THE COVER of Doug Paisley's 2014 album Strong Feelings features a close-up of the Canadian alt-folk singer/songwriter, taken at 2012's Pickathon by photographer Liz Devine. His half-lit face has a quizzical expression, framed by mildly tousled hair that nearly matches the color of the hay bales in the background.
It's by far the best look at Paisley provided by his album art so far. But the relatively clear view of his face made him a bit uneasy; Paisley says he has trouble looking at himself in a mirror when others are around. Then, that unease kept giving.
"Every time I saw someone leaving a venue with a copy, especially on [vinyl], I felt one more thin layer of myself was drifting off," he says. "You know in biology when they cut, like, a millionth-of-an-inch-thick slice of a cell and look at it under a microscope? I felt as if I was actually made up of all those layers and, like, one more layer was slipping away with each of these products."
Paisley's 2010 album Constant Companion received glowing reviews from a handful of prominent publications; the New Yorker called it a "quiet wonder." The unexpected attention gave Paisley his first taste of what he describes as a "Pavlovian" temptation to let positive response influence the subsequent creative process, a temptation he fought by immersing himself in the uncreative aspects of the Strong Feelings session: scheduling, managing people, and other duties.
"It's a kind of self-awareness that I guess you have to grapple with, but which, ultimately, I didn't feel was very good for [my songwriting]," Paisley says.
His mitigation efforts worked. If Companion is a quiet wonder, Strong Feelings is a bit less quiet and a bit more wonderful. Across its 10 tracks, Paisley takes his established sound—classic country plus '70s folk bathed in analog warmth, with even-keeled lyrics about love and loss—and stretches it slightly, incorporating the graceful guitar work of the Cairo Gang's Emmett Kelly, a breathy sax solo on "What's Up Is Down," and even a buzzy synth to close "Where the Light Takes You." "It's Not Too Late (To Say Goodbye)" nods to the Grateful Dead, and the Band's Garth Hudson contributes stunning keyboard work, as he did on Constant Companion.
Despite the sonic exploration, Strong Feelings retains the feel of a Doug Paisley album, something he attributes to his long-standing working relationship with producer Stew Crookes and his own routines.
"I have the same sort of process for... songwriting, which I do alone and do for a long time, and then in terms of recording, which I do fairly quickly and live, [without] a lot of second-guessing," Paisley says. "I wouldn't say those are aesthetic choices, but they do create an aesthetic consistency because I'm not reaching for something else. I think most of the creative reaching I'm doing is in songwriting."
And once the songs move beyond Paisley's songwriting sphere, they're on their own, he says.
"I just have my songs and people I want to work with," he says. "I believe in hard work, and if I know I've worked hard and I've come all that way... I don't necessarily believe it's in my hands to fully decide what it's going to sound like."