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“Playing close to home makes me feel I’m amidst my people”: A Conversation With Joel Plaskett

When I think of East Coast rock music, I immediately think of Joel Plaskett.

The Nova Scotia native has cemented his place as a Canadian music icon with a legendary career—one that was beautifully documented by Brunswickan alumnus Josh O’Kane in an excellent book, Nowhere With You: The East Coast Anthems of Joel Plaskett, The Emergency and Thrush Hermit. Over the last two decades, Plaskett has continually displayed a commitment to craft and an ability crank out one heckuva chorus, often while writing and singing about his Maritime roots.

I’ve been a big fan of his for years—ever since a guy I washed dishes with at an old summer job brought in a copy of Three to listen to while we scrubbed pots and pans—so it was a real treat to chat with him ahead of his upcoming show at the Fredericton Playhouse, where he’ll be playing alongside his father, Bill Plaskett. Last year, the father-and-son pair released their first album together, Solidarity. The record is a set of a songs centered on themes of togetherness, perhaps best evidenced by its title track. The tunes are folk-leaning yet often infused with the distinct Maritime spirit Plaskett has made his trademark.

Over the course of an hour, we had a wide-ranging conversation about playing out East, the new record, memories of Gord Downie, and more. Below are some highlights from our talk.

RG: Do you feel a difference playing an East Coast show as opposed to one elsewhere in Canada?

JP: Well, I think the nice thing is the sense of place. Being from the East Coast, I write a lot about this part of the world. I go all across Canada and there’s lots of Maritimers everywhere, so you have that “ex-pat”—for lack of a better term—contingent, but there is something about playing these shows close to home that makes me feel I’m amidst my people. And I don’t ever want to take that for granted—but I sure love it. It feels like home, and I find it kinda celebratory. That’s the best way to put it. It always makes me happy.

RG: Let’s chat about this new record. How did the idea to do an album with your father come about?

JP: Basically, Dad and I have played together before. He’s played at shows and on records of mine, and he’s always informed the folkier side of what I do. Whenever I touch down into that world, it’s always been, “Dad, what do you think? Know any good whistlers?” (laughs) But it was always sort of this “He is out there accompanying me vibe, and I started thinking, “He’s an accomplished player in his own right—let’s make a record!” And if we make it a record about the two of us, it gives us even more to dig into when we go play shows. After I wrapped up the last record, I just thought: now is the time to do this. I don’t want to push this down the line three or five years. Right now, we’ve both got time. And it just felt right.

RG: I’d love to talk a bit about Gord Downie. Did your paths cross over the years?

JP:  I did know him. I wasn’t tight with Gord by any means—but I knew him, I had his email, I messaged him here and there. But the night of the last show I emailed him. I was playing a show on Grand Manan Island and I sent him an email around suppertime, just to say: “I’m thinking of you guys, have a great show.” Just basically to send my love along. And he wrote me back! He wrote me back probably an hour and a half before they took the stage. And I thought: this is a guy who’s just sending love out until the world. His rolodex is pretty deep, and I can only imagine what his phone was doing that night, just buzzing constantly, and yet here is, taking the time, at dinnertime, before he takes the stage to deliver a performance to basically the entire country, and he’s writing people back these notes. It was just like: my God. It reminded me how much he recognized the importance of that moment and the power that he had, in a way. It was really amazing.

RG: Let me put you on the spot then: fav Hip lyric. Go!

JP: Let me think about that…I have two songs that mean a lot to me. There’s “Courage,” cause when it first came out, I read that it was for Hugh MacLennan, the writer, and Hugh was a cousin of my grandfather’s, so I always thought that was pretty cool. (laughs) But the bridge out of “Bobcaygeon”: “Saw the constellations reveal themselves one star at a time”—that line, to me, the way that melodic lift is…I mean, the whole thing about a lyric, right, is what’s happening melodically underneath it as well. That feeling of it climbing and doing its job. “He stepped to the mic and sang and their voices rang with that Aryan twang”—there’s just something about that entire progression out of that bridge that feels…I dunno. Kinda perfect. It’s poetic, it’s peculiar. It kinda sums up everything that Gord was good at. And it’s weird to hear the word “Aryan” in a song! It’s a strange thing to be able to get away with. But it somehow works. It makes you think and feel something. And that’s all you can really ask for.

RG: What is it that you look for in a song? What is it that, to you, makes a great song?

JP: You know, people always talk about melody and words. They’re very important. Words that somehow string together and mean something, and a melody that somehow lifts those words to a greater place. But the other thing I think is sometimes not talked about as much is the meter. Meter is a big part of what makes something hit. It’s huge for me. That’s what makes the words…bounce. Within a song, the meter of the words and the meter of the melody is sort of what brings it to another place, and somehow makes it connect…You know who had great meter? Chuck Berry. (sings) “Riding along in my automobile.” Whatever makes a song…singable. There’s nothing worse than someone stretching a word in a way that doesn’t make sense. You can make anything catchy if you can put meter to it. It’s not something that always gets talked about, but I think about it a lot. The songs of mine that seem to be most successful in the live show are those that lock into that. Once you have the meter, you can put whatever you want on top of that.

RG: Is there anything left that you’re still trying to do?

JP: That’s a hard one to answer. I’ve been playing music my entire adult life. As a teenager, I stepped out of high school and into a van, basically. And I don’t know how to do anything else. I know how to produce records for people. I have some skills that run parallel to music, but they’re all basically around it in some fashion. I can’t stop, and therefore: I keep doing it. And I’m always excited when I write a song and I think, I haven’t really done that before. But I’m also excited when I can come up with something that feels like, This is one of my songs. And every once in awhile one of those comes along. Like “Harbour Boys”—I just love singing that one. Every record has something that I feel kind of adds to that. This record with my dad is a bit more singular—a lot of the songs need him to deliver them properly—but I have a new song that I’ve been playing recently, that I haven’t recorded yet, and it feels like one of those ones. It’s coming from the place. And I still love when I can get a couple of those.

Bill & Joel Plaskett will take the stage at Fredericton Playhouse on Thursday, Oct. 26 at 7:30 p.m.

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