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The Power of Three

Joel Plaskett launches his new solo triple disc tonight, then heads out on the road

Sitting down for a quick double espresso before dashing off to visit Breakfast Television, Joel Plaskett has a bit of that thousand-yard stare going on this grey Monday morning.

It’s been a busy weekend getting recordings he’s produced for P.E.I. guitar-pop band Two Hours Traffic ready for mixing in Vancouver, and he’s coming out of a long hibernation in his Dartmouth studio working with other acts, including Steve Poltz, Tyler Messick, Myles Deck and the Fuzz and Yellow Jacket Avenger.

But the bulk of his time has been spent putting the finishing touches on his new project Three, a solo triple-disc set of new material that goes on sale today and gets launched tonight with an invitation-only event at The Carleton in Halifax.

“Basically I’m sick of the studio and I can’t wait to get out on the road,” says Plaskett, feeling the caffeine take effect.

Like La Di Da, his previous album without the rock solid backing of the Joel Plaskett Emergency, Three ranges further afield with more acoustic songs and intimate confessionals covering a wide range of lyrical ground, from his relationship with the road to thoughts on mortality (or metaphorically, the end of the road).

Unlike previous triple albums like George Harrison’s wings-spreading All Things Must Pass or the Clash’s cross-genre blowout Sandinista, Three is expansive without seeming sprawling or just killing time.

“I really felt like I wanted to do something more ambitious and I knew there were only a handful of triple records,” says the winner of the 2009 ECMA entertainer of the year honour. “I don’t think the Clash thought any of the material on Sandinista was filler, I think a lot of it is just them experimenting. It’s still an amazing work of art but it’s not chock full of hits; it’s not London Calling.

“I don’t know if I can look at my record with enough distance to determine if I’ve done the same thing, but I really did try to make it as consistent as possible. It’s not a bunch of outtakes and jams, they’re all songs that have a place on the record.”

The concept of “three” plays out in a number of different ways here. Besides the trio of discs — which will eventually also be a triple LP with unique artwork — Plaskett says he wrote 33 songs, recorded 30 and whittled that down to 27 (which also happens to be three to the power of three), while the remainder will appear on an EP titled Three More From Three. But there’s also the idea that our lives are past, present and future, and stories (and songs) have a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s a concept listeners can take any number of ways.

“You have two people in a relationship, but that creates this third thing, a couple,” says Plaskett. “For me there’s the individual, plus love for the people you care about in life, and the thing you do on a daily basis that defines you as an artist, and there’s a selfish balance between them that you wrestle with.

“That weaves its way into the songs, finding out what your priorities are: as a musician, you care about art and making it really good, but you don’t want to make that the only thing.”

Groundwork for Three was laid in February, 2008 when Plaskett was in Memphis for Folk Alliance, and he dropped by the studio of his friend Doug Easley, who’d recorded his old band Thrush Hermit’s Elektra Records release Sweet Homewrecker. After those first few tracks, he started organizing his new pieces in terms of mood and theme, with an eye towards doing an acoustic record with his dad, folk musician Bill Plaskett. But as more ideas emerged, he started going back to notes and snatches of song ideas sung into a hand-held recorder.

“I kept writing a lot, sometimes just staring at a blank piece of paper, thinking about the order and imagining what else I could come up with to complete the narrative thread.

I love to think of records like that, with the songs and then the exaggerated big picture that you have to step back a bit to see.” Helping to complete that picture are prominent vocal parts by Halifax’s Rose Cousins and Saskatchewan-born/Brooklyn-based Ana Egge, with father Bill on guitar, tin whistles on Sailor’s Eyes by Jon Goodman and Roy McLaren, pedal steel by Dale Murray, fiddle and banjo by J. P. Cormier and fiddler Amy Lounder from the Smokin’ Contra Band. Dave Marsh and Chris Pennell from the Emergency rejoin Plaskett for the final song On and On and On, symbolizing a return home and also pointing the way towards the next record.

On and On and On also serves as a kind of musical epitaph for lost loved ones, including Plaskett’s grandmother who died a year-and-a-half ago, friend and Halifax musician and artist Scott Tappen and filmmaker Helen Hill. “As I was writing I thought it would be fitting to roll in tributes to all those people,” he says. “It’s not like I’ve lost a lot of people in my life, but you always remember those people who are your age and from your . . . I guess peer group, who die, and it really affects you.

“I was blessed as a kid not to lose anyone close to me in my family or as a friend. My grandparents in England died but I didn’t get to see them much and it was kind of a distant loss, but when my grandfather here passed away that was my first loss of someone really close. Then when Scott died, it was a shock to lose somebody from our scene. It felt appropriate to add them, but it’s also a playful song; I liked the idea of celebrating people as opposed to being ‘Woe is me.’ There’s already a lot of that on record number two.”

Plaskett fans will get the chance to experience the sound of Three in concert when he heads out on the road with his dad, Cousins and Egge in April, with the last date taking place at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium on May 3.

by Stephen Cooke