"Six Newfies on the floor of my one-bedroom apartment on Charles Street." That's how Jason Burns remembers it.
"This is where it all began, in a weird way," he recalls. "My fucking apartment looked like a can of weird sardines. There were bodies everywhere."
That's how Hey Rosetta! started its career, building a small empire of fans through relentless touring, sleeping on floors when they had to. It's an ongoing campaign that's taking them now, regularly, into the United States, where in May the Dave Matthews-founded label ATO released Seeds, the band's most recent record. Burns, a former tourmate of the Newfoundland-based band with his outfits Down With The Butterfly and Mardeen, now manages Rich Aucoin, Old Man Luedecke and Hey Rosetta!.
The life of touring has become part of Hey Rosetta!'s DNA, filling those layered, orchestral rock songs with insistent forward motion, stops and starts. Check out lyrics from "New Goodbye," the anthemic lead-off track from the 2008 recording Into Your Lungs (and around in your heart and on through your blood), and compare it to title track from Seeds: "The only thing that I ever learned, that when trusting a stranger your trust will be returned...we're saying a new goodbye, our arms are open wide."
Lead singer and songwriter Tim Baker roots the song in this sentiment; departure and faith that the people they meet out in the world will be welcoming.
And, from "Seeds": "I drive into you, like I'm driven to do. And when we then lie still I still feel the road go, and them spinning wheels."
Home is there, but its solace is fleeting. Now the wheels are defining, deafening, their rhythms pounding into the music.
"That is basically something I cannot deny at all," says Baker, speaking from the temporary respite of a friend's condo near the CN Tower in Toronto. In the band, Baker plays piano, organ and guitar, joined by Josh Ward on bass and guitar, Adam Hogan on guitar, Phil Maloney on drums and percussion, with Romesh Thavanathan and Kinley Dowling providing the soft bed of strings with cello, violin and viola.
"It's been since 2006, this constant thing," says Baker. "Always travelling. It's changed our collective reality as a band, the reality of our life. Lyrically I've written a lot about travelling and meeting people. The help that you get, and the lack of fear. I find it especially poignant in America. It's mostly filled with normal people you can totally trust who are just like you. It's really uplifting. You deconstruct this false world that has been built up in your head from watching television and movies. "I haven't seen anyone get shot, and I've been down there for three years! It just doesn't fucking happen. It's just regular people working their jobs, being sensible, friendly people. It's a beautiful discovery."
Baker didn't particularly envision the kind of success Hey Rosetta! is achieving, he says. He never really contemplated what that life looked like, and still doesn't, except at times like this, when he's being interviewed.
"This doesn't paint me in a very good light, but I never really planned for this to happen," he says. "I never dreamed this dream. I write music because I can't help it, and really, really enjoy it. It's my favourite thing. And so I got together with these guys---the line-up has changed, but I've been together for four years with the people in the band now. And they're really great people and musicians. It's been kind of reactionary. A lot of days I really think this is not the life I wanted, if I ever really thought of it, which I didn't. But there's a lot of days that are undeniably good. When I'm on the stage, especially. It doesn't feel like a job at all.
"There's never really a moment when we say, 'We made it. We're here.' Every day just evolves."
Despite the new label and this summer's US festival tour, Baker admits he doesn't love playing Hey Rosetta!'s grand songs to half-empty rooms. It still happens, though less often in Canada. "Nothing ever feels as good as when you're playing a big show and it's full and everybody is really excited to be there. It's fucking magical. It's just like smashing you in the face, how good it can be."
From February to April, Hey Rosetta! toured the US and Europe. They did a run through the southern US, playing on a beach in Alabama, at the Sasquatch Festival at The Gorge in Washington State, which Baker says is "unbelieveable, a beautiful tradition" and Bonnaroo, in Manchester, Tennessee. The first show they played there was a surprise thing in the woods, followed by three more, all unlisted.
"The final show, the official one, had every Canadian there, plus all the fans they'd built," says Burns. "It was a massive crowd. So you can see, if you look at that as a micro-example of touring the US, touring different audiences, that's how it works."
Burns says they'll do another tour of the US before this campaign ends, and Europe as well. And Lollapalooza in Chicago is still to come in early August. "Tim is such a star," he says. Burns chose to manage them because he recognized Hey Rosetta!'s unique talents and astonishing work ethic. "I have yet to experience the success story that's unaccompanied by hard work," says Burns. "They're a machine. A touring machine."
While Baker may not set out a road map for new territories to be conquered and new goodbyes to come, Burns does. He says ATO brings fresh philosophies and expectations.
"We have to expand everything, our ideas of what the band is, what they can achieve and what the next record is going to sound like," he says. "It's the type of thing where the music defines everything. We can easily push to get the band on Letterman at the tail of this record, or wait until something will resound on the beginning of a new record. As far as what goals are, mine is doing a second- or third-tier headline spot at Coachella. Or one of the 20,000 person tents. The band doesn't think as progressively as that, as a chess game. That's more my job, anyway. But as career artists, they're in the zone."
On a recent pass through California, Burns got Hey Rosetta! to visit some studios in LA, but he says it stressed them out, because they don't know yet what they're going to sound like for the next record. "I can see that confusion," says Burns. "They want a different sound, maybe. I think it's going to be different, they're going to bounce off in a different direction."
On July 21, Hey Rosetta! plays Georges Island in the Halifax Harbour. "How awesome is that?" says Burns. "From its conception its a great idea. I hope it keeps happening. I hope in 20 years people look back at the one Hey Rosetta! did. And we all behaved, and we didn't fucking burn the island down or get wasted. We have so much opportunity to do great things. But if we prove to them that we're responsible, it'll be amazing."
Baker says the band is looking forward to the unique venue, and returning to the town that inspired at least some of its sound, which isn't of a particular place. "Great fucking bands come from Halifax," he says. "Bands that don't sound like anyone else, anywhere else."
And while Hey Rosetta! continues to embrace the "Bob Dylan's Never Ending Tour" ethos, Baker admits the road takes its toll. There was a time he used to get sick on a regular basis. Every few weeks he'd be fighting off a cold or virus. "I've learned a lot about what I can handle, and have communicated that to the management and booking agent," he says.
The logistics of touring have improved because the band is now in a position to take a day off here and there, and Baker can often be spotted in the gym hotels.
His secret to road well-being and sustainability? "The cold blast."
"I'm a big advocate of it, when you finish a shower," he says. "Apparently, it's really good for the immune system and your circulation. All the blood comes to the surface of your skin when you're hot, and then when you blast the cold water at the end, it all rushes to your organs to keep them warm and you alive. The theory is that it flushes up toxins every day, so they don't build up.
"I'm going to recommend it to everybody. I haven't gotten sick in over a year. Even travelling in a plane or a van, it's stressful on your body. Hurtling through space."
Carsten Knox is a Coast contributing editor.
Hey Rosetta!, w/Ben Caplan, Saturday July 21, 1pm, Boats depart from Bishop’s Landing, GA sold out, VIP $70, my-waterfront.ca