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“This new record sums up everything I’ve done from folk to rock…” – talks to Joel Plaskett

Joel with an electric guitar pointing at a group of polaroids on the wall beside him

There are prolific and versatile performers and then there is Joel Plaskett, a one-man songwriting machine incapable of being bound by – or faithful to – a single genre. Whether he’s plying rock, folk, pop or some combination of the three, Plaskett, 39, precisely locates the sonic backdrop that best serves his lyrics, which also seem limitless in scope.

As a solo artist and also as a member first of indie-rock darlings Thrush Hermit and later, the Joel Plaskett Emergency, Plaskett has always followed his unique vision. Of course, it helped that his hometown of Halifax was the It town of the mid-1990s. That marquee status brought major label and mainstream media attention but Plaskett was skilled enough to keep the wheels greased even after the spotlight shifted.

The singer and multi-instrumentalist’s just-released sixth solo album, The Park Avenue Sobriety Test, may be his most ambitious yet, perfecting his kitchen-sink approach to writing and recording while teeing up cross-country tour. But it’s not too perfect. As the amiable Plaskett tells from Nova Scotia, sometimes rough edges are the most captivating thing.

From a songwriting perspective, this sounds like a pretty freewheeling record. Had these songs been kicking around for a while?

“The title track was one I had written about two years ago and I started playing it live shortly after that. But of all the songs, that was really the only one that appeared in the live show to any degree. ‘Alright/OK’ appeared a few months before recording. When it’s time to make a record I go to my iPhone and look at pieces, some of which are pretty close [to being finished] but I haven’t really tied them up in a bow. I tend to recycle phrases and look for something cohesive. Especially since I am diving into different genres; I feel like if there is a lyrical connection, things will make more sense.”

So given all that, how do you know when a song is finished?

“When I feel the words have said what they’re supposed to say in the context of however many minutes it’s going to be. Some songs are quite short – I mean, ‘The Last Phone Booth’ is kind of a joke at just 30 seconds and one lyric. It’s kind of cheeky (laughs). I guess I just have an instinct as a writer. The recording part is a whole other kettle of fish. Sometimes leaving rough edges in is important. Stuff that is too slick isn’t my cup of tea. We cut a lot of this record live so there are mistakes and studio banter in there but that brings a looseness that I really wanted. It also reflects the live show, because that’s how we do things live.”

There does seem to be an informality to this record…

“A lot of it was just people sitting around playing. A handful of tunes I worked up myself playing bass and drums but I didn’t want the whole thing to be that way. And I have a great band but I didn’t want it to be an Emergency record. In total there are about 20 people playing on the record – some throughout and others here and there. And for the most part people learned the songs and three hours later, they were on tape. It wasn’t like we were adding a bunch of overdubs. Many of the vocals were live as well. It was all about the take which was kind of a different experience for me. It’s kind of like how Bob Dylan and Neil Young record.”

I love the guitar sound on ‘Captains of Industry.’ Very atmospheric and distinct from the rest of the album… what’s up with that?

“Well (laughs) to be honest I was going to trim the guitar solo down but then it dawned on me that just how many f—king words there were on this record and people might appreciate a minute without them! I mean, I am pretty verbose. That song was a chance to do something a little more cinematic. I love the sound of that song and it took us hours to find it and lots of experimenting with mics. The drums have towels on them… it reminds me a little of Plastic Ono Band.”

Do you have a sense of how a new record is going to be received before you release it?

“Sort of. I mean, I know there are people out there who dig the aesthetic I have worked by in the past. That’s not to say I couldn’t completely falter and disappoint everybody. There are certain songs I hope will get out there because I feel like I’ve done something different with them. ‘Captains of Industry’ is like that and even though it wouldn’t make sense to put that song first on the record, I hope that people will dig deep enough to hear it. So far the response to this record has been encouraging. And I spend a lot of time putting things together – from the mixing to the artwork – in hopes of keeping listeners interested. It’s not Pop Music 101. And the variety of the music can make it a challenge to pitch to people. But people seem to be responding pretty well.”

If you had to pick one record from your catalogue to put in a time capsule to show future generations what this Joel Plaskett fellow was about, which would it be?

“Ha! Good question. Probably Three (a triple album from 2009) because it would mean I’d get more airtime with future generations. They wouldn’t get bored of me as quickly! This new record is my most nuanced… I’m not sure if that makes it better. It certainly sums up everything I have done across my career from rock to folk. I somehow managed to mash it all into one record and I think the theme of the record holds the variety together. So I am kind of proud of this one, too.”

by Kim,