Jonathan Seet with Beautiful Senseless C' est What (67 Front East), Saturday (May 15). $7. 416-867-9499. Rating: NNNNN
I'm sitting with Jonathan Seet, one of Toronto's great unsung songsmiths, in an unpopular café at the nexus of Bloor West and Roncesvalles. The tall guy with the dark hair and matinee-idol looks is a gifted conversationalist. We've already run through a number of topics, from romance to the business practices of Bill Gates, from Seet's days writing code for Disney (he still freelances as a Web programmer) to the books of Cory Doctorow and Neal Stephenson.
When talk turns to balancing a life in art against the need to survive, he doesn't drop a beat.
"I think it was Kurt Cobain who said that middle-class kids make the best rock music," he says.
"What he meant is that the best music comes from a place that's informed by the necessity to escape from it."
Seet sips absently at his coffee. "If you're the type of person who has to be expressive, it's only going to make you strive to transcend the banality of that life. If you have a day job that doesn't thrill you - say, writing code - it can make you that much more prolific."
Seet's prolific, depending on what you call product. He has only two albums to his name - 2000's Melatonin and Arousal Disasters, released less than a year ago - but his notebooks are filled with unused songs.
"I don't throw away songs," he explains. "Often a song is very strong but just isn't meant for me. On Arousal Disasters I had Rachel Smith sing 14 Candles. She couldn't figure out why I didn't do it myself. I just knew that my voice wasn't right for it; hers worked beautifully."
The sweet, luxuriantly melancholic and clean prog-pop melodies of Arousal Disasters make a perfect counterpoint to the themes that Seet toys with. The sentiments are thoughtful, but the subjects are often vividly harsh or desperately sad.
Disaffected love is at the heart of it all, but Seet doesn't like to make it too obvious. His lyrical choices frequently skirt around issues, caught somewhere between a love of abstraction and wordplay for its own sake.
It's hard to imagine a song that would be unsuited to Seet's voice. His deftness was evident on Melatonin. On Arousal Disasters it seems bloody-well inspired.
There is a particular smoothness to his chirp, a breathy choir-boy warble reminiscent of Jeff Buckley's distinctive trills. Some songs might suffer from that treatment, but Seet manages to bend them to his voice without breaking them.
Still, he wants to pass along more songs to people who can make the most of them.
"Unfortunately, I don't have an easy outlet for doing that," he says. "I need a publisher."