R.A.P. Interview: Jamie Watson

Jamie Watson, Voice Boy, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

By Jerry Vigil

This month’s RAP Interview stops off in Toronto, where we find one very talented gentleman by the name of Jamie Watson. If you read the credits on the RAP Awards winners, you’ve come across his name several times as the writer and/or VO talent for several winning spots and promos. Jamie likes to stay under the radar, but this month we’re bringing him into the spotlight to find out what makes this Creative tick. No doubt, we’ll be hearing a lot from Jamie in the years to come. Be sure to check out his sampler on this month’s RAP CD for some amazing and inspiring work!

JV: How did you get your start in this business?
Jamie: Well, I was taking journalism at a college up here called Sheridan College, where I met by wife, actually, and I was working on the radio station. It was more like an intercom; it was just over the school’s speakers and such. I was a disc jockey and whatever. One day another guy came in, and he was in the journalism program here before, and I said, “Hey, Bill, what are you doing now?” And he went, “You know what? I’m taking radio over at Humber,” and I went, “Really?”

So, I got my journalism diploma that year, and I went to Humber College and took radio. Then I guess it was two years later, I started at a radio station in a little town up here called Orangeville, Ontario. The station was called DC-103. It was just starting, and I wrote sports copy for the on air guys. Eventually I started doing some spots, because when you’re at a little radio station, as you probably know, everybody does about 15,000 things. We didn’t know it was multitasking then. We just called it “being overworked.”

So I jumped in the studio a lot. We realized we had a little bit of a comedic vibe with the producer and a few other guys at the station, so we started getting together on Mondays and just sort of started putting bits together. That’s where I really worked on my voice and writing as well, and using sound effects and all different manner of resources, from old TV show theme songs to soundtracks to everything. That’s really where it all started for me.

After that I went to a station out in Calgary, then back to Toronto to work at The Edge in ’93. I joined the union from there and then started working on spots while I worked at the radio station. One thing led to another, and now I’m voicing cartoons as well as radio and TV spots, and the cartoons are going really well. I’ve also added the Comedy Network up here in Canada, which is great, and I’ve started voicing that. I’ve been meeting a lot of people, and it has just blossomed for me. I’ve been really a really lucky, fortunate guy.

JV: Those Monday get-togethers in the studio back in Orangeville must have been great. It’s one thing to work in a small market and wear several hats, but it’s another thing to have regular creative sessions like that where you’re all wearing the same hat. An excellent way to hone your skills.
Jamie: Absolutely. I think if you ask any radio person — maybe the older guys, the vets — kids come out of school today, and they really want to go straight to the top market. They think that’s really the way to go. It is to a certain extent; it’s notoriety right off the bat. But in another light, it’s also robbing yourself of the opportunity to really get good at what you do and really hone your craft, and I think that’s what I did, with the help of some great people. The producer at the time in Orangeville was a guy named Rich Miller, and there was also Scott Armstrong and Dean Sinclair. These were guys that had been in the business for a while and knew the ropes. I brought my humor to the table probably as well, and at the time, when you’re doing bits, you feel like, “oh, I’m kind of leading the charge on this bit,” but really, you’re sort of the winner of experience that’s in the room. And they nod their heads and know that you’re in the right direction, and that’s confidence, that’s learning. You’re never going to underestimate learning and picking up stuff from different people.

It’s not like you haven’t heard that from other people who are creative types, whether they’re screenwriters or write music. They just learn from different musicians or different wordsmiths, you know? You learn how to carve out what you need to carve out, and in our case, it’s radio bits and commercials. The experience and drawing off other people sure helps, and I think that’s what happened there in Orangeville. I really got a chance to exercise the art of using sound and using words, because I really like words, and I think words can really jump out of the radio, and people will actually hear… a word. For example, I’ll use some weird word like ‘quintessential’. I remember I used quintessential on a spot ages ago: “That was the quintessential nightclub,” or something like that, and people really keyed off on the word ‘quintessential,’ and I noticed that people really liked words being more than just conversational. They enjoyed little signposts in the middle of a spot, and words were a big part of that, and so was sound and music. That’s how I actually work; I write much of my stuff to music.

JV: Elaborate more on how you apply music to your creative process.
Jamie: Well, I’ll really key off of different types of music, whether it’s belly dancing music or Russian music or old British 1940’s war music. I just did a promo for Durex Condoms. They wanted to push their Hump Day, and I was listening to some music that was sort of old ‘40s stuff, and then I sort of started thinking about Winston Churchill. You remember the speech where he goes, “We shall fight on the sands and seas...” the famous speech he made because the Germans were ready to launch and land on their own soil. It was a big speech that was just to reinforce to the people that we shall fight on, we shall never surrender. “We’ll never surrender.” Anyway, I took that and I went, “We shall hump in the bedrooms at your place, at his place, but mostly his place…”, that kind of thing. I did this whole thing that sounded really cool, and even if the kids don’t know the speech, it’s a funny voice that still grabs your attention.

So I use music and real personalities and characters. I like obscure personalities from television shows, and history, and things like that. It just makes it more interesting for me to write to, and to play around with.

JV: More “signposts” in the spot?
Jamie: Yeah. I like lots of sign posts. Somewhere in the spot, like every 15 seconds, there should be something that whacks the listener in the head and brings them back. I think you’ve got to have that, because I know with me — I don’t know about you — I kind of drift when I’m listening to something for 15 to 20 seconds. I really need to be whacked in the skull. So maybe I’m just whacking people in the skull… softly.

JV: Where do you go to get the creative juices flowing?
Jamie: I think I like to go off-roading a little bit. And I realized early on in my career that I’m not going to fax over some idea to a client. I’m not going to fax a script to him because they’re just never going to grasp it, not the way I want to do the spot. It’ll just look like a bunch of words on a piece of paper. So I needed to make it 3-D. To a large extent, I had to have a lot of confidence in my spot, and I had to convince the producer that this was going to work. And they would get excited about it, and we’d start creating it.

So a lot of times, we didn’t even do scratch tracks. We would almost do a final on the spot and send it off to the client, just so they would get it. You know how you get a vibe on a spot and you sort of go, “You know what? This is great. How could this miss?” Then we’ll go in and play with it, and it’ll make it even better because we’ll come up with little lines and little stops and starts and bells and whistles and little tiny voices, and we’ll throw the sales secretary in there going, “Ow,” or something like that. I’ve never been one to just cold read a spot for a client. I just have to get right in there and kind of almost do it and piece it together, and I’ve been very fortunate – it’s really worked out for me 99.9% of the time.

JV: So the time in the studio is very key to the final outcome of the spot.
Jamie: Yeah, the time in the studio is important with that, and so is the partnership you have with the producers. I’ve worked with some great producers. I’m working with Mike Goral right now, and he’s fantastic. We won something last year at a Canadian awards show. And there’s Derek Welsman over at The Edge. We, as well, won something last year, which was great. Derek’s a very talented guy. And before that, I worked with Gary Whitten. Those three guys are just like the best. I mean, I’ve had some really good guys, and I really believe in the partnership of a spot. What do you got? What are you hearing?

I know when I work with a brand new producer or a young guy or such, they’re almost waiting for you to lead the charge. But I want to have two guys out in front leading the charge. That’s the way to go. It’s so important to the process. It brings so much to it, like how they’re hearing the spot. There are lots of toys in Pro Tools, but what can we do with all those toys, and make it sound good? I kind of like things to be a little epic. I like a project to be really epic so when people are finished listening to it, they feel like they’ve really listened to something.

JV: How long does it take you to put together something like that in the studio? Let’s say you go in with a basic script in hand.
Jamie: Well, probably about an hour to an hour-and-a-half.

JV: That’s not too long at all for something really exceptional.
Jamie: Not too long. I do a lot of the footwork already, inasmuch as the music and the main ideas that I want. Owing to the time limits of a radio station and the length of time that you have to do stuff, I just always felt the need — because I’m getting this off the producer who’s got 15 other things to do that day — that we’ve got to get at it and we’ve got to get it done quickly. We’ve got to make some quick decisions and make some quick edits. But it just seems to come together with whoever I worked with – Mike or Gary or Derek. You’ve just got to giddy up and get going.

JV: Your writing skills, do you do anything to work on those in the way of furthering your education, or workshops, or books, or anything like that?
Jamie: No, not really. I do read quite a bit. I’m a pretty avid reader. And I like pop culture. I notice that if you use the subject matter of pop culture in your bits, it’s fun, because it’s familiar to people, and that’s kind of what ad agencies do. They kind of play off of familiarity. I have the luxury of being at a radio station where I’m kind of the ad agency and the writer, so I have the ability to sort of go off road a little bit. I can take like a Durex spot and put Winston Churchill’s famous speech on it, and I won’t have 15 people in the room telling me, “yes, but how is that going to test?” and that kind of thing. We just go for it and we’ve been lucky so far. It’s worked out pretty much every time.

JV: You mentioned being at a radio station. Are you doing most your work at station studios?
Jamie: No. I come over to Mike Goral’s studio now, and we voice and produce stuff out of his basement. That’s how casual it is. Both of us are working on a couple of radio stations. When we first got together we launched a radio station in London called “Fresh.” That was back in August of ’04. Wow, two-and-a-half years in. I guess I’ve been honking around Mike’s house for about two-and-a-half years. We just added a station in Vancouver, Rock 101, and we do Power 97 in Winnipeg as well.

JV: Are we talking about the imaging?
Jamie: He doesn’t produce all the imaging for these stations. He does produce the imaging for The Edge out of Toronto, kind of our flagship station because that’s where I started, and I voice their stuff. They have a voice guy, Brian Christopher, who is the main voice guy at The Edge, and I do all the sort of character-y, more entertaining type of time consuming stuff. But Brian’s fantastic. I really like his sound, and he’s great as a straight guy, sort of a juxtaposition to whatever I do. I’ll do a milieu of different voices and whatever the promotion requires.

Right now, we’re doing a thing on YouTube, and it’s probably one of our straighter ones, but we just sort of wanted to go straight at it and get people producing Edge YouTube videos and put them on YouTube and then send us the location. Then we’re going to vote on the best Edge YouTube submissions. So that’s what we’re doing right now, but in the past, we’ve done a “cougar” contest where we looked for Toronto’s best cougar. We also looked for Toronto’s best man boobs.

We brought students/interns in to get them on the station and hire them as a full time employee, but we did it in a huge sort of reality television-type style. So those all required different styles of voices and presentations, and I’d find like a hook or something somewhere, and we’d keep it going throughout the competition and just sort of create awareness around each and every individual competition.

So that’s sort of how we play with voices on that station, but the rest of them are more me just being goofy and doing what I do.

JV: You mentioned getting started at The Edge in Toronto. You also did some awesome work for Mojo Radio, some of which we had the pleasure of hearing on the RAP CD many times. Tell us a bit about this part of your career.
Jamie: I started in ’93 with The Edge as Creative Director from ’93 to ’97. Then I decided that maybe it was time to move on and let somebody else bring their vision to the station, and so I did. Then I got a call in about 2000 from Stuart Meyers. We had launched The Edge and took it out of the CFNY territory of the 80’s and the Haircut 100 crew, and we brought it into the Nirvana/Soundgarden era. We made it alternative. We did a lot of stuff on that station, and we had worked together in Calgary as well at CJ-92. So in 2000, he came to me again and said, “Hey, do you want to do this sort of talk radio station for guys, called Mojo Radio?” and I said, “Well,” and hummed and nodded a little bit because I had a pretty good voice career going, and I wasn’t really sure I needed to get back into radio, and he said, “You know, you can pretty much do what you want. I’ll give you lots of line,” and I said, “Okay, man. We’ll see how it goes.”

It started out slowly and we built a cool thing there, kind of critically acclaimed, but it just didn’t seem to have the numbers for the company so they made it more conservative. They then said, “Do you want to do that?” and I said, “No, not really. It’s not really my bag, but I wouldn’t mind going back to The Edge, if The Edge wants to have a little bit of fun and stuff.” They let me do it, and they said it’d be great, so now I’m working with Alan Cross, who’s a fantastically talented programmer up there. He does a show called “The Ongoing History of New Music” that might be familiar to some of your readers. He’s very knowledgeable. We call him The Big Brain on Campus. He’s a very smart guy, and a very smart radio guy, and we have a great relationship. He used to be on the air when I was working there before, so we’ve hooked up again.

It’s gone well. The Edge is kind of the flagship, and I do Joe in Kingston and Dave FM in Kitchener, just launched Fresh in London, and we’ve added Power 97 in Winnipeg and Rock 101 in Vancouver in the last month or two.

JV: Sounds like all your stations are in Canada. I would’ve guessed you would have grabbed a few US stations by now.
Jamie: You know, I’ve never been one to go chase down work or anything. I guess I figure if someone really wants to use what I do, because I’m never so sure that it’s anything that great, that they’ll give us a call and we’ll hook up if it’s meant to be.

JV: And it sounds like you’re staying busy enough, anyway, right?
Jamie: I’ve got so much to do right now that I just don’t go chasing down work very much, but I’d certainly love to be down in the States. It would be a lot of fun, but I just don’t know any people down in the States. And there are so many people doing radio, and there are so many talented voice guys, why would you go chasing after some Canuck? But yeah, I’d love to work down there, just haven’t really pursued it very much.

JV: So, you’ve been doing it pretty much on your own for about ten years now?
Jamie: Yeah. It was probably about ’97 when I got out of the 9 to 5 grind in the studio, and I totally respect people that go in there 9 to 5 and plug away daily at the radio station. But if you don’t have to, I mean, I’d rather not. You do kind of miss something though. I like getting out with people and yakking with them, and I think that’s how you make good stuff, just being out in the world and chatting with people. And I like going down to studios. Even though it’s like an hour and 15 to get there, it’s still a pleasure once you get there and you have just a great time and laugh, and that’s how you make good friends.

JV: We hope to a get a demo from you for the CD, and I’m sure lots of listeners will get a good taste of your humor. Where do you go for the material?
Jamie: That’s a really tough question to answer, because I’m not totally sure where it comes from. I mean, I don’t think I’m a wickedly funny man. I think I enjoy the pieces that I do, and for some reason, when I get behind a microphone, I think it comes together a little bit, and I have a sense of pacing in a spot, and I probably have a sense of funny, obviously, but I don’t know. I just hear things and they just amuse me. I don’t know how to explain it. I hear a piece of music from an old musical, or I just think the world is full of interesting sounds, and for some reason, I seem to be able to pull it all together with the help of some other talented people, and we just find the funny.

I’m not sure what the answer to that is. I wish I had one, because obviously, I’ve been asked it before, but I think it’s just uniqueness. I think it’s just finding something that’s unique and makes me laugh. I preview so much music. I listen to a lot of CDs, and I buy a lot of soundtracks. When I go into a store, you can find me in the novelty section. You can find me trying to generally not be doing what everybody else is doing, if I can help it. If the marketing guys and the promotion guys want something specific, I’m more unwilling to switch gears and do exactly what they want, because it’s their neck on the line — I’m just making the creative.

But I always want to make sure that I’m using a piece of music that’ll jump out of the radio, and if the voice isn’t jumping out, let’s speed the damn voice up, or let’s roll off the bottom end, or let’s find a way to make this thing jump, and cook, and get it going. The guys that I’ve worked with, we can always hear something if it’s not working. We can listen to it back and go, “Hmm, that’s falling flat.” And it’s not uncommon that I would just say, “Screw it. It’s not working.” There’s no sense in trying to squeeze creativity out of a stone. It’s not happening. We’ll just toast it. I know Gary and I were the best at doing that. We would just go, “This is not happening.” We’d just stop in the middle of it. We’d move on, or we’d say, “Well, we’ll come back to it,” and then we never do, because there are so many ideas.

Ideas come to me when I’m driving. I’ll just write it down on a piece of paper, and if I don’t produce it that day, I’ll come back to it. The minutia of the voice of where I want things, where I want things to stop and start – it’s amazing how you can trim and tweak, pull a little minutia piece where your entry point is on a piece of music, and it suddenly comes alive. It blows me away all the time, how you can just juggle things around to make them fit and cook. You might have something there you don’t think is working. All you have to do is take out a word in the middle of it, like a ‘the’. Take out all the connecting words, and it just goes straight through, and suddenly it’s funny, and it still communicates what you want to do. It seems to me there’s always a way to make things come together, but there are the times when you just got to go, “No. Can’t think of anything. Let’s move on.”

JV: It sounds like you just keep your mind open to anything when doing your work.
Jamie: Oh, I think so. I think you’ve got to do that. I think you’ve got to be able to change gears in mid-stride. That’s what a great running back does, right? And that’s what messes up the other side. He makes a cut on the field that is just unbelievable, and the defense guy’s like, “What the hell just happened?” So sometimes you’ve got to make a quick cut, and you’ve got to change stuff on the fly.

JV: You mentioned doing VO work for cartoons. How’d that come about?
Jamie: Well, I’ve always liked doing voices and always loved cartoons, and I was hoping it would go a little earlier than it did, but cartoon work for me didn’t really break until about 2001, or shortly after about the year into the Mojo thing, like 2002. I’d done a lot of little walk-on parts and played on a lot of computers and things. They’ll get you to come in and do all sorts of voices. But getting real characters that are ongoing on the show has taken a while. “Peep and the Big Wide World” is a show I do a character on called Quack, and that actually won an Emmy for Best Children’s Animation, I believe. These are cartoons that are running on Canadian television networks and down in the States, too. They’re on PBS. That was done out of WGBH in Boston. They do a lot of stuff with kids’ programming and educational programming, and they were fantastic — just tremendous people to work with. Nine Story here in Toronto did that as well, and that show’s been a huge success, and has been very, very fun.

JV: It sounds like you’ve had a pretty good run on your career so far. Is there anything you would do differently if you had this to do all over again?
Jamie: No. I think owing to the type of person I am I would do it the same, because family’s really important to me and I always want to make sure that they’re comfy and happy, and I love my wife and want to make sure that she’s happy in where she’s living and what she’s doing. She’s not me. She’s a bit more subdued person with a quiet nature, and family life is very important. I guess I could go off traipsing after things all the time, but I generally don’t. But who knows? It may happen yet, and we’re always prepared for anything — the right offer and the right situation in the right place. You never know.

There are always things coming at me. I’m doing things on a week-by-week basis, and I see how it plays out; but it’s all got to work out from a family point of view, because that’s really the bottom line with me, making sure the kids are comfy in their schools and that my wife is happy with her life. That’s kind of the way I’ve lived my professional life. I haven’t really gone searching for anything, and I think I’m pretty happy with the way it’s gone. I don’t think I could ask for much more. I’m a pretty lucky guy. So we just play things one week at a time. I get calls periodically from people down in the States. I just kind of look for the right situations and if it feels comfortable, I go ahead and do it.

It’s been a great career, and I really enjoy what I do and the people I’ve bumped into – Scott Armstrong, Dean Sinclair, Stuart Meyers, Mike Goral, Derek Welsman, Gary Whitten – they’re just all really important key people in a career that’s been very successful, and if you don’t have those kind of people helping you out and giving support in what you do, especially when you’re on the air hanging it out there all the time, you’re just going to go nowhere and you’re not going to be comfortable inside your own body.

And I love creating and I love hearing sounds and making bits and making people laugh and coming up with things that people are talking about, and I love just having fun. I mean, I am a lucky guy.

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