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Exclaim! Interviews Joel Plaskett

Joel Plaskett is done second-guessing himself. The darling of Dartmouth’s 2009 album, Three, was a boundless sprawl of 27 songs on three separate disks. Three years later, he’s daring to show some restraint. Plaskett’s latest release, Scrappy Happiness, consists of ten songs recorded over the course of ten weeks, all of which debuted on CBC Radio shortly after they were finished, leaving no time for self-doubt. “The motivation was to do something in the moment that came out as in the moment as possible; to not toil and second-guess myself and to do something that was different from the last sprawling record,” he says. “At the end of it, there are just ten songs.”

With self-doubt out and the Emergency back in, Plaskett’s affinity for never doing the same thing thrice remains a self-innovating challenge, just a more focused one. “I like making stuff. It’s nice to keep creating and presenting things in different ways,” he says. “You always look at things in hindsight and think that they could be different or better. It’s nice to do something and then move on.”

What are you up to?

Today I was working on the edit for a video that’s going to be downloadable when people buy the CD. There’s a little extra content for people who buy a physical copy of [Scrappy Happiness]. So I’ve been working on that ? it’s an eight-song acoustic video.

Also on the horizon before I go on tour in April, I have to finish producing this record for a gal named Mo Kenny. We’ve been chipping away at it for the last year, in my spare time and hers. It’s a record we’ve been working hard on. I’m proud of what we’ve got so far. I’m producing it and I play a bunch of the rhythm section instruments on it. She’s a great guitar player and singer and has some really cool songs. It’s just been kind of a Scotland Yard [Records] plunky production. It’s her first album, so what’s cool is that she has a sound and a way that she plays but there’s no preconceived idea of what she’s supposed to sound like. It’s fun for me as a producer. If I play a rhythm track on a song of hers, she’s like, “cool, a rhythm track,” as opposed to, “you’re not as good as my old drummer.” It’s been really cool.

What are your current fixations?

A writer named Denis Johnson. I’ve read all of his books, although I’m still looking for his early collection of poetry. He’s really amazing. Probably the most famous thing of his is a short story collection called Jesus’ Son, which turned into a film at one point. That’s one current fixation. And a writer named William Gay, who just passed away. I’ve been watching and reading a bunch of stuff about him online, because I love his writing so much. Musically my most recent fixation ? and it’s cool because I haven’t had something new that I’ve been into for a long time ? is a songwriter named Todd Snider. This guy’s been around awhile. I saw him once but was reminded of him because I was reading a William Gay article about him. He just put out a record called Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables. He’s really amazing. I’ve been listening to that record and watching some stuff online about him. One fixation led to another. William Gay led me to him, which is kind of nice, when you go poking about and something that you like leads you toward something else that you like. I loved Tree of Life. That was probably the last movie I saw in the theatre. It blew my mind.

Why do you live where you do?

[Dartmouth, Nova Scotia] is the world that I know, first and foremost. Comfort, right? Familiarity is really important for me. There’s enough bustle here to keep me interested, but I also get to go away. When I return here, the pace of Dartmouth is really great. It’s not fast-paced. One really great thing about Dartmouth is its proximity to Halifax, which has a little more bustle to it. Dartmouth feels like a small town right next to a bigger city, and not even that big a city. And frankly, my community of friends. I just know so many people here. It would be tough to leave.

Name something you consider a mind-altering work of art.

The graphic novel Snaps, by Rebecca Kraatz. I’m biased, she’s my wife. But that’s a really amazing book.

What has been your most memorable or inspirational gig and why?

Springsteen at the Philly Spectrum about two-and-a-half years ago. Two nights in a row ? one night on the floor and the next night in the stands. Me and Pete Elkas went down as well as JC from the Horseshoe and a handful of other people. I’d only ever heard about how good Springsteen’s shows were, and it was beyond my expectations. I’m not a church-going man, but there was an element of “People are going to church right now.” There was a bit of an education there as far as him out-rocking anyone 30 years his junior.

For those fans who make the wise choice to pick up the physical version of Joel Plaskett’s new Scrappy Happiness album, they will be pleased to know that the Canadian songwriting hero has recorded an acoustic session video to be included with the release.

“I just thought it would be nice to add a little more content,” Plaskett tells Exclaim! “We wanted to create something for the people who buy the physical CD.”

The simple eight-song acoustic set features some new songs and some old, and is meant to offer fans a glimpse of “the songwriter at work,” explains Plaskett.

“I just like making stuff,” he continues. “It’s nice to keep creating and presenting things in different ways.”

Plaskett says he wrote most of Scrappy Happiness on an acoustic guitar, and that a cordless add-on set will let fans hear how his songs sound before they reach the studio.

“What I hear a lot these days is music that sounds either hi-fi or produced. But at the heart of it, I don’t really hear a great song, or I don’t hear a lot of melody. Or I don’t hear the words,” Plaskett says. “There’s a lot of different ways that people listen to music — not everything is supposed to be about words. But what I like about music are things like melody and language and tension. I like rock’n’roll. I like guitar solos, and that all goes into the frame. If people like the songs, it just gives them another version of it.”

While the noble effort will undoubtedly make diehard fans very happy, Plaskett himself has resigned to the ways of the internet. “I’m sure it’ll end up on YouTube the day after it comes out,” he says of the video.

by Carly Lewis, Exclaim!