As far back as he can remember, Joel Plaskett dreamed of becoming a rock star. But he was also certain that he wanted to achieve this goal on his own terms. Now, the Halifax singer and songwriter may be poised to grab the brass ring that has eluded him for so long. If he manages this, it will be a tribute to his determination to do things his way.
As the lead singer of Thrush Hermit, Plaskett was one of the artists who emerged during the East Coast pop explosion of the early 1990s. At the time, great things were expected of him, but since then, he has watched many of his contemporaries go on to forge national and international careers, while he remained in the musical trenches.
A True Haligonian
One of the reasons for this is his refusal to adapt his eclectic approach to fit one of radio's standard categories. Another is his decision to live in Nova Scotia, rather than move to Toronto, often considered the centre of the Canadian music scene. "I cling to Halifax for artistic and social reasons," Plaskett told Vit Wagner of the Toronto Star. "The current scene doesn't have the same cohesion and homogeneity as the first wave of '93. But there is some great stuff going on there."
Besides, he continued, the quality of life is better. "It's nice and tucked away. We're 13 hours away from any of the sizable cities, like Montreal or Boston. Musically, stuff kind of happens in a bubble [in Halifax], which is what's so great about it. There isn't really an industry. The city has to make its own music."
Plaskett spent his childhood in Lunenburg, a historic fishing community on Nova Scotia's south shore and the home of the storied schooner Bluenose. Growing up in a musical household, he was encouraged to learn the guitar and write songs by his musician father, Bill Plaskett, who had spent time in bands in his native England. As well as picking up tips from East Coast music legend Al Tuck, the youngster was soon strumming along to everyone from Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young to the Clash, the Sex Pistols and the Pixies.
"But my favorite band is Led Zeppelin," he told Kyle Malashewski of the University of Western Ontario Gazette. "Their music is so ambitious and exciting."
When Plaskett was 12, the family moved to Halifax, and in 1988, at the age of 13, he put together a band with friends Rob Benvie, a drummer, and Ian McGettigen, a bassist. After working under a couple of different names, the teens finally settled on the moniker Thrush Hermit and built a loyal following for their energetic live shows and pop-rock sounds.
Over the next decade, the band, which eventually grew to include five members, released four albums, including one for Warner Music Canada. Despite their efforts at building an audience and their popularity on the college radio circuit, they couldn't break through into the mainstream. "We've managed to be a cult band," Plaskett told Ryan Matthew Merkley of the University of Waterloo Imprint, "but the level of our cult is proportionate to what it would be in the States because Canada is a smaller country."
Thrush Hermit Called it Quits
In the end, the struggle to stay afloat proved to be too much. Broke and burned out by touring, band members decided to call it quits in 1999 and staged one last tour of Ontario, as well as a farewell gig in Halifax.
As the band was winding down, Plaskett had begun working on solo material, which he released in 1999 as In Need of Medical Attention. "Then the band broke up and my solo album was seen as a departure or something," he told Wes Smiderle of the Ottawa Citizen. "It was more that I had a bunch of songs I wanted to get out."
The album was a low-fi pop collection inspired by the death of Plaskett's grandfather, who had been a doctor. Drawing on influences such as "Suicide Is Painless," the theme from the popular TV show MASH, and Bruce Springsteen's stark classic Nebraska, the album explored sadness, loss, love, life and loneliness on tracks such as "The News of Your Son," "Forever in Debt" and "I'd Rather Be Deadly Than Dead."
Critics praised the moody album. "Plaskett's laid-back, pessimism-turned-optimism approach makes this album what it is," wrote Alex Steininger of In Music We Trust. "The sheer musicianship and lyricisms that went into this is honest, pure, and ripe, giving it a stance above the hordes of 'say what makes money bands' out there. This is the real thing."
In the meantime, Plaskett had teamed up with drummer Dave Marsh and bassist Tim Brennan to form the Joel Plaskett Emergency and, in the summer of 2001, he released the hard-rocking, Zeppelinesque disc Down at the Khyber. The album represented the next step in a career in which he had vowed never to make the same disc twice, even if it meant sacrificing sales. With the exception of a cover of Hortense Ellis's reggae-soul classic "Cry Together," Down at the Khyber was loaded with Canadianisms, represented most notably by the track "True Patriot Love."
Despite its many Canadian references, the album attracted the attention of critics in England. New Music Express, the influential weekly, summed it up as "tidy," and Clark Collis of The Daily Telegraph praised Plaskett's natural, witty lyrics. "Certainly it is difficult to recall any other band who have included the word 'Saskatchewan' in a song, let alone found a rhyme for it ('I think that it's catching on) …," wrote Collis. "It's the perfect present for that friend who thinks the Black Crowes sound just a little too modern."
On one level, Plaskett agreed with Collis's assessment of the album as a bit of a throwback. And rather than apologizing for this, he revelled in it. "This band is kind of out of step with what's going on right now, where you have a lot of really big bands, and dense bands with a lot of instruments," he told Michael Barclay of Exclaim! "I love that, but I don't have the energy or the aspiration to get a bunch of people together to do that. It's too exhausting and too expensive. There aren't a whole lot of power trios these days. When things swing into vogue, I tend to swing away from it. That's probably part of the reason why I've never sold any significant number of CDs. I never want to make the same record twice."
Two years later, Plaskett and the Emergency returned to the fray with Truthfully, Truthfully, a diverse rock and pop album that was much more slickly produced than its predecessors. The country aspect of Plaskett's songs was toned down and replaced by a soul vibe that included a cover of Curtis Mayfield's "The Day You Walked Away."
The album also included plenty of Plaskett's own material, however, and highlighted his diverse musical sensibilities. "The Light" was a rocker in the AC/DC vein, while "Extraordinary" was a playful romp through the life of a man on the go. On "All the Pretty Faces" and "Work Out Fine," Plaskett took a humorous swipe at musical colleagues who had abandoned Nova Scotia for bigger, more glamorous locations.
A Moderate Radio Hit
The most popular song on the album, however, was probably "Come On, Teacher," a tune he had written years earlier. The perfect radio track, it became a sizeable hit and opened the door to a wider audience.
For the Record …
Born c. 1975, in Lunenburg, Canada; son of a guitarist and a painter.
Began playing guitar as child; put together first band at age 13; band evolved into Thrush Hermit, releasing three independent albums and one for Warner before breaking up, 1999; released first solo album, In Need of Medical Attention, 1999; with Dave Marsh and Tim Brennan, formed Joel Plaskett Emergency; released Down at the Khyber, 2001, Truthfully, Truthfully, 2003, and La De Da, 2005.
Awards: Music Industry Association of Nova Scotia Awards, Alternative Artist of the Year, Entertainer of the Year, and Group of the Year, 2004; East Coast Music Award, Rock Recording of the Year, for Truthfully, Truthfully, 2005; Coast Magazine "Best of Halifax" Awards, Best National Male Artist, Best Local Male Artist, and Best Local Album for La De Da, 2005.
Addresses: Record company—MapleMusic, 30 St. Clair Ave. W., Ste. 103, Toronto, ON Canada M4V 3A1. E-mail—[email protected] Website—Joel Plaskett Official Website: http://www.joelplaskett.com.
Plaskett acknowledged that he often tries to inject humor into his songwriting. "When I really nail it, what I do is paint a sad picture, but colour it with a slight sense of levity that makes it appeal to people and really give a sense of what my personality is," he told Joel McConvery of Eye Weekly. "I wanted the record to reflect my weird sense of humour. Like on [the song] 'Extraordinary'—none of what it describes is particu-larly extraordinary. It's all kind of trite. To me, that's funny."
Truthfully, Truthfully also included a track called "Radio Fly," a tune that was designed specifically for the modern rock format, though Plaskett couldn't resist taking a dig at the system with a line that says, "This music sucks."
"I produced the song to sound more like the radio than anything else on that record, and so I wanted the lyrical content to be a dig at it," he told Lynn Saxberg of the Ottawa Citizen. "If I can get a song on the radio because it sounds like the radio … Maybe this is a pipe dream, but that's my sense of humor."
At the same time, Plaskett told Wagner, he tries to strip his lyrics down to their essence. "I love that feeling of packing a lot of stuff into these tiny little moments. It's like I got up and did the dishes and then I thought about this. End of story. There's something to that. I love language. And I love poetry. I love alliteration and words that roll off the tongue in interesting ways. I'm just trying to throw that into the mix."
Once again, critics praised the album. Peter Simpson of the Ottawa Citizen, for example wrote: "Plaskett shows us again and again just how well he's developing as a composer and performer, blending fun and whimsical words with infectious music." This assessment was reinforced when Truthfully, Truthfully was named best rock recording at the 2005 East Coast Music Awards.
By February 2005, when Plaskett released his next album, La De Da, he had signed publishing and recording deals with MapleMusic and Universal. But true to his principles, he once again confounded fans by moving away from the electrified sound of Truthfully, Truthfully.
Switched His Sound
"Truthfully was a deliberate rock record, and I kind of knew what I was setting out to make," he told Lynn Saxberg of the Ottawa Citizen. "This one, I treated it differently. I wanted to go in and mess around, which is what I did. It's a bit more instinctive, some songs are short and some are more long-winged. It's more of a record for myself than, say, for commercial radio aspirations."
The fact is, he continued, that he doesn't want to be pigeonholed. "I sometimes get a little overwhelmed by the idea that you're supposed to do the same thing for a really long time until people catch on," he said. "Realistically, that's what you're supposed to do. That's what makes the most sense. That's what most bands do. But I don't know. I've got a lot of years in this and I can't sit idle. When tension starts to form in one department, my instinct is always to push myself the other way, which is really the wrong thing to do in terms of gathering momentum."
This said, Plaskett probably has good reason to be optimistic about the direction of his career. He need look no farther than Sam Roberts, who similarly recorded independently and, through public demand and massive airplay, landed publishing and recording deals.
As someone who has existed on the margins for most of his career, Plaskett finds the attention that is now being lavished on him somewhat strange, and he acknowledges that he has wrestled with the idea and the reality of being an artist and a performer. "I don't begrudge anyone their status or success—it's more like, 'What am I willing to do?'" he told Tara Lee Wittchen of FFWD Weekly. "I'm only willing to do certain things. I'm pretty open, but I'm stubborn about music quality and presentation. I want to represent myself as a person, as a unique entity."
As an artist who happily mixes dub, blues, reggae, rock and country, Plaskett knows that he's marching to the beat of a different drummer. His sounds don't fit into easily marketed categories, and this has held back his career.
At the same time, however, it has also enabled him to explore various genres and sounds and to remain true to his eclectic sensibilities. "I tend to think, with the way I operate, I'm either a couple of years ahead or behind," he told McConvery. "The trends happen, and I don't pay attention to them. Then when I do, even if I make a step in that direction, it either comes out too late, or it doesn't sound the same."
"There's a song on [Truthfully, Truthfully] called 'Lights Down Low,' and I thought when I wrote it, This is a real Strokes song," he continued. "But it doesn't sound like The Strokes, really. It sounds like me." And sounding like himself is, after all, Plaskett's goal.
In Need of Medical Attention, Independent, 1999.
Down at the Khyber, Independent, 2001.
Truthfully, Truthfully, MapleMusic, 2003.
La De Da, MapleMusic, 2005.
With Thrush Hermit
Smart Bomb, Murderecords, 1994.
The Great Pacific Ocean, Murderecords, 1995.
Sweet Homewrecker, Elektra, 1997.
Clayton Park, Sonic Unyon, 1999.
Daily Telegraph, June 30, 2001.
Edmonton Journal, November 7, 2003, p. E12; April 2, 2004, p. T2.
Exclaim!, October 31, 2003.
Eye Weekly, August 2, 2001; November 20, 2003.
Globe and Mail, August 2, 2001; October 23, 2003, p. R5; November 1, 2003, p. R19; January 21, 2005, p. R27.
Halifax Daily News, April 16, 1994, p. 26; February 11, 1999, p. 32; December 11, 1999, p. 30; May 18, 2001, p. 30; May 27, 2001, p. 30; April 8, 2004, p. 3; December 9, 2004, p. 4.
Imprint, December 3, 1999.
Independent, April 27, 2001.
Kitchener Record, November 13, 2003, p. F6.
Ottawa Citizen, August 2, 2001, p. E3; May 5, 2003, p. B3; November 22, 2003, p. J4; November 27, 2003, p. F1; April 26, 2004, p. B2; January 20, 2005, p. E4.
Queen's Journal, December 2, 2004.
Toronto Star, November 20, 2003.
University of Regina Carillon, November 26, 2003.
University of Victoria Strand, January 25, 2005.
University of Western Ontario Gazette, November 7, 2001; November 26, 2004.
Vancouver Province, November 15, 2004, p. B3.
"Interview with Joel Plaskett," Angelfire.com, http://www.angelfire.com/rock2/rockinterviews/plaskett.html (February 21, 2005).
"Gordie Sampson, Joel Plaskett Win Big at MIANS Awards," Chart Attack, http://www.chartattack.com (February 19, 2005).
"The East Coast Survivors," Ffwdweekly, http://www.ffwdweekly.com/Issues/2003/1023/mus1.htm (February 21, 2005).
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Official Joel Plaskett Website, http://www.joelplaskett.com (February 19, 2005).
"Joel Plaskett Emergency," Maple Music Website, http://www.maplemusic.com (February 19, 2005).
"The Joel Plaskett Emergency," MuchMusic.com, http://www.muchmusic.com (February 21, 2005).
"Joe Plaskett's Been a Touring Musician Since He Was a Teenager," Young Men's Guide, http://www.tgmag.ca/guydepr_e/musicin_e.htm (February 21, 2005).
"Joel Plaskett," TT.net, http://www.tt.net/noalt/joelplaskett.html (February 19, 2005).
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