Truthfully, Truthfully

I finished high school at the very end of the 90s, and Thrush Hermit was one of my favourite bands from the very first time I saw the video for “The Day We Hit The Coast” on MuchMusic (which was one of the only ways to find out about bands in the pre-internet era in a small northern town).  I loved their gigantic choruses and fuzzed out guitars. I especially connected with Plaskett’s voice: a passionate yowl, beautifully ragged and melodic. It was a real human voice, and the band seemed like regular dudes. In the age of larger-than-life pseudo-grunge rock stars that growled moodily and did their best to seem aloof and mysterious, Thrush Hermit was refreshingly honest and straightforward: good songs played with passion and sung without artifice. Also, the video was hilarious and awesome. I was hooked.

Thus my long fandom of Joel Plaskett was born. Thrush Hermit called it quits right as I was becoming an adult,  and I followed Joel’s emerging solo career closely. In my early twenties, I started to become more interested in music production and the behind-the-scenes characters. It was during the course of this self-education that I learned about Dale Morningstar and the legendary Gas Station, which had been a key recording studio of the 90s Can-rock explosion. Dale engineered and mixed Thrush Hermit’s “Clayton Park” album, which was their biggest success and their swan song. Because of this connection to Thrush, I learned about Dale and what a pivotal and influential person he is for Canadian music. Flash-forward about four years, and I reached out to Dale to produce and record my band The Stormalongs, based partially on the his work with Thrush, as well as so many other Canadian musicians that I admire.  But that is a story for another time…

As for Joel’s solo career, he has emerged as one of Canada’s most beloved and respected musicians. Whether working in solo singer-songwriter mode, or with his ass-kicking rock & roll power trio the Emergency, he has continued the heartfelt and earnest vibes of Thrush into a new century, racking up awards and accolades galore. His solo work continues to expand his sonic palette, adding folkish touches, ambitious conceptual ideas, and genre-bending rock music to his already impressive catalogue of material. His last album “Three” was like a long love-letter to the folk music of Maritime Canada, which he has increasingly mined for inspiration in his later work, to great effect. And through it all, he has remained a true Maritime boy, never leaving his home, long after his contemporaries split for big city. In the process, he has become a folk hero himself: the nicest dude in Canadian music and the musical King of the East Coast.

Let’s flash-forward again to this past Spring. Joel Plaskett recorded his latest album “Scrappy Happiness”, once again with his stalwart backing band the Emergency. The recording process for this album was conceptually ambitious: he recorded and released one song every week for ten weeks, dropping each one on iTunes as it was finished. Once all ten songs were completed, he would package them together under the title “Scrappy Happiness”, a phrase that would be a guiding mantra of the work itself. Recording in this manner left no time for re-hashing arrangements or studio tinkering. Each tune would have to be laid down in the quickest, most effective way possible. And on top of it all, he documented the recording of each song with quirky documentary videos.  It was a remarkably fearless idea, especially since the videos occasionally show the harried process behind trying to complete each song on-time. Over the course of these video confessionals, we sometimes see Joel frustrated and searching for inspiration, or racing against the clock; other times we see the sheer victorious joy of finding the right sounds. The whole thing also contains a lot of male bonding, as Joel clowns around with drummer Dave Marsh and bassist Chris Pennell. Even Joel’s old pal Ian McGettigan (bass player with Thrush Hermit) spends some time helping out in the studio. The videos also help to underscore the sense of wistfulness and nostalgia embodied by the songs themselves. “Scrappy Happiness” is about looking back to the good times, while acknowledging that the best is yet to come.

Obviously I followed the progress of the recordings closely. I listened to “Three” a lot over the last couple of years, and I was excited that Plaskett was going back into rock and roll mode. The Joel Plaskett  Emergency headlined a free concert last year at Toronto’s Luminato Festival, during which they premiered a new track called ‘Lightning Bolt”, a great, joyful multi-movement rock anthem that hit me like a ton of bricks when I heard it for the first time. So I was looking forward to hearing the studio version, as well as the other new songs that were in store. I was not disappointed. “Scrappy Happiness” is an amazing record that was constructed in a unique way, and I really hope that it wins the Polaris Prize this year.

“Lightning Bolt” was the last song recorded for the album. I had to wait ten weeks to finally hear the song that had melted my brain, and it was worth the wait. When it finally dropped, I had been having a particularly bleak day. It was one of those days when you feel completely disconnected from your life, and you crave some kind of escape from the mundane. “Lightning Bolt” provided me with that escape: when I first heard it, all my cynicism, sadness, and angst melted away in a glorious torrent of guitar solos and the biggest chorus you’ve ever heard. I was so impressed by the song that I actually wrote a fan letter (which I’ve never done before), thanking Joel for his beautiful music. I emailed this letter to his manager Sheri Jones, and thought nothing more of it. To my surprise, I got a nice reply from Joel himself, thanking me for thanking him. In the letter he was self-effacing and modest, and genuinely appreciative of my support. It was crazy to me to have such personal contact with someone I consider a musical hero. But it was just a taste of what happened next.

I was at work four Fridays ago when I noticed I’d received an email from Exclaim magazine.  With astonishment, I read that I had won an online contest that I entered weeks ago and promptly forgot about (I enter online contests all the time and have never won anything). And the prize was a whopper: two tickets to the Joel Plaskett Emergency’s sold-out hometown show in Dartmouth NS, with airfare and hotel accommodations included. The prize also included meeting Joel himself for coffee and a tour of his studio. I was stunned, excited, and happy as hell. I emailed his manager once again, just to let her know that I was the guy who sent the fan letter, and that I had won the contest. She set up the meeting.

My wife and I flew out of Toronto at 7AM on Saturday, July 9th. That evening, the Joel Plaskett Emergency would be rocking a smallish pub in Dartmouth called Ship Victory, as part of an Exclaim party honouring their 20th year of publication. We were told to meet Joel at a coffee shop in Dartmouth called Two If By Sea (which is awesome, by the way) at 11AM, and then he would take us to his nearby studio to see the place where “Three” and “Scrappy Happiness” were recorded. This meant we had to go straight from the Halifax airport to our meeting with Plaskett. I was a bit nervous as we hopped into a cab at the airport, realizing that I was about to meet a musician that I greatly admired. I brought along my new copy of “Scrappy Happiness” on vinyl, as well as the CD booklet for Thrush Hermit’s “Clayton Park”, and a brand-new silver Sharpie. I kept thinking about my mental list of things I wanted to ask him about, and wondered how the experience would go.

My wife Alexa and I arrived at the coffee shop a few minutes early. We grabbed some drinks and setup in an out of the way table in the far corner. My nerves and semi-exhaustion from the early flight were playing with me a bit by this point. Joel always seems approachable and appreciative of his audience, but you never know how artists will react to meeting a fan. More than anything, I was grateful that he was taking the time to hang out with us, and I didn’t want the experience to be weird or awkward for him. As I sat sipping at my Americano, trying to wake myself up, a lanky blonde dude strolled into the coffee shop and ordered a tea. I realized that I would have to walk up and introduce myself (he had no way of recognizing me), and as I did I attempted a lame joke: “Hey man, I’m Colin. And you are?”

Joel smiled, and the ice was broken. He said he thought it was cool and coincidental that I had written him that letter and then subsequently won the contest. We sat down at the table and started a long, rambling conversation. We talked about the great variety of things, chief among which was his music and his career. We talked about Zeppelin, guitars, gear theft, his records, sales, his band, his influences, open tunings, recording, touring, the history of Halifax, his family, Thrush Hermit, and a little bit of everything else; just talking about life and rock & roll. He was exactly the way he presents himself to be: approachable, friendly, grateful, and humble. As we talked about his career and his latest work, he mentioned that he had been playing a few different versions of some of his older material on the “Scrappy…” tour, including a solo acoustic version of “You Came Along” from his 2003 album “Truthfully, Truthfully”; I told him that I enjoyed that song, and he said he’d try to work it into the show that evening. Then I mentioned how much I loved “The Red Light” from that same album, and that I’d like to throw that into the request pile.  I must admit, in the first ten minutes of the conversation, I kept thinking “it’s weird and awesome that this is actually happening”. It was a big moment for me.

After chatting for an hour or so, we left Two If By Sea and walked a short distance to the famous Scotland Yard studio, located in an unassuming garage-type building in a quiet residential neighborhood. It was a beautiful little space with lots of exposed wood, and many quirky toys and blankets strewn around. Joel showed us his studio gear, and some of the amps and guitars used to craft the sounds of his albums. I learned that many of the massive guitar sounds on his albums come from very small amps, with the microphones placed very closely (which is a trick also employed by Jimmy Page on Zeppelin records, and more recently, Joshua Homme of QOTSA).  He demonstrated a few pieces of gear for us, and there was more shop-talk about the recording process. It was cool to see the physical space where some of my favourite records of the last few years were recorded.

Joel’s manager Sheri had told us that we’d probably need to find our own way to the hotel from there, but to our surprise Joel gave us a ride into town, detouring along the way to point out cool local record stores, studios, and other Halifax points of interest.  As he dropped us off at the hotel, we thanked him for his time, and he mentioned again that he’d talk to his bandmates about playing “The Red Light” at the show.

My wife and I spent a few hours relaxing in the hotel before we took a taxi across town to the local pub/restaurant Ship Victory, in an anonymous business area in the north end of Dartmouth. Ship Victory is a wonderfully, classically East Coast place, complete with porthole windows and awesome beer-battered fish. Joel told me the total capacity of the place was about 200 people; this was exciting as the JPE mostly plays in big theatres and outdoor festivals these days. Excitement was building in me as I realized that I was about to see one of my favourite musicians play a small pub. Joel had also booked a couple of great local acts to open the show: local Meat Puppets-worshipping punk band The Scoop Outs, and Joel’s own discovery, a great local singer-songwriter named Mo Kenney. After solid opening sets by both acts, the Emergency took the stage to a packed and slightly drunken house. Opening with “North Star” from “Scrappy…”, the band was fired up and rocking from the very first chord. The set proceeded with Chris Pennell and Dave Marsh perfectly accenting Joel’s melodically adept songs. After about a half-dozen new tunes, the boys took a break while Joel strapped on his acoustic guitars for the solo/group singalong portion of the evening. Seriously, I have never heard that many people in a room singing every single word of every song. He cycled through “Harbour Boys”, “A Million Dollars”, and a few other hits, before he paused to introduce “You Came Along”, which he dedicated to me and Alexa, as well as another couple who had travelled from Calgary for the show. The crowd was one big sweating, singing, joyful drunken mess. People patted me on the back and gave me high-fives, just because I had come from Toronto. “Welcome to Halifax”, a big friendly guy screamed at me as Joel went into the last chorus of “You Came Along”.

Dave and Chris reappeared on the stage as Joel strapped on his Gibson ES-335 and began to play “Lightning Bolt”, the song that had caused me to write to him back in the doldrums of the Canadian winter. I was completely in the moment, caught up in the experience and the sheer joy that was erupting all around me. The good vibes in that room were palpable; it was like a big house party, everyone filled with friendliness and happiness. Drinks were flowing, and in that small window before self-awareness interrupted, I felt a moment of pure bliss. The Emergency pulled out their showstoppers, like “Work Out Fine” and “Come On, Teacher”. Then, as the intensity slowly ramped up to an intense encore, Joel announced that they were going to play a song they hadn’t played in a while, at the request of a guy named Colin who won a contest. Dave and Chris enthusiastically congratulated me from the stage, and as the first riffs of “The Red Light” rang out, I had yet another “is this happening?” moment. The song rocked HARD. The Emergency was on fire by that point, and the song was beautifully loose and exuberant. Dave and Chris told me later that the song was a favourite of theirs, and that my request was the only reason they’d played it that night- they hadn’t played it live in a few years.

As the last chords of rock & roll rang out into the damp Dartmouth night, I had a powerful feeling that I had just witnessed something very unique. Joel is the most honest and earnest performer I have ever seen; he puts absolutely everything he’s got into his show. He’s noticeably heartfelt in his art, and he is completely devoid of the typical rock-star ego. He’s authentic, sincere musician who makes everyone feel welcome and appreciated. I had come full circle from the teenage Thrush Hermit fan, to now seeing and meeting Plaskett as an adult, in a place that I might never have seen otherwise. The journey was filled with random coincidences, chance encounters, and beautiful music, and without the good folks at Exclaim magazine I might never have had that opportunity. It was the fulfillment of a long-held dream, and I will treasure the experience for the rest of my life.

I’d like to thank all the folks at Exclaim, for making my rock and roll dream come true. I’d also like to thank Sheri Jones for helping to organize the meeting, and for her kindness in connecting the Artist and the Fan. Thanks to the boys in the Emergency: Dave Marsh and Chris Pennell are awesome guys who made me feel like an instant friend. Most of all, I thank the incomparable Joel Plaskett.

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