Sun goes down upon the bay
Looking for somewhere to play
I came here to bring the noise
To the island girls and the harbour boys
– Joel Plaskett, Harbour Boys
Joel Plaskett is a clear-voiced singer-songwriter whose music pulses with tight rhythm and guitar. His songs are alternately packed with hard-driving rock (Lightning Bolt from the album Scrappy Happiness) and searing emotion (the gorgeous Face of the Earth from Ashtray Rock). His lyrics can be poetic, funny and often both: the chorus of an early hit, also from Ashtray Rock, tells of “fashionable people doing questionable things.”
Plaskett built his career in the bars and clubs of Halifax more than 20 years ago, and today is highly respected on the Canadian indie scene. He’s won dozens of awards, including a JUNO and multiple East Coast Music Awards.
When the National Arts Centre asked him to do a show with the NAC Orchestra on April 12 as part of the NAC Presents series, he immediately said yes.
“I’m thrilled to be playing with the orchestra at the NAC in the nation’s capital,” he said. “Gigs don’t get more prestigious. Pressure’s on!”
Joking aside, gigs like this take more people to make them work, he said.
“It’s not about jamming or directing a few musicians to an end result. It’s obviously bigger and requires a lot more people be successful. The songwriter, the performer, the arranger, the conductor, all the musicians and people behind the scenes. It requires a lot of preparation, and everyone involved has to stay on script.”
He said his music changes in many ways when he’s playing with an orchestra, starting with the dynamics.
“Distortion, big drum beats and loud volume aren’t part of the equation, so some of the rockier numbers needed to be deconstructed. Parts that had previously been really loud might change into a quiet part, to give the arrangement room to develop. Other times the orchestral arrangements fit nicely over the basic rock arrangement.”
More Canada at the NAC
Simone Deneau, producer of the NAC Presents series which showcases some of the country’s greatest singer-songwriters, said that as the NAC gears up for the Road to 2019—a series of large national projects leading up to the NAC’s 50th anniversary—there is a desire to bring the arts to more Canadians, and more of Canada to the NAC. Her all-Canadian programming, full of iconic and emerging artists, is an intrinsic component of the NAC’s future.
Deneau had wanted to team up with the NAC Orchestra on a show with a contemporary Canadian artist for some time, and Plaskett was at the top of the list. Both have jam-packed schedules, so when the stars aligned this season, she and the music department were determined to make it happen.
“His music has an originality and virtuosity to it that stands out the minute you first hear it,” Deneau said. “I first saw him back in 2003 in Halifax and immediately was drawn to his music and his on-stage persona. He’s very genuine and compelling to watch.”
Merging Two Musical Worlds
Bringing together two very different artistic genres together on Canada’s national stage will reach a younger demographic, said Orchestra Manager Nelson McDougall.
“It’s a chance for us to demystify the classical music world for a new audience, and for that audience to hear the orchestra play this kind of music—that it’s not just about playing Beethoven and Mahler, and that we do collaborate with fresh, young artists in the pop/rock world.”
What’s it like when the Orchestra plays rock? It’s easier in some ways, but not all, said McDougall, a musician himself.
“It’s typically easier repertoire, but when you collaborate with different kinds of music there are different challenges. You’re working a band, there’s the onstage sound. As a musician you’re listening differently.”
It’s also fun. Many of the Orchestra’s younger musicians are fans, he said.
“Joel Plaskett has a lot of energy, and he writes great music. And if you look at the demographic of our orchestra, it’s not that different.”
For Plaskett, playing with an orchestra is about trying to relax and ease into their pace, as well as taking in the unique sound, he said.
“I tend to be kind of jumpy as a player and performer and the orchestra is naturally behind my beat. Another reason to relax is to try and listen and take in the depth of the arrangements, as it’s only happening that one night.”
The concert will be conducted by Martin MacDonald, a young Canadian artist who worked with Plaskett in a similar concert with Symphony Nova Scotia last fall. No stranger to the NAC, McDonald took part in the NAC’s Canadian Conductors Workshop and now makes his debut with the NAC Orchestra.
“It’s such a great honour to get to work with these first-rate musicians.” MacDonald said. “It’s a chance to collaborate with another type of artist and music, to merge our styles and cross boundaries with exciting and rewarding musical results.”
Joel Plaskett performs with the NAC Orchestra and special guests Bill Plaskett (his father) on guitar, Mo Kenney (guitars, voice) and Erin Costello (piano, voice) on April 14 as part of NAC Presents, in partnership with BMO Financial Group.
by Mary Gordon, NAC
photo by Aaron McKenzie Fraser