Joel Plaskett’s 25+ year career is well documented, most recently in Josh O’Kane’s book Nowhere With You, and as a longtime fan who first interviewed the Nova Scotian singer/songwriter/producer a decade ago for a publication which no longer exists, I know that story (and you likely do, too). It was during that interview when this writer asked Plaskett (who at the time was coming off producing Two Hours Traffic’s Little Jabs LP and releasing his Gordie Johnson-produced Ashtray Rock) who he was on his dream list of collaborators. He came up with two Englishmen; Nick Lowe and Bill Plaskett.
While Joel and his dad Bill collaborated on 2009’s triple album, Three, the duo’s new disc, Solidarity, is the first to place both of their names on an album sleeve.
“It’s a different record for me and sort of a first record for him,” Joel says over the phone from his home in Dartmouth. “He’s worked on different records in his previous band, Starboard Side. They did a thing with the CBC in the ‘80s, that was with a bunch of other guys, but this is his first record with his name on the cover.”
While Joel has collaborated with family before (his wife, artist Rebecca Kraatz, has created many images that have adorned his album covers), he’s conscious that he had to break out of his solo artist groove a little to make room for dad on the disc, which finds the Plasketts sharing songs and splitting off into solo-fronted tracks.
“It’s a bit challenging in the sense that I’ve often done things on my own, so I can sort of move things forward,” he says. “With my dad, he’s been a social player his whole life and he’s got an amazing style, especially when he’s playing on his own, he finger picks. We captured that on ‘Jim Jones’ on the record, a song he plays on his own, a really remarkable performance in my opinion.
“I produced this record in the sense that I was trying to guide my dad through the recording process to get what we wanted to capture. It was a really collaborative thing in terms of what the songs were and how we were putting it together, and the arrangements were very much informed by his tastes and what I’ve inherited from him. The challenge was how to capture it. Our voices aren’t the same but they do fall into the same place now and then. (His dad is from Essex, just north of London.) The way he finished his words with Ts, I do the same thing. I noticed it when I was listening to Nick Lowe, who’s also English. There were a couple times on the record where I would sing something and my dad would go to sing harmony, and I would realize I had started to slur things in the North American drawl. We tried to realize the places we were different. ‘Let’s do it your way, Dad.’”
Again, famous ’70s power popper Lowe is brought up, a decade after Plaskett and I first spoke. Lowe’s musical mentality and longevity seem to have influenced Plaskett as to how to maintain an artistic career.
“Part of my love of Nick Lowe’s stuff is that he’s aged in a really great way,” he says. “He doesn’t hide how old he is, he writes about what’s on his mind. You can hear how it relates to the music he made when he was young, that sort of soul influence that he brings to it. There’s a kind of wisdom that’s come along to the way he makes his records, and a presentation that feels really relaxed. Even that time (when we spoke) 10 years ago, that’s what I was hearing. This guy is an example of how to do it, for a songwriter. Rather than chasing a contemporary sound, or saying How do I do what I used to do, it’s How do I build on what I did before, not repeat it. And that’s not to say that I don’t go back and use the recipe, but I’m interested in building on it, not recreating it.”
While Plaskett’s sound has evolved over the years, from the feedback-infused garage rock of The Hermit to the more polished yet still dangerous power trio, the Emergency, or his ambitiously personal solo work, there are through lines that tie the work together.
“I love playing around with something in the studio, saying Let’s play around with something, or saying Let’s decide what the limitations are on this record. Let’s push ‘em to where we can,” he says. “But the way I write is the way I write. I’m a constant rhymer. I love to break my lyrical patterns sometimes, but then I’ll go, Oh I’m echoing a line I’ve done before. But then I realize, I’m not gonna run from that. That’s what I like about Springsteen records or Chuck Berry records. You hear the reference to earlier work. I care about the same things I cared about 20 years ago, I have a different perspective, but some of the language remains the same. That lyrical through line is the thing that joins the records.”
Still tying things together is the longstanding relationships that Plaskett has kept over the years, including with his former Hermit bandmates Rob Benvie and Ian McGettigan, who 20 years ago released their debut LP, Sweet Homewrecker.
”The nice thing about music is that I feel like it kinda just exists outside of time,” Plaskett says. “I was just hanging out with the Thrush Hermit guys the other night in Toronto. We were out at The Gladstone and The Oldies 990, which has got three of the four Local Rabbits in it, they have an oldies band, and they knock it out of the park, it’s super fun. So Ian and Rob came out because they’re living in Toronto, and here we are, 3/4 of the Hermit watching 3/4 of the Rabbits rocking out on stage. It felt really great, and that’s what we woulda been doing 20 years ago, watching them play a show. I feel lucky that we’re all still in the game, in some fashion.”
While there had been EPs and demos before it, Sweet Homewrecker was the then 22-year-old Plaskett’s first experience with a major record on a major label (Elektra).
“There’s a lot of records now in the rearview mirror,” he says. “It feels like a long time ago because I feel like I’ve lived those 20 years and done a lot with ‘em.”
Despite the band calling it quits shortly after the release of 1999’s Clayton Park, Plaskett says that Benvie is still a good friend and major influence. (The Hermit reunited for a string of shows in 2010 to support the release of the Complete Recordings box set.)
“There’s a handful of people I would count as my biggest influences over the years and Rob is right there,” he says of Benvie, who currently fronts the incredible Bankruptcy and counts Tigre Benvie, The Dears and more as past outfits. “He’s an amazingly prolific guy, he’s a great writer with language, he’s really personal and he can be really angry and pointed, or he can be really funny. He’s verbose and peculiar and I learned so much about words and language from him. He always challenged me, the way he wrote raised the bar in the band.”
Taking that trip down memory lane for O’Kane’s Nowhere With You also allowed Plaskett to revisit some memories through a different lens.
“It’s weird when all your friends and musical associates get asked questions,” he says, mentioning that collaboration hasn’t always come naturally. “I try to communicate well with people. I don’t always do it when I’m following my nose, it can be challenging. But by and large I’ve surrounded myself with good people and I’ve worked with a lot of the same people over time. I wasn’t really fearful of the book in that regard, but it’s also weird to have your own recollection of things kind of adjusted. You realize so much of your memory of it is the way you felt about it. I look back at the Thrush Hermit days with rose coloured glasses, there were some hard things, but so much of it now in perspective is really minor gripes. I feel so fortunate to be able to talk to a lot of people I’ve known for a long time and still call them friends, that’s a really good thing.”
Something that does accurately capture memories forever is the music video. While Plaskett has made a bundle over the years, these often hilarious clips, from Thrush Hermit’s mockumentary-mocking “From the Back of the Film” to solo cuts like “Fashionable People” and “True Patriot Love”, involve a medium Plaskett may have grown out of.
“I feel as I get older, that kind of mugging to the camera comes less naturally,” he says with a laugh. “I always enjoyed doing it, but definitely in the case with doing something with my dad it feels like the wrong choice. More and more, I’m less interested in visual associations with music, other than the artwork. In a weird kind of way I’d sooner stare at a painting and listen to a song. Live performance stuff is cool and serves a goal, but I feel overloaded with information. Where most people are gonna watch most of this is on a phone or a tablet, and they’re gonna see this little miniaturized version of me doing whatever I do, what I really hope is that they’ll put on a pair of headphones and go somewhere else without looking at anything while listening to it. The best is in a vehicle at night with the headlights on the road, that’s the ultimate. That’s why listening to music in a car at night, all the visual distractions go away and you’ve just got the headlights rolling, and you’ve got the music and nothing to get you away from it. That’s why the same music during the day means twice as much at night when you’re by yourself in a car.”
Visit joelplaskett.com for more information.