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Q & A: Joel Plaskett talks to Aux

There’s something very modern about Joel Plaskett’s new album Scrappy Happiness, one that was actually inspired by the rapid-fire singles-driven method of releasing music in the 60s and early 70s—this past January, each week, for ten weeks Plaskett and his band the Emergency recorded and delivered a new song to CBC radio. During the process, Plaskett blogged and made videos for his website, and only at the end of it did he have the time to listen back closely and “toil,” as he described it, but by that point, it was too late. And that was sort of the point.

Coming off his watershed (and Polaris shortlisted) 2009 triple album Three, the prolific Halifax singer/songwriter wanted a new studio approach; he ended up with a project every bit as ambitious as Three, and for the album’s official release today, we sat down with Plaskett last week—the day after he played atop the CN Tower for Canadian Music Week‘s kickoff—to talk about the process of making the real-time album, his deeply ingrained DIY approach, and how he’s paying forward the great music mentorship he received in the Halifax music boom of the early 90s from fellow hometown heroes Sloan.

AUX: How does it feel to be done the album?

Joel Plaskett: It’s really nice to be done. It was a fun, cool challenge. It’s a bit of a blur. The thing that I’m enjoying now is that it’s done, and it’s still super fresh. I sequenced the record at the end of it, and now it’s coming out on Tuesday. I haven’t had time to think about it, but now other people are hearing it. There was feedback to the songs every week which was cool. It’s taken on a life and energy on its own without me waiting six months and wondering if people were going to like it. I wrote the songs and I stand behind them. I like the recordings, but there’s stuff I would totally change now.

Was that kind of part of the point, to not worry about that?

That was the point. I think, really, a lot of the records that I admire, and the singles I admire, that people were doing in the 60s and 70s, they were doing it between gigs. Small Faces were probably like, ‘we need a song! The Beatles just put out a song! We need something new!’ A record might be a collection of singles in 1968. That’s only when people started composing records proper. I thought it would be neat to have some of that element. I don’t think they had the time to toil. If you got Dylan’s Self Portrait you might be like, ‘what the hell’s this about? What a weird record.’ But you’d think, ‘he’ll put out another one in six months.’ Even if somebody didn’t put their best foot forward and you didn’t understand it, it was okay. Now it’s like the momentum is spread out over so long.

There can be such huge expectations on every release. For the Radioheads of the world anyway.

My music’s never really been about that level of drama in the presentation and the sound. It’s been more about lyrics and stories and a through line. Of course Radiohead are on some other, huge level. But I’ve always loved regional music that feels like it tells the story of a neighbourhood or a person in a place.

It’s interesting that the inspiration for this project comes from the past, because it kind of lines up with the way music is disseminated now.

In some ways, I’m surprised, when I put the project together, that it got the attention that it did. I would have thought that somebody else would have done the exact same thing. Other people have done weekly and monthly projects, but nothing that I really heard about in Canada on any level. I got the idea maybe a year and a half ago or more. I didn’t want it to be gimmicky, but it made sense, after Three, to make something with another angle, that people could still have something to talk about. I just thought this made sense in the age we’re in. But the album is still a thing I really cling to, and I wanted to hold up the record at the end of it all.

Will the videos be turned into anything full length?

Maybe at some point I’ll curate those into a DVD or something. The CD comes with a downloadable video of me performing a lot of the songs acoustic. I’m sure someone will just upload that to YouTube anyway, and that’s fine. A lot of the videos were filmed on the front camera on the iPhone, so if you put it on a TV screen it’ll look horrible.

Did you find churning out the song a week, getting it to radio, and worrying about shooting and editing a video, and blogging, was there any point that it felt a bit more mechanical than you prefer when making records?

There were moments that I didn’t feel like doing it, but I had to. Frankly, more than anything, I got sick of hearing myself talk and looking at the videos. A lot of it was just me goofing off, singing to the camera. I just get giddy at the end of the day and act stupid. I could feel myself getting annoyed with myself, and I thought other people would too. But I was determined to see it through, even at the risk of overexposing my creative process, and pretty much debunking any mystery that I might have around what I do, but at the same time, if everyone sees how it’s done, they can go do it themselves. It’s not rocket science, it’s a process.

I can see a bit of the mindset that would have influenced you, that punk scene you sort of came up in, in this. That 90s sort of deconstruction mindset.

That’s it. Neil Young still has a lot of mystery around him. Led Zeppelin is mysterious as hell, I don’t understand them, and that’s probably my favourite band. And I’m working opposite that. But I came out of the 90s. Everything got debunked and destroyed. Anything that was cocky, everything just became less glamorous. We were just punk kids rolling around. We reacted to that pretty quickly, people jumping on that indie bandwagon, and thought it was lame even as we were deconstructing it. But at a certain point, you step away from all that opinion, and you just want to focus on and talk about what’s good, and what you like. I admire exuberance, so now I try to approach it as positively as I can.

And you mentioned earlier really like telling the stories of communities. You’re sort of working towards curating that on another level with your label [New Scotland Records].

That’s what I hope to do anyway, that’s the impetus behind it.

It’s interesting because you came from the same sort of scene, with Sloan’s Murderecords, and now you’re the sole one remaining, and you’re building something similar.

I feel really lucky to have come out of the scene that I did. When I think about Sloan, and what those guys did for the scene, and the fact that they’re still making cool records and doing what they do—they brought their friends along for the ride, and I was one of them. Thrush Hermit was one of them. That set me up. That whole learning curve that I had, with that band. Because of the generousity, the community feeling that the Sloan guys brought to it. But they were selective, too. We were snobs back then, thought we were the coolest. We were hard on people. But what they brought, that was a really cool thing. That curation that they had was a really cool thing, and I got to the point where I could put a bit more back into the community, and just create something different that stems from that.

It’s nice to be able to recognize that, and when you can do it for someone else.

I think for me that’s it. And just to stay busy, frankly. I like to have a number of disciplines that are all connected. The studio, the stage, a record label now, which is still just a work in progress.

Did you ever move from Halifax?

I never left. I’ve been in Dartmouth since 2002, but I’ve never moved anywhere.

Did you consider it, seeing everyone else leave?

The only thing Thrush Hermit ever talked about was like, going to L.A. for six months, but we all decided we didn’t want to. I’ve always felt Halifax to be big enough for me. That enthusiasm that the audiences and the community has shown towards me—from The Coast, to the East Coast Music Awards, to my peers there—I’ve always been able to do pretty much whatever I want in that town. People have always been so receptive to it. You don’t have the same touring opportunities or the industry machination as you maybe would in a bigger city.

Do you think a physical proximity to things like that would have changed your approach too much?

Having my own studio space, and have a city that’s not super expensive to live in, all that stuff, the hustle is just different [in Toronto]. People work long days here. I work hard too, but I’m able to do it kind of for myself. The pressure’s on me to continue, it’s my livelihood, but I don’t think I would trade what I have. Toronto’s a great city and I love it, but I’ve found what works. I’ve figured it out.

by Nicole Villeneuve