Article by: Colton Eddy
Joel Plaskett sets up his own merch booth. One of this country's most beloved singer-songwriters spreads out his vinyl and infant-sized "Thrush Hermit Was My Favourite Band" t-shirts while the soundchecked feedback and shuffling of chairs can be heard inside Peterborough's Market Hall.
It's the opening night of the Folk Festival and Plaskett is the headliner.
Rooted in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, the multi-award winning Plaskett shows a humbled ease that proves his success hasn't clouded his passion. It'd be fair to say that anyone that's heard anything from him shares one constant on their essential summer check-list: a Joel Plaskett performance. There's a certain level of adolescent energy met with educated musicianship in his sound, whether with The Emergency or his former band, Thrush Hermit, that creates a sense of familiarity like an edgier Blue Rodeo or a cheekier Neil Young.
Before Plaskett took the stage with his father Bill Plaskett, we shared a moment and reflected on the two decades in the industry, fatherhood and his role as the torchbearer of the next generation of Halifax musicians.
Sticky: Being known as this road-warrior, conquerer of the Canadian highway – what weight does that carry, having that reputation?
Joel: Well, I think it may have been more deserved at one time than it is now. I still travel a lot, though I’m finding like I’m doing more flying so I can’t swear by the road the way I did at one point. It’s more of a “sky-way” for some of these shows, particularly for one like this – flying to Toronto, getting a car and driving here. I still love playing and doing it. I’m still busy. I mean, last year, I’d say when Scrappy Happiness came out, that was probably the busiest year that I’ve had in a long time as far as Canadian touring goes. I’d done a bunch of years where I had gone to England and the UK a bunch, Austailia. There has been a lot of busy years, but I’d say that last year was one of the busiest years that I’ve had in Canada. This year as well, there’s been no shortage of gigs. I love playing and I like the traveling. I really do like playing in Canada, its not to diminish anywhere else because touring internationally can be cool.
Sticky: Does part of that separation on the road from family play into choosing to invite your father on the road with you?
Joel: I think for me, I’ve been really supported by my family and my wife. She really understands what I do, but it doesn’t get any easier when you get away all the time and so I’m trying to find the balance, as much as you can find it. At a certain point you have to accept it. If your gig is not in an office for eight hours a day, its going to be somewhere. If you’re a truck driver, you get on a road. If you’re a musician, you go to where the people are going to show up and you take the gig. I enjoy it, so I don’t and I’m not complaining. Its just the traveling can get to be a bit much. I’d run into my friend Rose Cousins today in the airport, she was flying up to Toronto because she’s going to North Bay for a festival and my dad who is here traveling with me – we flew up on the same flight as her and we’re talking. She’s like, ‘I’m tired!’ She’s pretty much self-managed in many respects. She’s traveling by herself and she is gigging all the time. She’s super busy and she travels more than I do, that’s for sure these days. And I could relate! Because its like when you’re self-employed, you may have a team of people around you who help you. I certainly do, I have a great band and management and an agent and all of those things, but for years I didn’t want to turn anything down because I didn’t know when the next gig was going to come up. Now I feel like there is a little more security, in terms of if I took a little bit of time off, people would still know who I am. I have enough of a fan-base that I don’t feel it is going to evaporate. I don’t feel like I have a fleeting fan-base. I don’t feel like it is coming from some trend-driven thing where I’m no longer going to be hip. I’ve come and gone through all that, in terms of Thrush Hermit and everything. That’s sort of in the rearview mirror, in terms of my worry that somehow I’m going to become irrelevant, in terms of some kind of fashion perspective because I rarely feel in fashion anyway.
Sticky: It’s crazy to think that its almost been 20-years since Smart Bomb dropped.
Joel: Yeah, yeah. It’s pretty amazing, that amount of time. I don’t know! I don’t know any different, right? I mean, I got out of high school and went on the road with the Hermit and my whole adult life has been touring and just performing, recording and all of the disciplines that come with it. It’s all connected. I think for me, I’ve been in it as long as I have because I never had a back-up plan, you know?
Sticky: There was never that other option.
Joel: No, I never had another option. Two half-credits in university one winter to sort of legitimize my hanging around the basement. You know what I mean? Satisfy the parents, you know? But they were supportive of what I did too. Yeah, I just never really had a desire to learn anything else. I thought I’d apply myself to this and figure it out and I have, you know. I’m still counting in my own merch when it calls for it. The game doesn’t change. The stage might change and the audience will grow or shrink, depending on where you’re at. Hopefully. And it has pretty much grown for me. I’ve built it. But you either like the work or you don’t.
Sticky: Have you ever got into a dry spell, where you’re on the road or writing and at a certain point you just aren’t able to feel it?
Joel: Well, there’s days that you get up and don’t feel like going. That’s for sure. It is usually the anticipation of the tour sometimes where I’m like, "God, I don’t want to go away". And then you go away and it’s fine and the shows are fine. The hour on stage is rarely a drag. In fact, I can’t really say that its ever a drag. The few times that its been challenging has been when you don’t have a sympathetic audience or there is the occasional strange corporate gig or something that you take or that you’re not sure and you’re like, "Wait a second. That’s just the wrong venue".
Sticky: There’s got to be that enjoyment in winning those people over.
Joel: There’s tough and then you win people over and that’s the idea. You kind of have to. Those things make you stronger too, but there is a point when you get older when you’re like, "I’m too old for this shit!’ Its kind of like my perspective on the United States or something, which is like there was a time when I was younger and going there trying to build it, build it, build it with the idea that I would somehow make a dent down there. But I put in so much time in Canada to build something here. The idea of going down there and starting something over doesn’t interest me that much. Its not that I don’t like the States, there’s great audiences everywhere. I just don’t have a big one there. I have some ex-Pats and some Americans who know what I’m doing. So the idea of going there and building something as big as I did in Canada, I don’t really have the get up and go for it right now. I’m 38 with twenty years on the road. Like, I’ve toured through the States and I’ve played all of those places. I’ve seen it so there’s not really anything romantic about it. Its just a bunch of work.
Sticky: Another chapter has started now too, having a son. Does it give you a different perspective on songwriting and the documentation of what you’re doing?
Joel: I haven’t really thought about that, to be honest. It hasn’t really changed my writing, its not to say... he’s changed my life. He’s changed the time that I have to spend on those things and its given me some perspective, I think. It’s made me stronger as a person. Its given me some perspective on what used to bother me doesn’t bother me any more/ There are other challenges and there are way bigger fish to fry when you’re parenting. All of this other stuff suddenly gets smaller and sometimes it gives you a great excuse to say no to things that maybe you should have at another time, that I wouldn’t have at another time. Time becomes more precious. You start going, "That’s not awesome. That’s not going to be. That’s just a space filler. I don’t have time for that right now." I mean, it is rare that gigs are presented that way but you start turning stuff down because family is more important. It really is, you know. So I feel really blessed. I’ve had a lot of support from every corner of my life and my audience, to pretty much do close to what I want. I don’t have unlimited time or money to execute my wildest dreams but I have enough get up and go to keep me going. I have enough of an audience to go out and justify this. It’s good for me and it’s good for my family and I still feel like a creative person with people to get in front of and some places to conquer as well.
Sticky: And also, you have these albums as documentations that you’re going to have and that your son is always going to have.
Joel: Yes and that’s a funny idea. That’ll be cool, I think. Certainly there is a pile of vinyl in it. If I don’t sell it all before I die, he’ll have something! Open a record store, kid! Whether or not there’ll even be a medium in twenty years for him to play these on remains to be seen. But, yeah if he wants to get to know me there is some history there as far as something for him to dig into. But I’m not forcing music on him. I rarely play music around the house. I pickup the guitar a little and he saw his first show of mine recently and he got up and was dancing and stuff, which is awesome. He likes music. He got up on stage and I didn’t even know, he just rushed the stage. I was like, ‘What are you doing up here, kid?’ It’s good.
Sticky: Has that given you a different appreciation of having your father on stage with you, now that you have your son.
Joel: Yeah! I rarely think about that stuff, like I work a lot and I think about my family in ways that are just like... I rarely think about the through-line, if you know what I’m saying. But if I step back, yeah for sure. Playing gigs like this with my dad are great because it’s a way of spending time together. I like the idea of some point down the road, having activities but I don’t want to drag my son into my musical world because right now I’m at work and that’s not to say that he won’t be a part of it, but he knows when I’m distracted, right? So in some ways, he’s like, "No music!" because he knows that when I pickup the guitar that I’m not there with him and as present because I kind of go into my own zone. So I try to spend time with him that is sort of outside of musical stuff. But I did have a really cool moment on stage, when he rushed the stage. Ian McGettigan from Thrush Hermit, who is maybe one of my oldest friends, was down visiting and his little girl, Charlie, was at the show too and we called out Ian and me, him and Dave (Marsh) were on stage playing "Down at the Khyber" – he came out to fill in for Chris (Pennell), just as a throwback to the old days of the Emergency. We’re playing that and my son Xianing and Charlie came out and we’re dancing and I looked at McGetts and I was thinking, "Man, we weren’t imagining this when we were eighteen and playing music together". That we’d be out here rocking in front of, it was a hometown show, it was thousands of people, right? And look over and our kids are dancing and stuff and I’m thinking, "Man, this is not what I was thinking".
Sticky: Seeing that and knowing that it’s been twenty years, like we talked about. What does that as a testament mean for you?
Joel: I mean, it’s cool. I can’t really, it’s all been like a through-line. I reminisce and it shows up on the records, you can hear me looking back and I definitely have an ability to sort of go there. I have the ability to go back to the old days with the boys and remember what it was like playing music. I have that real connection to the feeling of playing music as a young man. I do. I can almost touch it. But it is in the past and I still feel that its part of me so I review it in my mind a little bit and I romanticize about the first trips that we took and all. Its not so much about the music so much as its about the memories. So I don’t really. The fact that Smart Bomb is twenty years old, I don’t have a great attachment to the music. I like it, I like some of the songs. I remember kind of where they come from, a little bit. But it was less about and even still, I care about the records I make and I love writing songs and some songs are really dear to me and they mean something. But the memory of making the records and the activities surrounding the records, the people involved in them is actually a bigger thing to me. That’s why I chose to go to Arizona to make [La De Da] with Bob (Hoag), because it was an opportunity to make something that I’ve never done. To work with different people and to have a good time when you’re recording and to not have the whole thing be some sort of editing process in front of a computer, but to actually try and capture some sort of spirit. You could use technology or however you want to do that, but always trying to keep an eye on... the location and the intention and the people that are around surrounding it are also a part of the equation. That memory of making the record is a huge part of the record itself. That’s not to say that there aren’t days in the studio when it’s not taxing. Sometimes you are banging your head against the wall, but in general I try and frame records around the experience.
Sticky: After running into you at that Springsteen show in Hamilton, hearing your cover of his song ‘No Surrender’ on Q107. Do you keep in mind, an artist like him or Neil Young as artists with longevity as an example to pave your career?
Joel: I keep them in mind as much as the fact that I look at them and, well they kind of did what they wanted and they made some records that maybe not everybody loved and they made some others. There’s certain people that you can recognize that followed their heart and we’re still talking about them right now for that very reason. There’s a reason that, even if you didn’t like everything that Joni Mitchell did, there’s a reason that you talk about her with such reverence. or Neil too and Bruce. All of the real iconic people kind of followed their own and some of them, you drift away from whatever they were doing that no longer spoke or certain artists can’t speak to you. I know that certain people have a favourite record of mine and the other ones don’t do it the same way because they were at a certain point in their life when it made sense and they might not pay attention to other ones. Some people follow it all of the way through and I’m the same way with certain artists, I’ll pay a lot of attention for a while and then, "I don’t know what they’re doing right now." Or I’m too busy. So I keep that in mind/ And another thing and I don’t mean this in a... I have reverence for those people and the art they make but I also kind of don’t. I’ve never really thought that any of it is really like unachievable or impossible. I feel that you could build it. But I never aspired to the level of fame or like, I feel like part of it is location-based. I never went and chased my dream in LA or New York for any great duration thinking that I’m gonna go make it! You know? I was going to make something in my hometown and let people come to me and I’ll take it out on the road as I can. But really, its based out of Halifax, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia and that’s where the operation is and that, to me, is big enough for me. Maybe that’s small-minded, but to me, great art is a regional thing. I’m not saying my art is great. I recognize what I think is great about music is often on a regional level. I like New Orleans music, I like Memphis music and I like the way that the sound like those places. I like how there are stars and there are people in those cities that are revered in the community that everybody knows like Irma Thomas in New Orleans - not everybody knows Irma Thomas. There are people that know her internationally but she is not a household name, but she sang the original "Time Is On My Side" and the Stones covered it. And I love that you could have something that is localized and successful and has a lot of integrity. I don’t put any of it on a pedestal. I don’t put any musician, with maybe the exception of Led Zeppelin that has this sort of alchemy that is so beyond me, that is so highly nuanced. As great as I think that Neil Young is, I see what he does as being like a bunch of great songs made by a cool artist who is driven and has a vision in mind. Sometimes I don’t get his vision. Sometimes I think that doesn’t sound like a great song to me. But he’s still cool.
Sticky: You also have your own record label at home, just like Murderecords did for you back then. Is this your way of giving exposure to this new generation?
Joel: In a way, I guess I kind of like connecting the dots between friends and musicians and maybe records that wouldn’t have a home. I think its super cool that a guy like you is paying attention to that and going, "Yeah, this is something on New Scotland" or there are some people out there who recognize a curation, which is kind of what I wanted to achieve with it and I’d like to continue. Its been a little bit on hold, in terms of me releasing stuff, because I’ve been building my own studio. My time and my money can only... I can only pick one project at a time, but Murder was hugely instrumental in helping all the bands back home and I’m not active, by any stretch, as they were back then. But I do like the idea of continuing to have a tradition.
Sticky: Are you working on writing the next album?
Joel: I’m writing, yeah. I’ve got a bunch of tunes. I’m not recording. I’m waiting, kind of, because I know that when I press go then everything kind of falls away.
Sticky: Do you have to shut everything down when its record time?
Joel: It kind of gets that way, whether I like it or not because when I’m recording, I kind of wake up and I’m thinking about it. I go to sleep and I’m thinking about it. So I know that it kind of puts balancing with the family kind of hard, so I’m hesitant. Or when you release that, then you enter another new schedule of touring. So there are all of the other things that follow the actual making of it too - having to do the artwork, all of the things that just that becomes a bunch of work. You do one thing and it creates a bunch more work. I don’t know. I’ve got rock songs, I’ve got acoustic songs and I’m not in any rush – I don’t know why. I should be, I just don’t. I’ve got a lot of records to sell, as you can see and I’ve got a lot of songs and I’m feeling really good about the songs I’m writing and I don’t have the curation vision just yet. It’s going to appear to me in the next little while, But not yet.