There’s an odd romanticism associated with the term singer-songwriter. Mention the two words to any music fan and a wistful image of a weather-worn traveller with an acoustic guitar and a story to tell immediately comes to mind. This idealized notion doesn’t take into consideration whether the artist is an adequate singer, songwriter or storyteller, but it does evoke a certain level of reverence.
Now switch singer-songwriter to rock and roll. The picture quickly shifts to young punks banging out tunes in a dirty garage, or bloated egos living fast and selling out.
The lifestyle is romanticized, but the respect level is much lower. Where singer-songwriters are admired as masters of their craft, rock musicians are often vilified as trend-driven hacks with three basic motivations: sex, drugs and money.
So it should come as no surprise that Joel Plaskett’s brand new acoustic-based solo album La De Da—which hits stores February 22—has people looking at the Halifax rocker in a whole different light. Canadian Music Network’s Barry Walsh describes the effort as “even more proof that the singer-songwriter tradition that turned troubadors like Gordon Lightfoot and Neil Young into national icons is alive and well” in a recent review, and even Plaskett’s label MapleMusic says the album “maintains the rock and roll spirit of Joel’s earlier work while exploring the folk roots of the singer-songwriter.”
It’s almost as if Plaskett jumped off last year’s stadium tour with The Tragically Hip and aged 30 years in the process.
“The press has to find a way to spin it, and the label has to find a way to sell it if you’re gonna get attention behind it, so you just take it and go with it,” says Plaskett matter-of-factly during a mid-afternoon lunch. “But it is weird. How is a rock band with a guy writing the songs and singing them any less of a singer-songwriter? I am maturing, but I’ve made solo records before and I’ve always had that aspect to what I do.”
That said, no one is going to confuse La De Da with the three-time ECMA nominee Truthfully Truthfully (2003), a raw slab of riff rock that established Plaskett as one of Canada’s foremost frontmen. The album is bookended by two sparse and beautiful odes to Halifax—“Absentminded Melody” and “I Love This Town”—and in between weaves a mellow musical tale that takes the listener from the cramped confines of the CBC archives to the open desert of Arizona, where Plaskett recorded the disc sans Emergency.
“The first three songs are almost like, I’ve left, I’m on my own and the next three songs, like ‘Lying on a Beach’ and ‘TV Set,’ those are the songs that go about trying to answer why I left, because I was bored, because I worked a day job, or whatever,” explains Plaskett. “It’s not that autobiographical, but I was trying to write a bit of a through line. It’s a travelling record.”
It’s also more spontaneous than previous releases. Where Plaskett spent plenty of time hammering out each song before recording Truthfully, many songs on La De Da were finished up on the road, and in some cases, right before he stepped up to the microphone. It allowed him to be more open-minded and experimental.
“I wrote a bunch of songs on the way there, and when I got there a lot of the songs weren’t done, so I was like, ‘I’m playing everything on this, so I guess I’m gonna play drums now,’” he says. “It was the first time that I ever made a record that I was gonna release with that much unfinished. What I was trying to do with this album was let whatever came into my head flow as freely as possible, and try not to second-guess myself. To me, that’s what was exciting about it.”
Plaskett recorded the disc with Bob Hoag, an indie-rock producer from Tempe, Arizona, and an uber-fan if there ever was one: “He’s a fan I met before, he’s a big Thrush Hermit fan and knew the whole catalogue better than I did, it turns out.” Hoag kept in contact over the years, and when it was time to record the album, Plaskett dropped him a line about his studio. Hoag made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. “I e-mailed him about his rates and what his gear was like and he sent me a gear list and said, ‘I’d love to work with it if you want to come down, and I’ll put you up. My wife and I have a house and a pool and you can stay with us and record at the studio for free.’ So I got in the truck at the end of May and I drove down by myself.”
In this case, the saying “you get what you pay for” doesn’t apply. Though some performances are rough around the edges—a side effect of spontaneity that’s more endearing than annoying—the sound is warm and inviting, like listening to an old AM radio station.
“The first song from the record, ‘Absentminded Melody,’ is from the first night I was there,” says Plaskett, who spent a month recording and mixing the album. “It’s pretty scrappy—we just threw up a mic—and we recorded it later, but I felt the first night captured it the best. Bob was really excited about having me, and he knew how I wanted stuff to sound, but he also had a thing of his own that was really great. Once I was comfortable with him, I realized he really knew what he was doing.”
Plaskett’s post-release plans include a cross-country solo tour with esteemed colleague and former Local Rabbits songwriter Peter Elkas, and very few full-band dates. However, he stresses the fact that The Emergency—bassist Tim Brennan (currently based in Ireland; Plaskett’s old Hermit bandmate Ian McGettigan is filling in) and drummer Dave Marsh—is still very much an integral part of the Plaskett machine.
“The band is taking a bit of a break, but I’m careful when I’m talking about this that it’s not, ‘Joel Plaskett goes solo,’ cause I don’t want to pitch it that way,” he says. “The last tour we just did was the best tour we had, and we’ve got some DVD stuff we’re aiming for later in summer/early fall, but for now I’m doing some solo stuff in support of this record.”
And how does Plaskett think his newest fans—weaned on his rock and roll leanings—will react to his solo album and subsequent tour? Unlike label reps and critics, Plaskett hopes longtime followers and newest acolytes won’t try to brand his newest effort and just accept it for what it is: a damn good batch of songs.
“There are some people who just love Springsteen’s Nebraska, and then there are people who just love Born to Run or Born in the USA, but most of his audience likes the whole run of it,” explains Plaskett. “The industry, they kinda go, ‘that’s a lot different,’ and it kind of is, but a lot of the same people are going to come see it. If you give them a different show, it doesn’t mean they’re going to turn on you.”