Steven Page is falling in love with music again, and learning a lot about himself in the process.
“I remember being (in my early 30s) and thinking I’d always been a huge music fan and wanting to know the story behind it, but there comes a point where you don’t even notice you’ve fallen out of love with it, the collector side of it anyway,” Page, 45, says over the phone from his home in New York. His old touring routine was to delve into used record bins, but the Internet has killed that ritual for him.
“It’s in your head less, that fantasy about it. You don’t have as much time to build up that desire,” he says. “When I met my wife, about 10 years ago, she’s 10 years younger than me, so she’s not at that point in her life. It was one of those things that made me fall in love with music again, that she was discovering new stuff. That was the first time I’d really thought about the fact that I had that desire and a certain way it does wane with age. I’ll find myself seeking out stuff from the ’70s, deepening the catalogue of someone I already know.”
With one part of his brain going through a constant musical re-birth, the self-deprecating Scarborough-born singer is about to release his second solo record under his own name, Heal Thyself Pt. 1 – Instinct (out March 11 via ole/Anthem), which is really his fourth solo outing, the third since leaving Barenaked Ladies seven years ago.
“I knew it was something big, not in the context of the world at large, but for me it was a large task,” Page says of his new disc, a collaborative effort with co-writer/producer Craig Northey of Odds. “He didn’t just look at it and know what it was, so we’d start to write songs, and after a few songs, he’d go, ‘Okay, here’s the thread. Here’s where this guy is in his growth in his creative trajectory. Where does he need to go?’ I’ve never written songs that are me getting out of bed and putting on my pants, and the song is ‘I got out of bed and put on my pants.’ It’s never that specific to your life, but for me the best things to write about are the things that you’re not supposed to talk about.”
The record is an honest one, filled with bombastic pop numbers (“The Work at Hand”) and George Harrison-esque thinkers (“Manchild”), and it’s a disc that is as fleshed-out as it is simple in its approach. Page hints that he wanted to avoid the “singer goes solo” cliche of a guy and his guitar, especially when approaching classic BNL songs in a live setting.
“Sometimes the arrangements are so tied to someone’s memory of the song and it can also be really boring to hear someone do songs if they’re not super complex,” he says. “If it’s not Leonard Cohen – when his show goes down to just him and a guitar, it’s so compelling, it’s the greatest thing in the world – if someone else does an acoustic version then people are wondering, ‘God, where are the other guys?’ So that’s the only thing I was conscious of during those early solo days, was how to translate the songs, so that me or anyone else didn’t feel like they were getting a second-rate version of it, but what they’re getting is the essence.”
There’s also an essence of innocence, something the bulk of Page’s BNL catalogue has in spades, and it’s carried over into Page’s solo work in all the right ways.
“There’s a song on (my first solo outing) The Vanity Project called ‘So Young So Long So Wrong’ about me meeting my teenage self on a subway car and my teenage self thinking I was pathetic. ‘I thought you were gonna be cool, you’re just a guy in your 30s who has totally sold out and is miserable, you aren’t even making the art you think you can do.'”
It’s that devotion to his teenage self that resonates in his songwriting output, and keeps the work true to himself, nearly 30 years on.
In the Barenaked Ladies, a band he co-fronted with Ed Robertson for 20 years, he recorded eight proper records and a few themed collections, including 1998’s mega-hit Stunt. He has toured the world countless times, was animated alongside Dale Gribble, been the subject of debate on Community, and played a Rock the Vote benefit on The West Wing. When he left BNL in ’09 (shortly after the release of kids record Snacktime), he had a strong desire to collaborate with others. After a few years of co-writing in the band with longtime friend Stephen Duffy (co-writer of “Jane” and “Call and Answer” to name a few), BNL voted against allowing outside collaborators.
“Being in a band is much closer to being married than it is to being brothers, something about (writing with someone else) feels like cheating,” he says. “When (BNL members) Jim and Andy Creeggan did their first album (1995’s The Brothers Creeggan) it in no way competed with Barenaked Ladies, but there was still that sense from the rest of us that it was somehow threatening. Not that it was about success, but it was about where their passion and creative energies lied. Do we get the best of them? I realize now as an adult that yeah, that’s how you get the best of them, to let that do the thing they love, otherwise they would feel completely frustrated inside the structure of the band, and then they’d come back to the band refreshed.
“But being the lead singer of the Barenaked Ladies is different than Jim and Andy doing a record, because my voice and style are much more connected to what the Barenaked Ladies were then. It was a sensitive thing.”
So when Page released his first solo outing, the aforementioned 2005 collaboration with Duffy billed as The Vanity Project, there was pushback from some of the extended BNL camp.
“I had management saying, ‘You shouldn’t put this record out.’ Who the fuck says that?” he says with a laugh, explaining there was actual worry that a successful solo outing could distract from the group.
“This was at kind of the height of our popularity and there were certain people that hated us for what we presented or what they saw our fans to be, they didn’t identify with those people, they thought it wasn’t cool enough or it wasn’t uncool enough. I thought that if I just put out a record that doesn’t have my name on it, maybe someone will hear it who wouldn’t have heard it otherwise. It didn’t work, nobody heard it at all. It was a little over thought.”
His first post-BNL outing, A Singer Must Die, is a concept piece with Toronto’s Art of Time Ensemble, and was actually recorded before he left BNL.
“That wasn’t an intentional way to introduce myself, but it was a nice way to start my solo career, by doing something that wasn’t somehow trying to continue whatever I had with BNL, it was something that was different from it.”
He’s grown considerably since then, as both a songwriter and a vocalist. As he still tosses BNL classics into his solo sets, he’s noticed that his performances have gotten better with time.
“I don’t listen to my old records that often, but if it’s just on random on iTunes or you’re in a store or something, sure,” he says. “I heard the live version of ‘Break Your Heart’ from the Rock Spectacle album, that’s a song that a lot of diehard fans really love and that performance they really love, and I’m not the king of self-confidence, so when I heard it I thought, ‘Oh, I do that better now,’ and that’s a nice feeling.”
Again though, going back to just the guy and his guitar, Page says he’s never worried about presenting the songs as they are on record, which is why he has a great touring band in The Original Six, who can flesh out anything and everything. The band also split duties with Northey’s Odds on Heal Thyself.
“With Barenaked Ladies, most of what we did was live-off-the-floor – there were corrections and overdubs done, but we weren’t worried about how to do it live,” he says. “Think of a song like ‘Enid’ which has horns in it. We didn’t want to bring a horn section out on the road so we sang the horn part, kind of the ‘hook’ live, which is something we learned from Sloan. We saw them do it and we were like ‘holy fuck, that’s how we do it!'”
Another such live-off-the-floor recording was 1996’s Born on a Pirate Ship, a record which turns 20 this month. Recorded at Toronto’s legendary warehouse-come-studio, the Gas Station, Page notes that BNL’s third disc was their first true “Toronto record” (Gordon was made in Quebec and Maybe You Should Drive was done in Vancouver). Ship also marked the band’s first album without pianist Andy Creeggan.
“After Andy left the band, it threw us way off, and our response to that was to make a record now as a four piece, more than anything else just to prove to ourselves we could keep going,” Page says. The band’s label at the time, Sire, had just been swallowed up by Elektra, so BNL found a home for Pirate Ship at Reprise.
“Everything was new. We fired our management. We did that record without management and we did it with our own money.”
Recorded on primitive, digital mini-DAT recorders, the record was an experiment in self-recording, warts and all, with longtime producer Michael Phillip Wojewoda.
“‘The Old Apartment’ is totally live in one room, the vocals are in the same room as the drums, there’s no overdubs. It’s not perfectly in tune either,” he says with a laugh. “That’s the funny thing about listening to ’90s music, now everybody tweaks a note here or there, or you just keep the out of tune part, which is how we got Hootie and the Blowfish.”
For Page, the Toronto that helped create Pirate Ship is no longer there. Dale Morningstar’s Gas Station Recording Studio received an eviction notice from its warehouse home in 2000 and moved to Toronto Island, and the once warehoused area is now Liberty Village, complete with condos and one imagines, a lack of character.
“We did the mix at Reaction Studios in Toronto which is gone now too, so I always think about, when I’m driving through Toronto now, how completely different a city it is. In a certain way it feels like yesterday, and in other ways it feels like a lifetime ago.”
Page relates a quote from an author about marking your own time with the art you create during certain periods, and how he wishes he had maybe been more prolific over the last few years – if only to better self-document.
“I’ll see something on the news from 1994, the OJ trial or whatever, and oh, that’s Maybe You Should Drive, that’s June 11, so it’s right before I turned 24. That’s how I see my life, it’s based on which album you’re doing. When albums get stretched out into a four year period, it’s less of a snapshot and more of a longer arc, and that’s why this record winds up being only half of the story.”
While no immediate plans are mentioned to deliver a Pt. 2 to Heal Thyself, one gets the feeling that Page is finally getting comfortable in his skin, despite the occasionally uncomfortable subject matter. Confronting that teenager on the train is getting easier with age, by purging those demons through pop, and experiencing every moment.
“It’s a funny thing to write songs and put them out in the world and have people hear them and think that if you write a song about self loathing – because it’s a sentiment most sensitive people experience, they don’t always express it. They supplement it, they rationalize it, they push it inside, and they move on. The thing for me is not the moving on, but the being in that moment and exploring what makes you think that way. It might be the way you see the world for five minutes, but those five minutes are far more meaningful for me than anything else.”
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