Joel Plaskett on storms, studios and his Saskatchewan song

by James Brotheridge

Joel Plaskett Emergency
Main Stage, 8:15 p.m.
Friday 8

Over the years, Joel Plaskett’s gone from a being a member of Thrush Hermit to a solo artist to the leader of the Emergency. Lately, besides performing he’s produced records for Mo Kenney, Old Man Luedecke and Sean McCann at his new recording studio, New Scotland Yard. And (touring aside) he’s done it all from his home of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

He’s made honest, off-the-cuff pop music on his ambitious 2009 solo record, the triple-album Three, and blitzed through studios to record the rocking Joel Plaskett Emergency’s Scrappy Happiness in a series of one-takes.

When I talked with Plaskett, he was in New Scotland Yard. At one point, he had to pause the conversation — a soldering iron was left on a piece of cardboard and, before the interview could continue, he had to make sure the sprinklers won’t go off.

(No water-works happened.)

Can you think of an occasion in particular when an outdoor concert gave you an unexpected experience?

We had one this summer when we went to Calgary for Sled Island. We went last year, and it got cancelled. I’d flown out. I spent three days at the Palliser Hotel downtown with no power, basically camping in the nicest hotel in Calgary. This year, they had us back. We had a club show slated, but then Neko Case had to cancel. She couldn’t make her flight or something, so they asked us if we could fill in on the outdoor show two hours before our own set.

It was an outdoor show, and there was a lightning storm basically while we were playing, and we started with this song of mine called “Lightning Bolt” from the last record, Scrappy Happiness. It was pissing rain and there was lightning going off in the distance. It was a total trip. I don’t know if we should’ve been onstage when there was lightning remotely close, but I wasn’t going to argue. We just channeled the energy and rocked out. It was a total blast.

You look out, you see lightning, you play “Lightning Bolt” first.

I have a couple of good songs for battling the elements. I’ve got “Lightning Bolt” and I’ve got a song called “Natural Disaster”.

We had the same thing happen, basically a funnel cloud tornado warning in Louisbourg at Cape Breton last year. It was really wild. We were playing the Fortress of Louisbourg and there was this really crazy weather pattern. You just can’t really control that stuff, and why would you want to?

I’m trying to think right now  do you have any pleasant weather songs?

Pleasant weather songs? I’ve got summertime songs. I’ve got “Harbour Boys” which is good for when the sun’s going down.

I do sometimes think about where I’m at when I’m playing, what I can sing for any given province or place, because I tend to write with geography in mind.

So when you come to Saskatchewan, you know you’ll get hung from a tree if you don’t play “It’s Catchin’ On”, which has the lyrics, “I think it’s catchin’ on, I’m moving to Saskatchewan”?

Yeah, yeah, that one’s going to be in the set list. How could it not? It’s just too much fun. It’s too fun to sing in the province. Even if I do it every time I come there, I feel like I have to, and I enjoy it more when I get to sing it in the place that it’s about.

At the Winnipeg Folk Festival, I saw you do a version of “Extraordinary” a capella. Is that something you’ve done since, and are there any other of your songs that would work with a similar treatment?

I think that would’ve been me winging it. I was there without the band, right?

When I get calls for the rock tunes, I improvise. I have done it with “Come On Teacher”, sort of like spoken word poetry. [Laughs] I mean, one thing I believe is a live show is a live show, and I’m glad that not all of them are recorded, because some of the stuff I do doesn’t really merit any repeated listens. But if I’m feeling it at the time, that’s more important. I think enthusiasm trumps execution most of the time in the live context. Not that I want to have it not be performed well; just that I’ll sometimes do something that, in retrospect, is pretty goofy because it feels right at the time.

Why be precious about it? I believe in entertainment. When you listen to live recordings of Chuck Berry, there are some things that are wildly out of tune, but you know he was doing the duck walk, so what are you complaining about?

How deep into the next album are you?

I’m getting there. I’m not sure what it’s going to sound like or shape up into yet. I’ve got the songs. I’m curating what’s actually going to make the record right now. I’ve got more songs than a record’s worth. I have to finish sometime by the end of this year, and then it’ll come out spring next year. I’ll probably play one or two new songs [at the festival].

Did the experience of Scrappy Happiness affect how you see your music or how you want to record it?

I love Scrappy Happiness and the way we recorded it. It was stressful, but it was fun and I think it turned out well for the most part, though I’d change it all now. But I’d do that to every record I made. I think there was real merit to working at that clip and not second guessing ourselves in that regard.

Having said that, I thought with this record, I’d take the opposite approach. I’ve had a busy, busy number of years with work all backed up in a row. I’ve got a son now, and I’m trying to give more time to my family because I know when I get turned-on in that work fashion, I just go and go. A lot of things fall to the wayside. I’m trying to ease into this record in a different way and see what comes of that.

I’ve spent the last few years building a new studio in Dartmouth and that’s taken up a huge amount of my time and energy, and certainly creativity too. Even just minding the studio is a lot of work.

What lyrical threads or themes do you see in the batch of material you’re sifting through right now?

We lost some friends in Halifax last year under some unfortunate circumstances here and there, so memories of them are showing up. Getting older is showing up a little bit. Not that it’s going to be a sad record, I think. There’s been various things here and there that are creeping into the songs: being in downtown Dartmouth and watching it evolve with the local riff raff on the street, people struggling and people succeeding with this mix of poverty and wealth you’re starting to see everywhere.

It’s finding its way into my writing a little more than I thought it would, as well as the usual love-song reminiscing that shows up on every record in some fashion.

Do you think your songwriting is getting political?

I would hesitate to say that, but maybe it’s getting a little more … social? I don’t know.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.