Interview: Steven Page
The Barenaked Ladies founder and recent Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee will take the stage on Friday night at Thirty One West in Newark
Among the distinctive voices that are woven into the tapestry of Canadian music, Steven Page’s richly hued tenor owns a rightful strand for its versatility and eloquence. As a founding member of and principal vocalist and songwriter for the Barenaked Ladies, his creative DNA is permanently attached to a catalog that helped to create the country’s modern musical landscape. Very few of his contemporaries could shift so effortlessly between the quick-witted quirk necessary to pull off a song like “If I Had $1,000,000” or “One Week,” and the sensitive urgency that makes “Call And Answer” or “The Flag” so beautifully reflective.
But, after he parted ways with BNL in 2009, forging a new path as a solo artist that had spent two decades as a major creative force in a massively successful band had its share of challenges. He spoke openly early on about the discomfort he’d experienced artistically and personally in that transition.
“Yeah, I think I’m open to everything, which was one of the great things that was possible when I split from the Barenaked Ladies,” Page explains during our afternoon phone conversation while on a break from a production project in Toronto.
So, the first thing I did after I split from the group was call my agent and say, ‘Can you book me on as many folk festivals as you can across Canada?’ And so he did that, and I did Edmonton and Winnipeg and Mariposa, and all kinds of smaller ones, as well. And I called my friend Kevin Fox, who I’d known since the days when he was playing with Sarah Harmer, and asked if he wanted to come and play cello with me on those shows, which he did. And so he and I have been working together since about 2009.
And the reason I did those is because I wanted to show people that I could do this, that I was capable. And I needed to show myself that I could do it, that I could just get out there and make music. And I also to show people who I am. When you’re a fan of a band and you’re not a die hard fan, you don’t necessarily think about who sings what or who brings what to the band and what their contributions are about — they just like the whole. And this was an opportunity for them to go, ‘Oh, he’s that guy. He does that thing I like. Okay. That’s good.’ It didn’t instantly turn me into a superstar, but I also realized at that point I was on the verge of 40 and that it’s a different world.”
Page’s first studio album arrived about a year later. And last month, he released Discipline: Heal Thyself, Pt. II, a companion to 2016’s Heal Thyself Pt. I: Instinct.
“Craig Northey of The Odds was my production partner on it, but a lot of it was spent with me sitting by myself in front of my computer working on stuff. I can be a bit of a perfectionist at times, but at the same time I’m a bit of a mess, too [laughs]. And I’m a fan of the kitchen sink, so it was nice to have someone like Craig there to say, ‘Uh…there’s too much stuff there.’
But it’s allowed me to have fun making music by myself, and then being able to turn to whoever I like, whether it’s The Odds on this record, or people like Kevin Fox on cello or Bryden Baird on horns, and say, ‘What do you have to offer for this? I can hear you doing something, but what can you present?’
I feel like everything you do as a solo artist is collaborative, still, but you get to choose who you collaborate with.”
Discipline… is a fulfilling, diverse collection of songs, rife with astute political observation and honest personal reflection, spearheaded by the rapid flurry of buzzy guitars on its first single “White Noise.” Those craving Page’s bold canniness won’t be disappointed, especially when his searing commentary (and plenty of profanity) meets a colorful and nearly comedic Bossa Nova Rhodes line on “You Fucked Yourself;” or “Done,” which flips an unflinching middle finger at its subject against a dreamy retro waltz backdrop. “Nothing Special” is wonderfully catchy, well-crafted pop, with a great bass-and-drum shuffle. And “Looking For The Light” is a perfect showcase for Page’s soulful vocals, leaving room for some satisfying histrionics near its end. While the album’s tempo shifts regularly, it’s all smart and precisely produced.
For the next little while, he’ll be on the road supporting Discipline… On Friday night, the Steven Page Trio will play Thirty One West in Newark.
“The Trio show, which is what I’m bringing to town, is me, Kevin Fox on cello, and Craig Northey on guitar,” he clarifies. “I think some people, when you say ‘trio’ and there’s no drummer, assume it’s kind of mellow and adult. And it has elements of that, but for the most part it still has the energy of a rock show; it just has the intimacy of a hang with friends, too. And if people want to know what I’m playing, I’m playing everything back from [the Barenaked Ladies’ debut studio album] Gordon, all the way up to the new album.”
You’ve chosen “White Noise” as the first single from the new album. I can probably guess how the title applies to our current political climate on a few different levels, but I wanted to hear how it developed as a song from your own perspective.
“Well, I mean as a song, it was written specifically as a response to the events in Charlottesville last year. I had thought, ‘Maybe I should just finish this track off and put it out right away.’ I kind of felt a sense of urgency about it. But then, of course, what happens as you listen to it more, you start to think, ‘Well, does anyone care what I have to say, first of all?’ And it became in a lot of ways, although musically different than most of the rest of the record…it was a jumping off point for me. I needed to explore a lot of those questions I have about…I have certain sets of values that are constantly being kind of shaken or challenged. And I think a lot of people feel the same way, and it’s very easy to be cynical and hopeless and disengaged.
When I was living in Canada, I was a very politically active person. I moved to the United States where I have a green card, but, you know, being down here for this long I’ve lost, thanks to [former Canadian Prime Minister] Steven Harper, my right to vote in Canada. So, it’s like you have no voice. The easy thing to do is to jump on social media and say something about your outrage, and open yourself up to trolls and arguments and stuff that, honestly, is kind of counterproductive. And with my thin skin, I can’t quite cope with it anyway [laughs], so why bother? It always seems so…it seems even more trite. And there are times when I listen to ‘protest music’ and think, ‘Yeah, good luck with that‘ when it sounds so idealistic.
So, I kind of tried to explore the gray area in between, so for me the song ‘White Noise’ was inspired by The Jam or The Clash or those kinds of groups that I felt like had the most integrity in making that kind of music. And now, we’re in an era where people are trying to make it about binaries, black and white, when there’s really so much gray area that’s worth exploring.”
The new record Discipline… is a response to or, maybe better, an evolution from your last album, Heal Thyself, Pt.1: Instinct. If I’m assuming correctly that those titles are autobiographical and contend with your growth and self-reflection, what has your artistic trajectory looked like in between those projects? What has pushed you from ‘instinct’ to ‘discipline’ in practice?
“The ‘instinct’ is about kind of like your desire to…or the way that I think a lot of us move through life. You just kind of go and take what comes at you, and then when you have to stand back later in life and go, ‘How did I become this way? What made me decide to live this life?’ Or be someone in the arts where that’s a difficult endeavor that looks so privileged and so easy, and that there’s nothing to complain about, but you’re putting yourself out there. So, that side of the record was me trying to figure out how I could be okay with the choices I’ve made, or what kind of person I am, or what life I live.
But ‘heal thyself’ is kind of ironic, where as ‘discipline’ is about creating some sense of order. And, honestly, the amount of touring I’ve done over the past couple of years and the different musicians I’ve played with has encouraged me to create a more disciplined schedule, and I have to take the idea of work a little more seriously and not quite as laughably.”
When the Barenaked Ladies were in town last, I interviewed Tyler [Stewart] and told him that those early BNL recordings were the first ones I remember strongly identifying as uniquely Canadian in their point of view, as opposed to just being music that was being played by a band that happened to be from Canada. What were some of the ones you remember that changed your thinking or understanding of music in that sense?
“Canadian music for me was…looking back at 1983 or 1984, so much of what was on, you know, in the early days of MuchMusic and those video chart shows that were on TV and so on seemed incredibly derivative of other music around the world. And I think that was just the state of the Canadian music business — the record companies, the Canadian branches of the international companies, as well as the independent labels, were trying to sign acts that sounded like, ‘We need our own version of The Police’…or whatever else.
But, there were acts that sparked my imagination that had some popularity, but maybe not the same, were bands like Rough Trade, or Martha and the Muffins. You know, Martha and the Muffins and a lot of stuff that was produced by Daniel Lanois, too, and you can hear the influence of things like Talking Heads and Brian Eno’s stuff, and world music and so on. But, that made a huge impact on me.
But we started being aware of what was on the streets in Toronto, whether it was bands like L’Étranger, which later became Andrew Cash solo, or the Grievous Angels on the other side. And then bands like Blue Rodeo and The Tragically Hip that became…not exactly our peers, but our big brothers who were slightly ahead of us, like our tougher, older brothers. I think those bands really carried on the tradition of Canadian music, which was to take this kind of Canadian observer point of view of American music, particularly.”
I grew up in Winnipeg and I have some vivid points of reference of things that I’ve experienced that none of my friends or family in the United States would really know about unless I told them. What would you articulate, culturally or otherwise, as being a singular Canadian idea or happening that wouldn’t exist elsewhere?
“Well, you know, it’s a funny thing now. We’re at a really interesting juncture of Canadian history. Again, I’m observing it from the outside, mostly. We grew up as Canadians being educated to be anti-American, really, in a way that we didn’t understand. But there was a sense of superiority, you know, and we knew that we could observe and consume American culture, we got American TV channels and could make fun of their accents and whatever else while we watched the news. We knew everything about Buffalo, New York growing up in Toronto, because that’s where we saw most of our entertainment, and so on. But, at the same time, all those kind of kitschy Canadian things that the Barenaked Ladies capitalized on in the early 90s — Vashon cakes or Hickory Sticks or whatever else…or road hockey — it was quaint and fun, and that was a part of our charm to people. The fact that we weren’t pretending to be from somewhere else and we were honest about our suburban, almost small town, Canadian nature.
But now what we’re seeing, with the advent of [the] Truth and Reconciliation [Commission], is that’s white Canada’s view of Canada. And it’s a very narrow view of what Canadian culture is — it’s what we’ve imposed on the country. It’s a little bit harder to feel a light-hearted sense of ownership over it when you realize that, to other people, it seems oppressive. And we’re finally able to hear those other voices now. It doesn’t make me ashamed of Hickory Sticks [laughs]…”
And we shouldn’t be [laughs]…
“But how we got there is something we need to take another look at. And where we go forward from there, and how do we include other people’s Canadian experiences, whether it’s indigenous or immigrant experiences?”
I think those are excellent and important questions. I’ve referenced a much lighter anecdote where my dad is listening to the Winnipeg Jets game on AM radio through these big doughnut-cupped headphones while watching it on Hockey Night In Canada on the French CBC station.
“That’s right, because it’d be blacked out on local TV…of course…”
Absolutely. I know that’s not exactly pivotal commentary on issues of national interest, but it was Canadian life personified in our house, at least [laughs].
“That’s a great image, especially in a pre-internet time. And we had, I think, a greater connection, coast-to-coast-to-coast, than a lot of Americans had. [They] had nightly news, and so on, but things like grass-roots music and arts coverage from things like CBC Radio — if you were highfalutin enough in a city to listen to CBC Radio, you had it. But if you were in small town Canada, that’s all you had a lot of times, was that access. So, that emphasis on culture and arts was, I think, far more appreciated by rural Canada and the north than it was in rural United States.”
I know much of your time these past couple of weeks has been dedicated to working on a musical for the Stratford Festival…
“Actually, I’ve been working on two different musicals at once. One is virtually completed and we workshopped it a few times at the Stratford Festival, and it’s called Here’s What It Takes, and I wrote it with Daniel MacIvor, the Canadian playwright. It should be hopefully on stage at Stratford either next season or the season after. I’m going to guess the 2020 season. And then I’m working on writing lyrics and music for another musical with some New York producers that I probably can’t announce yet, but I just finished an intensive writing retreat with all of them trying to get my head around what songs work, what songs don’t work, what they need to hear.”
There’s been a lot of crossover between music theater and pop music, and I’m sure you’re able to connect some of your skill sets as you’ve made the jump. Have there been a lot of points at which you’ve had to adapt or change your approach as you’ve written and produced music for the stage?
“There are a lot of different changes you have to adapt to, and one thing is that the lines have been blurred with the advent of the jukebox musical. So, you can either take the songs of The Four Seasons and blend them into their biographical story, and have concert sequences, as well, to use those songs. Or, you have something like Mamma Mia! where it’s not a biographical thing, but you’re shoehorning songs into a plot, or building a plot that never existed. So with Daniel, a lot of what we did was try to have fun with that concept, to shoehorn songs that weren’t in the public consciousness, that weren’t already hits, but make it feel like we were trying to shoehorn hits into a biography of an artist that never existed. So, it’s a little meta that way, and that was very much the way we liked to work.
But, at the same time, musical theater as an art form sometimes gets short shrift because it gets pushed down behind the pop songs that are on Broadway. In musical theater, the job of those songs is to either articulate the things the character can’t say out loud, or they’re there to actually push the story forward. You as an audience member will know something that you didn’t know prior to that song, and it can actually take you forward in time and setting, like the songs in Hamilton did, for example. When you’re writing songs like I’m doing for this other musical where the characters aren’t my characters and the plot is not my plot, it’s a different thing and it’s a different art form, and I’m really enjoying learning how to do that.”
I also wanted to congratulate you on your recent induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. It’s so well deserved. And what phenomenal company you and the BNL guys are in.
“It’s certainly humbling. After the JUNOs, a few weeks later, we went to the National Music Centre in Calgary where they unveiled our plaque, and so on, to do with the Hall of Fame. And you’re there looking at all the other plaques, and there’s Glenn Gould and there’s Oscar Peterson. You know, it’s not just…as awesome as it is to be in the company of The Tragically Hip and Rush, it’s this huge range of incredible Canadian musicians, and you realize you’re only one of, like, fifty-one of them. It’s pretty amazing. As Ed [Robertson] and I were saying, we were always the guys who made fun of the people in the Hall of Fame. We were…even though we were the smiley nice kids in a lot of ways, we were also kind of arrogant, you know? It was the arrogance of youth, and we just felt like the newcomers who didn’t belong, and we didn’t want to belong.
And all of a sudden, you go up on stage and think, ‘Oh, we’re the establishment. Either that, or they’re pushing us out on our ice floe.’ [laughs]”
The Steven Page Trio will perform on Friday, October 12, 8 p.m. (with special guest Wesley Stace) at Thirty One West, 31 W. Church St. in Newark. General admission tickets are $25 (plus applicable taxes and fees), and are available via the venue’s website. Steven’s latest album, “Discipline: Heal Thyself, Pt. II,” is available via his official website.