno-nomiated producer” to the list. The 2011 album he co-wrote and produced with the Brazilian-Canadian artist Aline Morales, Flores, Tambores e Amores, was nominated for the distinction of that year’s World Music Album of the Year; critic David Dacks described it as “Simply put…maybe the finest Brazilian album ever produced in Canada.” Though quite young by most people’s standards (he’s in his early thirties), Arcus is already doing what many musicians only dream possible: making a living entirely from writing and producing music. He tells Torontoist how.

Torontoist: How long have you been making music full-time?
David Arcus: I graduated school in 2006 [Arcus studied composition at the University of Toronto] and was working on different music writing projects, and eventually I had enough time to transition full-time into music in 2009.

How did you get into music?
My first instrument was piano, when I was really young. In high school I picked up guitar because I wanted to play rock music. So I ended up exploring two different zones with those two instruments. With guitar I ended up learning a lot of rock and folk and pop music, and with the piano I was mainly playing classical music. When I was studying composition, that was my main instrument at U of T. Those two instruments cover a wide territory.

How has your classical composition training informed the work that you’ve ended up doing, which is mostly not classical?
I think what it gave me was an appreciation for counterpoint, which I try to incorporate when I can into different projects that I work on. Even the understanding of counterpoint, I think, helps to improve the work that I do.

Counterpoint is essentially a technique of having different melodies superimposed on one another. So, it’s the idea that each instrument is playing a melody that could stand on its own, rather than giving one instrument the melody and having everything else just play chords. I don’t always write in strict counterpoint, but I think that technique makes me think about all the different parts and make sure they are all doing something that has its own logic. And, I think it helps in terms of arranging, to make sure that every instrument has its own flow.

Also, it forced me to think about structure and form. I hadn’t really thought about that very much before. I used to just write stuff like, ‘Here’s a note. Here’s another note. I think this would sound nice now.’ And I think university forced me to think and plan on a larger scale.

How long does a project like Flores, Tambores e Amores take, from start to finish?
The process of writing that album and producing it and arranging it was basically simultaneous. I think the total process took about a year. So we were just chipping away at those tunes for about a year, and a lot of them went through various incarnations. So the final product that you hear on the album is often different than what we came up with when we first wrote the song. That was in an attempt, through trial and error, to figure out the best way to get across the essence of the song. We had melody and chords first, and then we were trying out all kinds of different ways to best complement that with the arrangements.

What advice would you give to young people who would be interested in pursuing your line of work?
I guess I would say a lot of it is about perserverence. It really is important to keep working, to keep writing, and to keep showing your stuff to people to get input and hone your craft. The second thing is that connections are really important. I’ve benefitted a lot from connections I’ve made with friends and people that I know. You have to be kind of out there to get the work, so I would say: talk to other musicians, make connections with people. It’s good to know a lot of musicians as well, people who are also starting out and who are interested in working on projects and experimenting with the stuff that you’re writing.

(Arcus will be joining Aline Morales at Yonge and Dundas Square this Sunday, September 23 at 3:30 p.m. as a part of the Small World in the Square music festival. The concert is free.)

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