On October 17, 2012, Page performed a memorable, well-received show in front of a packed house at the intimate Princess Avenue Playhouse in St. Thomas, Ontario. The singer covered considerable territory, including everything from Barenaked classics like ‘What A Good Boy’ and ‘Old Apartment’ to songs like ‘A New Shore’ and ‘The Chorus Girl’ off his 2010 solo album, Page One. Another highlight was ‘Manchild’, one of two tracks off the EP A Different Sort of Solitude, released early in 2012.
A new song like ‘Manchild’ offers a reminder of how Page crafts clever, idiosyncratic lyrics, revealing a songwriter who is seemingly made of equal parts strength and vulnerability. In this case, the idea behind the song took some time to come into focus. “I had come up with the chorus,” Page explains, “and I thought of it initially as though you were admonishing your girlfriend or wife, or partner or whatever, for maybe talking to or flirting with some other guy. As a man who has married a younger woman, I am sometimes maybe a little self-conscious about my age!”
Interestingly a friend, Craig Northey from rock group The Odds, had a different take on ‘Manchild’ when Page first shared the song. “We were sitting in a hotel room and I played it for him,” the forty-two year old remembers. “He said, ‘no, no, no, that’s not what it means – you’re the manchild!’” After that epiphany, the two musicians realized that often, as artists, they get to slowly work away at their craft while their significant others toil in slightly more structured jobs. “Both of our wives know what we do and like what we do,” Page says, “but it was that kind of commiserating. We kind of realized, ‘oh, this guy is a little bit more Homer Simpson than we were initially thinking – and it’s us!’ The song just evolved from there.”
There is no denying the appeal of Page performing Barenaked Ladies hits. His voice is unmistakable. For listeners of a certain vintage, hearing ‘What A Good Boy’ can instantly summon memories of high school or university and what it felt like to hear those lyrics for the first time. ‘Old Apartment’ can accomplish something similar, inviting everyone to think of those houses and apartments where we used to live.
Steven Page is moving forward. In the following interview, which took place shortly before the concert in St. Thomas, the singer talks about his plans for a new album, his long association with the Stratford Festival, and what it meant to him to be asked to perform Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ at the 2011 state funeral for Jack Layton.
CI: Page One came out in 2010. Earlier this year you released an EP. A couple months ago on your Facebook page, I noticed you mentioned that suddenly you have quite a few songs piling up. Where are you as far as a new album?
SP: The hardest thing about making records right now, in this time period, is that you get so much done at home before you go into the studio, doing stuff on computers. When I write a song, I go and start on it right away, and start building, where it used to be that I would sing into something like a tape recorder and build the song with the acoustic guitar, or the voice, and then play that to the band. When I was in the band, I used to love making demos where I was playing bass and working out drum parts, and I was playing keyboards and stuff. The guys didn’t like that because it’s a band, right? Everyone wants to be able to contribute their own part and their personality. They don’t want to be either told what to play or they don’t want someone to influence their thinking.
Solo, you don’t have to worry about that so much. I did Page One – a lot of it I did with my band, and a lot of it I did with a guy named John Fields, who is a bass player and multi-instrumentalist. The two of us would just keep grabbing instruments and playing. Now, I’m doing a lot of it on my own and trying to decide what I’m going to wait for my band to fill in, or what I’m going to present to them as what they should be playing, so it’s like every song is in various stages of completion. …
So, it will take me a few months to figure out what I need to present to the band, and what kind of arrangements I want to have, that kind of thing, but it’s getting there! I have a lot of songs, which I didn’t even realize I had until the summer.
CI: That more segmented approach, when you are using digital devices to do this – does that change the way that you think of the thematic unity of an album, when you’re spreading it out and cutting and pasting?
SP: Not so much because that was never a concern for me, or for BNL when I was in the group. With Gordon, I think one of its great charms is the fact that it’s all over the place musically. That’s what I think people loved about it. That’s what we loved about making that. Occasionally you would get a producer who would say, ‘no, no, we have to find a sound for this record.’ But we would always mess with that anyway, by throwing a fake hip-hop song in there or something else, just to mess with the system. That was always part of our M.O.
So as far as being able to move things around and stuff, that’s part of the process of songwriting. If you’re looking at classical musicians, you’re looking at themes as you’re moving around from section to section and then pitting them against other instruments and so on. It’s just always been part of the way composition works. …
SP: Well, Antoni Cimolino, the head of the Festival, had approached me I guess in 2005 to do As You Like It – that was the first one. I did that with the band. I wrote the stuff myself and the band performed all the music, and the cast sang along with the recordings. But we developed such a great relationship over that time. It just clicked. We really enjoyed working together. I really enjoyed working through the play together as collaborators. He would really help me see things – obviously, he’s more of an expert in reading Shakespeare than I am, but then I could give him ideas for themes and so on. It became this great kind of friendship. He tends to, every other year, have a play for me. He actually offered me another one for next year, which I couldn’t take just because I’ve got other commitments that I have to do. Hopefully the year after I’ll do that. I think the goal is eventually to actually write something, maybe collaborate with somebody else and write a new musical of some sort.
CI: I mentioned to you the Ottawa Folk Festival in 2009, that songwriter circle that you were in with Bruce Cockburn and Joel Plaskett – that’s the last time I saw you perform. I’m just wondering, over these past few years, what have you learned about the audience and their expectations of you now as a performer?
SP: I think people still have no idea. They really just don’t know what to expect. I know that I have a better sense of expectations.
At that point – in 2009 – I was still trying to figure out what I was doing. I had done some solo shows over time. I would do ones at Jackson-Triggs down in Niagara, which were always great shows, but I realized once I was on my own and not just doing it as a side thing, people all of a sudden had certain expectations – either ‘this had better be good’ and ‘it had better be worth it that he’s not in that group anymore’, or that sense of just going because they wanted to see what they thought was going to be a train wreck. Part of me wanted to provide a little bit of that. I like to mess with an audience a bit sometimes, especially if I can feel that there is that uncertainty – perhaps that train wreck might happen, but I’m actually in control.
I don’t worry about that stuff as much anymore. I certainly have become more comfortable just standing with an acoustic guitar. I have a backing band that I love to play with. ‘Backing band’ is a bad term, but it’s a band. I do so many solo and duo shows now that I’m really comfortable in that sphere. I’m not always just wondering where my fingers go, or wondering how it will look, or looking around for other bandmates. I think I’m a little more forgiving of myself now too.
CI: I remember that show very clearly, and that it was kind of a cool energy to have Bruce there, and Joel, and you obviously starting something new. I remember just thinking it was awesome watching the three of you …
SP: It was a really nice match. I’ve known Bruce for a long time. I’ve done stuff with him, but he’s a hard guy to actually know. He’s a very private guy. Joel is a guy who I’ve always admired. I’ve done a couple things with him here and there, but we hadn’t had a lot of time together, so it was nice to be able to do that. It’s funny – I think he grew up as a fan of BNL when he was a teenager, like before Thrush Hermit and stuff. So, for all his easygoing confidence on stage, I think for him it was a little bit like, ‘oh, I’m with these guys’ – and I’m like, ‘oh, I’m with these guys!’
SP: Well, I certainly follow everything. I like the fact that they’ve got a strong leader. I think they needed that. I was really worried that they were going to end up taking two steps back and going into a mushy place that would put them in a bit of oblivion again – all well-intentioned, but without the drive and the leadership and so on. So I think they are in a positive place that way. I don’t know much about Mulcair. I don’t know him as a guy at all. I only knew Jack because he was my city councilor, and then he was my MP, and I did some charitable stuff with him. I got to know him that way. It’s not like I’m in any sort of political circles or anything.
The other cool thing I would say about the NDP is that you’ve got Charlie Angus and Andrew Cash in there. It’s kind of like having Canada’s Joe Strummer and Mick Jones in the House of Commons! I think it’s pretty cool.
But the ‘Hallelujah’ thing was pretty heavy. I get asked a lot when I play special events, people will say, “we would like to request that you play ‘Hallelujah’,” or it’s something like, “it’s my mom’s sixtieth birthday – could you sing ‘Hallelujah’?”
“Yeah, your mom’s sixtieth birthday is like the Leader of the Opposition dying.”
CI: And a state funeral …
SP: Yeah! A state funeral … But on a selfish level, it was really important to me because at that point I wasn’t sure where I stood with anything. To be picked by Jack’s family – and by Jack before he had passed – I was told that he basically had everything planned out before it happened, not knowing that it was going to be a state funeral, but for what he wanted for the event. It added to my self-worth in a way. I don’t mean that in a way like it boosted my ego, but I just mean that I thought, ‘I guess that I mattered to him personally.’ Not necessarily even to the country – I think in certain ways some people have written me off, and other people will just always be fans – but on a personal level. He could have had just about anybody. He probably could have asked k.d. lang and she would have come and done it. It was a state funeral! But I was so honored to be thought of.
I felt a lot of pressure to do a good job. I got up there and I remember at the very beginning I thought, ‘I’m not going to do this – I’m not going to be able to do a good job!’ But then you just let your body take you away. It was a great moment.
Upcoming Tour Dates for Steven Page:
Feb. 2, Community Living Huronia Fundraiser, Midland ON
Mar. 24, Maclab Centre for the Performing Arts, Leduc AB
Article By: Andrew Gunn, Canadian Interviews
Date of Interview: 10/17/2012
Location: Princess Ave. Playhouse, St. Thomas ON