Imperfection seems a dangerous aspiration.
Sure, perfection may be unattainable, but at least holding it as a goal might keep you on the right path, if there is such a thing.
But for seasoned indie rocker Joel Plaskett, imperfection was the focus all along on his latest album, Scrappy Happiness, released March 27. And it worked, if positive reviews are any indication.
“Often, the things you like or love or that make you happy are the things that aren’t glossed over or have all the edges sanded off,” he said on the phone from his home in Dartmouth, N.S.
Plaskett and his band the Emergency (drummer Dave Marsh and bassist Chris Pennell) kick off a cross-country tour Friday in Victoria, hometown of Plaskett’s wife, Rebecca Kraatz.
Some songs, such as Tough Love, reflect that sentiment in content. But there was also an inherent acceptance of imperfection in the process. Plaskett held himself to a strict and demanding schedule that meant writing, recording and releasing one song per week for 10 consecutive weeks.
He says he was inspired by the single-driven release of music in the 1960s and early ’70s, when it was delivered rapidly from studio to audience. Plus, limitation is healthy for an artist – it prevents too much overthinking and secondguessing. Even more than that, though, was the pressure for a strong follow to 2009’s enormously ambitious triple-disc release, Three, which earned Joel Plaskett Emergency a Juno Award and a spot on the Polaris Prize short list.
“Frankly, Three was a hard record to follow,” he said. “It was long and sprawling and ambitious.”
He knew whatever he released would face enormous scrutiny – not just from critics, but from himself. “So I thought, well, what’s the way not to scrutinize it? To not have time. And that just led me to this project.”
Plaskett, often called the hardest-working musician in Canada, obviously isn’t afraid to push himself, and setting personal challenges is nothing new. Aside from putting out Three, he once performed six consecutive shows at Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern – each night, one of his albums in full. With a strong foothold in the industry – from his start in 1992 with band Thrush Hermit and move to Neuseiland in 1998, before moving into the solosphere – he’s got some freedom to experiment.
One such experiment, aside from the crank’emout work ethic, was to document his Scrappy Happiness experience through video and blogging. While some artists prefer to build mystique around their creative process, Plaskett has laid it all out there – perhaps in the tradition of the do it yourself punk scene he grew from. He says he’s tired of musicians acting “precious” about their work – although there should always be substance, even in the presence of gimmicks.
“This blogging almost works at odds with creating mystery around yourself, which is what you’re supposed to do,” he said. “A lot of people play it cool and that’s great. But I always like guys like Chuck Berry – I mean, he has a song called My Ding-A-Ling and it’s still good. You know? – The point where My Ding-A-Ling meets After the Gold Rush by Neil Young, is kind of where I want to hang out.”
There’s certainly a nostalgic element on the 36 year-old’s latest album, too, with lyrics such as, “The needle drops on Hüsker Dü/ They were my favourite band / I’m travelling through space and time to keep my love alive.” But more than that, he says, it’s about being in the present.
“I wanted the record to feel like a scrapbook, in some way, of these memories, but also to have it exist in the present,” he said.
“The way I figure out what I’m doing is by looking at the things I’ve done. And I like connecting the dots between them, if you know what I mean. That’s why I recycle lyrics and ideas sometimes.”
Melodies echoing 2007’s Ashtray Rock crop up again here, too, he said. But Plaskett points to artists such as Bruce Springsteen who regularly “repeats” himself.
“A lot of the guys I admire would certainly mine their own past and their own mythology that they kind of create through records,” he said.
by A. Smart