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Joel Plaskett breaking new ground

Make no mistake, Joel Plaskett is a rocker at heart.

But from his early days with seminal alt-rockers Thrush Hermit, to his current incarnation of the Emergency — with a few folkie forays in between — the Nova Scotia indie darling has always been looking to break new ground.

And so he brings his latest, and most daring adventure to the hallowed halls of the NAC, where he’ll be trading in his jeans and plaid shirt for something a little more formal, with the famed NAC Orchestra providing the symphonic backdrop to his tunes.

It’s not completely foreign territory to Plaskett, who performed several concerts in a successful Pops series hosted by Symphony Nova Scotia back in 2006, with a reprise last fall.

“But I’ve never done anything with an orchestra outside of Nova Scotia, so it’s definitely a thrill to be bringing it to Ottawa,” said Plaskett from his Scotland Yard studio.

“I’m excited about it. I did a version of the show in September with the Nova Scotia Symphony, so some of the charts are the same (as the Symphony Nova Scotia show), and the conductor, Martin MacDonald is the same.

“I find the shows pretty nerve-wracking, to be honest, because you really have to stay on script. I don’t read music — I mean, I know my own tunes — but normally I would perform the songs either solo or with a band where you can play loose, you can take your time with things, where with an orchestra, you have to be disciplined.

“And there’s not a lot of rehearsal, because there’s so many people involved and you’re just doing it for one night. But it’s so thrilling when it’s actually happening. It’s such a different experience, and when you get to the point where you can just relax, it’s pretty fun as a singer just to have all that sound behind you.”

Joel Plaskett w/ the NAC Orchestra
With guests Mo Kenney, Erin Costelo, Bill Plaskett
NAC Southam Hall
Saturday, April 12, 8 p.m.

Most of the material will be drawn from Plaskett’s latest record, Scrappy Happiness, with a few arrangements still kicking around from the 2006 performance.

“There’s lots of songs on Scrappy Happiness that lend themselves well to the new arrangements, and then there’s a few that would be a little more of a risk, which is nice to challenge myself,” said Plaskett.

“There’s a few from (2005 solo record) La De Da, and a few of the better-known songs from the back catalogue. But some of the rocky, lighthearted stuff doesn’t translate as well. There’s a kind of formality to an orchestra.”

And while Plaskett promises some “big moments” in Saturday’s show, he cautions, this isn’t Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir.

“It’s probably more like the ‘60s pop stuff like Skeeter Davis, or the stuff Neil Young was doing on Harvest with the orchestra. A melancholy song with that kind of backing, you can close your eyes and pretend you’re Neil Young for five minutes.”

And while Plaskett has come to embrace the classical world, it’s not something that was part of his upbringing, describing the steady stream of folk-rock records spun by his father Bill, a fellow musician who will also appear as a guest at the NAC show, along with East-Coasters Mo Kenney and Erin Costelo.

“I appreciate classical music, but it’s a very different discipline and it’s not something I really grew up around. I’m a rocker and a folk guy, but for me the challenge of it was as much a part of wanting to do it as anything. Just doing something new.

“I like to challenge myself, to rethink my songs and come up with something different. It requires staying on script so much, and it’s not really in my nature to want to do that for very long.

“But for one night, it’s a pretty cool thing.”

by Aedan Helmer, Ottawa Sun