Mastering and mixing the world of academics

A rock ’n’ roll life was never in the cards for Jay Hodgson. Despite a No. 1 album on the indie charts while riding a partial scholarship at Boston’s Berklee College of Music in 1998, the Toronto native was not prepared to take The Jay Hodgson Group any further than the bars and clubs of Massachusetts.

“It was really a lifestyle choice for me. I really didn’t like playing every night, the same thing,” says Hodgson, who was 18 at the time. “The term I used at the time was ‘like a dog jumping through a hoop.’ I didn’t know what else I wanted to do, but I didn’t want to do that.”

Throw in a brief stint in Brooklyn, New York the following year, where he helped design and build an independent recording studio, Hodgson returned across the border in 2000 to pursue a master of arts in music criticism at McMaster University, and followed that up with his PhD in music from the University of Alberta six years later. There, he nabbed a Governor General’s Gold Medal as the most outstanding PhD student.

So how does a musician go from the bright lights of the stage to the world of academe?

Today, he teaches popular music practice and history, songwriting and the ‘project’ paradigm of music production and engineering as part of North America’s first (and only) bachelor of arts in popular music studies, and master of arts in popular music and culture programs for the Don Wright Faculty of Music.

“I had always been interested in academics,” he says. “At Berklee, the general electives, I loved them; I couldn’t wait. I just had that sort of interest and just ate it up. I had that curiosity and was really fascinated with record-making and it struck me as something entirely different than live performance. And not just an analogy, I mean not related at all. Somehow, for some reason, I just assumed they were related and so I was curious about that. So if I’m not going to tour and perform I’d really love to actually look closely at this thing for a living.”

Hodgson’s research has been published in, and is forthcoming from, Journal of the Art of Record Production, Explorations in Media Ecology, Popular Music Studies and Discourses in Music. His survey of the rock tradition in Canada for Oxford University Press, Rock – A Canadian Perspective, an adaptation of Larry Starr and Christopher Waterman’s American Popular Music: The Rock Years, was released in October 2008. It was honoured as the Canadian Studies Book of the Month Selection by the Canadian Studies Department of the University of Western Washington in 2010. His most recent book, Understanding Records: A Field Guide to Recording Practice, was released by Continuum Press in September 2010.

Along with his teaching, Hodgson continues to master and mix records for local musicians, and has produced a number of records of original ambient, electronic and electro-folk music. But what he likes the most about teaching is the “unpredictability” of each day.

Hodgson recently contributed original music, with Ryan Chynces and Michael Preis, to a documentary film produced for the United Nations Population Fund and Women’s Refugee Commission by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Lisa Russell. The film has screened at various conferences around the world, including the United Nations General Assembly in New York City and the World Youth Conference in Leon, Mexico. He has also agreed to score Russell’s next project.

While some may question why he would chose the world of academics, Hodgson says he gets excited when he sees the realization on his students faces that they can still make music. “Just because you’re in a conservatory context doesn’t mean it’s just theoretical drills,” he says. “They can make music, go out there and entertain, get their nails dirty and then figure out what that means in relation to the field. Let’s not have the tail wagging the dog.”

But how do you convince others teaching popular music has a place within the traditionalist walls of academics? “I think it’s going to be a tough sell for a very long time, I do” he says. “I find that the more time goes on and the more objections I get, the better I am in explaining it. I understand the idea of generating traditional research as well is a nice sort of token of good faith, so I make sure I am very conscious about that, of actually turning this into research.”

Hodgson says the greatest thrill for him in an educational sense is not necessarily the classroom, but those moments outside classroom where you can help students apply what they’re learning to their lives.

While no longer on stage, Hodgson says he can still feel the spotlight shining on him when it comes to validating his program.

“We need to look ahead. It would be a luxury if we didn’t have to, but because it is a constant struggle for legitimacy I think you constantly have to be looking ahead,” he says. “Until it is an absolute given, and that it is not considered a challenge that popular music is being taught at university – according to the faculty at large – we’re constantly going to have look ahead.”