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Uptown Music Feature "C'mon, get scrappy"

The Joel Plaskett Emergency lets loose and turns up the rock ’n’ roll for Scrappy Happiness

Nova Scotia’s favourite son Joel Plaskett surprised music critics and fans alike with the 2009 release of Three — an ambitious, sprawling triple (!) concept album. In an era of iTunes singles and digital EPs, it was a risky move but ultimately a rewarding one, netting Plaskett a Juno award and a Polaris Music Prize nomination.

Coming off such a studio opus, it makes sense that Plaskett, 37, would want to change gears for his latest LP, Scrappy Happiness. So, he enlisted Dave Marsh and Chris Pennell — aka his longtime backing band The Emergency — to record a meat-and-potatoes, 10-song, 40-minute rock album.

“This was a band record so there was definitely a big shift in approach,” Plaskett says. “Three was more about the bigger picture of telling a story. This record was about three-piece band arrangements. There are guitar solos, big drum fills — things that weren’t on Three. With this, I didn’t want it to be so sprawling.”

While Scrappy Happiness has a decidedly shorter running time than its epic predecessor, it’s no less ambitious. Inspired by a ’50s and ’60s-era release model in which singles went from the studio to the public in very little time, The Joel Plaskett Emergency recorded, mixed, mastered and released one song per week for 10 consecutive weeks, culminating in the full-length release of Scrappy Happiness on March 27.

“I wanted there to be less mystery about the process, like, ‘Here’s everything! Once a week!’” Plaskett says with a laugh. “That was the intention, to do something different.”

There was also little room for toiling and over-thinking in the studio. For this project, spontaneity was key.

“That was by design — I mean, I can over-think,” Plaskett acknowledges. “There are certain things I’m controlling about — but I’m not a perfectionist, per se. I just don’t know what I want to hear until I find it, if that makes sense. I could have chased certain aspects of that but there’s a point where you have to let go and trust that the song is good. If I had done the album in a different order, it’d be different. The nature of recording is always changing.”

While it ended up being another ambitious undertaking in the end, Plaskett says the Rock ’n’ Roll in Record Time experiment was a fun one, despite the hard deadlines.

“It was cool — and it was pretty painless. Every Thursday we’d get together, and then I’d take what we worked on as a group and finish the song over the weekend,” he explains. (The song would actually make its debut on CBC Radio 2’s Drive with Rich Terfry on Thursday evening, and then Plaskett would mix and master it for its iTunes release the following Tuesday.) “It’s our record but they’re my songs, so I felt the responsibility to finish them. It was really positive. Sometimes it’s faster to execute things on your own, but I wanted to involve the guys.”

As for the end result, Scrappy Happiness has the same youthful spirit and joie de vivre that made 2007’s Ashtray Rock a modern CanRock classic. From the riff-rocking Lightning Bolt through to the hyper-melodic Somewhere Else, the electricity — and yes, the magic — that’s created when musicians get together in a room reverberates throughout the entire album. Scrappy Happiness is a record made with love.

“I wanted to take joy in the project and I think it shows,” Plaskett says. “When I got the title in my mind, it was kind of liberating. It tied it up in a bit of a bow. I love when that happens.”

by Jen Zoratti