Sometimes you can polish the life out of a song. Artists can spend weeks rerecording a track at different beats and tempos, adding frills here and there, only to go back and realize the first take was the best.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell when good is good enough.
So when Joel Plaskett went into his New Scotland studio in Dartmouth, N.S., to record his latest CD, he decided to build some time limits into the equation — 10 songs in 10 weeks. He’d start work on a Thursday afternoon and have the song recorded, mixed and mastered within seven days. Then he’d go on to the next.
To ensure that he stuck to schedule, he made a deal with CBC Radio. He’d deliver a new song every Thursday as part of a weekly series on the making of the new album.
It would be a dramatic contrast to his previous album, Three, a thematic triple CD package that won critical praise and a host of awards and nominations Three was shortlisted for the 2009 Polaris Music Prize and won best contemporary album at the Canadian Folk Music Awards.
“Frankly, I knew Three was going to be a hard record to follow, considering the scope of it,” Plaskett, 37, says in an interview to promote his Oct. 19 concert at Hamilton Place. “I thought the best way to follow it, was just to do it, be in the moment, and not get hung up on some idea of perfection …”
“For the most part, I figured that if I got a version of a song I was happy with, it didn’t have to be perfect. The idea of ‘what is definitive’ is really weird. I’ve never been able to answer that for myself. Versions change nightly when you play. Having produced several records both for myself and other artists, I’ve come to realize that there’s a bunch of different ways you can record a song.
“So I just had to find one that works in a week.”
The end product is called Scrappy Happiness and contains some of Plaskett’s strongest work in a 20-year career that began in 1992 with his Halifax indie band, Thrust Hermit. There’s a raw rock ‘n’ roll energy on tracks like Lightning Bolt, You’re Mine, Tough Love and North Star. Other tracks, like Harbour Boys and I’m Yours, demonstrate Plaskett’s gentler singer-songwriter side.
During the recording of Scrappy Happiness, Plaskett chronicled his experiences each week through a video blog on his website. Fans were able to follow the progress of sessions with Plaskett’s band The Emergency, as well as late night dashes to the grocery store. They got to know New Scotland Studio, the one-room rented shack in which they worked, and the mechanical toy monkey that inhabited it.
At times, Plaskett looked like he wouldn’t be able to make his self-imposed deadlines.
On the folksy I’m Yours, Plaskett called in his father, Bill, late on a Tuesday night minute to help with the guitar melody.
“That was a last minute decision,” Plaskett admits. “I didn’t know what I was going to do on I’m Yours. I needed something steady to make it work, so I called him my father to play on it. That really glued it together and that was a totally last-minute decision. It’s moments like that that makes the record still feel alive when I listen to it now.”