Interview – Joel Plaskett
– by Shawn Conner
Joel Plaskett is one of those artists critics can’t help championing. By all rights he should be huge – he’s a massively entertaining live performer and a helluva songwriter who is able to write catchy pop songs that veer from the personal and intimate to the crowd-pleasing. (Even Zellers picked up on his tune “Nowhere With You”, and his AM-ready “Fashionable People” inspired a collaboration with hip-hop artist Classified).
Born in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, and raised in Halifax, Plaskett also comes across as a humble, one might even say typically Canadian, dude who just happens to make his living writing songs, recording, and playing live. At 33, the happily married – to cartoonist Rebecca Kraatz – Plaskett has just released the most ambitious album of a career that includes his years with the band Thrush Hermit, three records with his rock ‘n’ roll rhythm section the Emergency and two other solo discs.
Three is a three-disc set of 27 songs, mostly recorded in his home studio with father Bill on guitar and Anna Egge and Rose Cousins on backup vocals. Some are roll-another-number road tunes, others a darker shade of folk, but all share Plaskett’s keen melodic sense, and all come back to one thing: the joy of coming home to find White Fang, the cat he and Kraatz took in Sept 11 2001, still kicking. Figuratively speaking.
Shawn Conner: How’s White Fang?
Joel Plaskett: She’s awesome. She’s pretty old and rickety. She’s pretty arthritic. She falls off things.
SC: I read that whenever you go on tour you’re worried you’re going to come home and she’ll have exited this vale of tears.
JP: It’s hard to tell with that cat. Both Becky and I have thought, on many occasions, Oh God, this is the home stretch. She just sleeps all day, and it seems like she doesn’t eat. She’s got a thyroid condition, so we changed the medication and then her energy comes back and we’re like, is this cat gonna last another three years? We flip-flop between thinking she’s gonna die any day and then realizing maybe she’s immortal. Maybe she’s already died and we don’t even know it. She’s still in the house with us. Like, take the picture of her in the bass drum and show it to everybody and there’s nothing there. ‘What, it’s a picture of a bass drum. There’s no cat in that drum.”
SC: She sleeps in the bass drum?
JP: She did when I took her down to my studio, she crawled right into it. When we used to jam in my basement she used to walk right by the drums while we were making noise. She’s deaf, right. She’s a bit of a force of nature. She lost her ears to cancer. When you have cats, and you don’t have kids, and you observe them – the idea of coming home is very much seeing that cat. “That cat’s still here, it’s amazing.”
SC: You’ve had her for how long?
JP: Since Sept. 11, 2001. We took her in on that day, she was astray around back of the house. It was like, let’s go take White Fang in. And we did. Let’s do something good on a day when so much bad has happened. I remember sitting in the vet’s office getting her check out with all that going on on the TV.
SC: I love that line, “What are you going to have for dinner tonight/The same thing you had last night” [from the album’s epic 12-minute closer, “On and On and On”].
JP: [laughs] My finest moment, really, on record.
SC: It sums up everything…
JP: Pretty much, you know what I mean? To me, the record being so much about leaving and then coming home, ending the record on a song about my cat just seemed like, all right, people are going to take this as a fucking joke. But really, nothing sums up that feeling of being in your house, and you look at these creatures you’re surrounded by… It’s that simple for this cat. We make all these decision to go and do these things. Fang is like, Well, there’s a plate of food in front of me. It’s the same thing I ate yesterday. Life goes on.
SC: Is that White Fang on the New Scotland [Plaskett’s record label] logo?
JP: Yeah, I’ve immortalized her. On the home stretch I figured, let’s document her.
SC: And is Three out on vinyl now?
JP: Yeah, triple vinyl. I have it on the road with me. I’m so thrilled to have it on vinyl, man. It’s so heavy too.
SC: I love the use of backup vocals on this record – on these records!
JP: The first song on the record, “Wishful Thinking”, is like a seven-minute song played to a drum machine, I recorded it in Memphis at Doug Easley’s studio. He just set up a new one because he lost the old one to a fire. It was weird because I stopped in at Easley’s when I went down there to make La De Da back in 2004 and then a year later, I’m reading that he had a fire. Then when I was in Memphis in 2007, for the Folk Alliance, I looked up Doug, he was still cleaning up his board from fire damage. When I called last year, he was like, “Yeah, I’ve got a new studio up and running.” “Can I book a day for Saturday, I’ll come record a song.”
So I booked in and invited Rose and Anna to come sing backup, and I just made up a bunch of verses on the spot, I just kept jamming it out to this drum machine and making up words. I made up all these parts for them, and they were having a great time. I got them to sing in unison, which has this really great effect. I tried to use the harmony really sparingly, I always find people use female vocals for the harmony aspect.
SC: They’re almost like a Greek chorus on the album.
JP: Yeah, and when audiences sing along with you they always sing in unison, and I kind of love that. And the way they would lock together, they’d look at each other and go “whoah,” they’d hear each other but then themselves as one voice. It was a really cool effect so I wrote a bunch of parts for them on that song and I was like, “Oh, this is fun, this is what I want to do.” So when I got to recording the rest of the stuff in my own space a couple of months later, I flew Anna up from New York – she lives in Brooklyn – and Rose lives in Halifax, they’re good friends, and I brought them in for another 12 songs I’d worked on. Then I tracked more songs, and had them up again later ‘cos I just kept adding stuff that they could sing on.
That song “Rollin’” I had recorded and had no intention of any female vocal parts and then I realized I could just write counterpoint lines to all my lines, like internal rhymes, and I just wrote a bunch of words for them. It was fun, because once I realized there was that theme, and they’re such great singers, they’re so fast in terms of being able to direct them, try this and they’d be like, bang. It was just fun because it was really liberating. And to write really quickly, and make up stuff and have them execute it and go “Wow, that sounds great. Let’s move on. Cool. Next.” Then we cut “On and On and On” all on the same mic at the same time, it was the last song we tracked. You can hear the cat coming off the bottle of Jameson’s during the guitar solo.
SC: You released a single by Anna on New Scotland, right?
JP: Yeah, I sure did, yeah. Anna’s voice reminds me of Nina Simone in a weird way, she doesn’t sound like Nina Simone but her voice has that intensity. On the two songs I did with her, I played all the bass and drums and she played guitar and sang. When she would do her vocals I’d just sit there with the headphones tracking her and be going, “Oh my God.” Tear-inducing. There’s a song we cut, “Farmer’s Daughter”, her vocal performance is like, “Oh my God.” Both her and Rose, they’re amazing singers. They’re both on tour with me.
SC: And so’s your dad, who plays on the record. Is that weird?
JP: No, it’s cool. We get along great. It’s funny, ’cos when I’m touring, you’re with these people and it’s great, it’s Anne and Rose and I and my dad and sound man/road manager Steve, the Emergency’s joining us for Toronto, and Ottawa and Montreal and Halifax. I wanted to do the first half of the tour acoustic, because so much of the record is of that nature. And also just touring, when you get into two vehicles and all those expenses, it’s just becomes too hard to tour Canada under those circumstances. But the shows really come together, everyone’s playing different instruments, Anna plays mandola and some drums and guitar, Rose is playing piano and guitar. And when the band joins us at the end of it it’ll be a nice lift up, I like the idea of the tour changing. I’ll have to reinvent it a little for those shows.
SC: With his background, being British and at his age, I would think your dad was probably into late ’60s/early ’70s folk, like the Fairport Convention?
JP: Oh yeah, Bert Jansch and all that, I love all that. I heard all that stuff through my father. Richard Thompson’s stuff. Bert Jansch is the big one for both of us, he’s kind of my dad’s hero. And so there’s definitely an element of that to some of the songs, like “Heartless”. I love that music, and I definitely cheated a few chops from it here and there, but I don’t have the discipline to focus in and hunker down on it completely.
But I love that kind of guitar, and I think my dad and I share that. Another guy my dad’s turned me onto is Paul Brady. The first two Paul Brady records, if you like that British folk stuff, there’s this record Paul Brady and Andy Irvine did together, with this traditional Irish song – Dylan actually did it – “Arthur McBride” – Google Paul Brady, “Arthur McBride” and “Lakes of Pontchartrain”, there’s a’70s performance , he’s got curly curly red hair and big-ass glasses, he’s playing on this really cool-lit stage, it’s an Irish television show. It’s totally skull-shattering, the best singing guitar playing on a solo level, it’s outrageous, so fuckin’ good.
SC: In one interview I read with you, you mention The Clash‘s Sandinista!, another three-record set.
JP: I’d be hard-pressed to recall every song on it – with London Calling I could probably eventually name every tune – but there are some songs that I go to, like “Lightning Strikes” – “Kingston Advice” is a song I think is really wicked that nobody ever picks out. What was really ballsy about that was they chased a double record with a triple. And they followed their nose, which is what everybody should do, I think. The whole challenge of being an artist is to not seize up, to keep your gears rolling. I think they did that. I think they were in a really creative place when they made that record, and whether or not it should’ve been a single record is kind of irrelevant. It’s more fun now to talk about it as a triple, isn’t it?
And then they followed it with Combat Rock, which is like, fuck off! [laughs – in a good way?] But part of what I tried to do with this record, and it’s for somebody else to tell me whether I did or not, was to make it as consistent as I could, and not have chaff on it. I did want all the songs to have a purpose to the greater picture. ‘Cos there’s not been a lot of triple records. People don’t tend to think in that duration, as being a viable form for a record. I just felt, if I could make a good triple-record, there aren’t too many people who’ve done that. I really do stand behind the record. Record number two, I think is for a specific mood. So some people might dismiss it if they’re not in the mood for it. But I’m proud of it.
SC: It’s gotta be a challenge get people to even consider listening to a three-record set.
JP: Absolutely. My concern with the record, I guess, in terms of releasing it, is that people might readily dismiss it. They didn’t, which is awesome. The reviews have been great. But I’m still a records person, and I love trying to create a little mystery and inhabit a world. If you make records people need to spend time with, you’ll have a real connection with those people, because they’ll have gleaned something from it.