Joel Plaskett’s soundtrack for life’s journey

Joel Plaskett emerges from the pandemic with a contemplative new album. Photo: Submitted

Talking with Joel Plaskett about middle age, finding one’s way home, and surviving the pandemic

An early spring day last year found me sitting outside the dentist’s office in my parents’ car. I had driven my sister to her appointment, which was running long. I fiddled with the radio and made occasional eye contact with a man drinking out of a paper bag sitting on a stoop close by. 

Between the new sounds, came a familiar voice. It was Joel Plaskett, crooning what sounded like a ballad, about having gratitude for each other and the frontline workers during the pandemic, while the “world is slowing down.” I listened fixedly as this figure from my past sang plainly about my experiences of the past year. Then my sister came out, and we drove home. 

It was an unexpected but familiar experience — being seen by Joel, while setting out on an uncertain path. I grew up in Dartmouth and came of age musically right about when he released his Three album. Coming of age musically in the late 2000s meant that I spent more time listening to Rihanna and the Black Eyed Peas than Joel but nonetheless, he was there, making small but frequent appearances on the radio during drives to school, and at free summer concerts. 

Just like with “Barrett’s Privateers,” my friends and I would belt out the lyrics of “Love This Town” when we watched him live at Alderney Landing. Even though we did sort of love Halifax, we were also 17, antsy to get going to wherever life was going to take us. 

The lyrics to some of his other songs, like those in “Through and Through and Through” felt more fitting for these unanswered questions. “I’m the Berlin Wall / I’m a Communist / you’re a wrecking ball / in a summer’s dress” was mysterious. Lifted from some future which held knowing, raves, protests, and heartbreak in its distant palm. 

In “Work Out Fine” Joel sings, “all my friends / where did they go? / To Montreal / to Toronto.” I also left the East Coast, moving to Montreal for university. When you move away, suddenly you’re branded by where you are from. Being from the Maritimes, it was easy to make friends with other people from the Maritimes. These new friends, old friends from Halifax, and I were suddenly one big Maritime clan. 

One of the many things we had in common was our growing love for Joel Plaskett’s music. I think I saw one of his shows every year of university. They were comforting in their familiarity. Joel would sing the same hits, and we would dance and sing along. He would make the same jokes while wearing silky printed bowling shirts, and we would all laugh. He would bring the same earnest energy of his performance down onto the floor after the show, and we would stick around a bit to overhear his conversation. Each concert was cool, and an affirmation of home. 

Joel’s songs have provided respite when I’ve found myself alone, moving through various cities and small towns for different jobs and studies. I would listen to “Rollin, Rollin, Rollin,” and speak alongside him that I was “gathering no moss.” I would play his rockier sounds when I was feeling angsty and would feel something like pride in my heart when I heard him sing about crossing the harbour via the Dartmouth ferry, or the Macdonald Bridge. 

Sometimes, I feel lonely, but not wanting to listen. It felt too cyclical. I wasn’t back in the Maritimes but nor was I totally in my new home. All the same, his lyricism drew me in. I was also a budding writer, appreciating how he blended the irreverent and aphoristic in his verses. Even as his songs turned ballad for me in their communal re-enactments, the lyrics themselves felt like conversations Joel was having with himself, defining his lessons learned, as he himself felt his way through his early adult life. I listened. 

Joel turned 44 in 2020, and released a new album, titled 44. The album contains four sets of 11 songs, each set focusing on a different theme: leaving one’s home, returning to find one’s home unfamiliar, transitioning to being found, then arriving at a personal destination. 

Critic Stephen Cooke from the Chronicle Herald calls the album “autobiographical, philosophical, psychoanalytical, and spiritual,” while critic Adam White called it “comfort food,” and Josh O’Kane from the Globe and Mail says it demonstrates the value of “slowing down to enjoy the moment.” 

We’re here for a conversation with Joel, not an album review, but it is fitting that he released 44 during a year where we had all been made to slow down, and exist, in very long moments. The pandemic brought me from my freshly carved-out life in Toronto back to Halifax. With this came moments of reflection that many of my friends also say that pandemic had foisted onto them. As we make sense of the changing world, the new album resonates. 

So many Haligonians grew up listening to you singing about Halifax — how much is your music influenced by where you are from? 
“It’s been a huge influence for me. Halifax has all these artists in town and a strong sense of place, and it’s also informed my own sense of place as I’ve never lived elsewhere. I remember listening to Bruce Springsteen at this live performance of ‘Rosalita,’ which was 11 minutes long and really celebratory, and I realized that what I really liked about him as a writer, was the sense of New Jersey he had in his music. And I wasn’t really out to imitate that, but I recognized a parallel there, this sort of melancholy sense of place. When I would reference, say, the Dartmouth ferry, I was really digging in my heels, saying that this was a song for back home. But I also think the universal lies in the idiosyncratic, and that it’s an easier place for me to be.”

What is the mood of Halifax that you try to capture in your music? 
“I didn’t grow up in a super working-class neighbourhood; we were in the suburbs. Springsteen writes a lot about working-class Jersey, and that wasn’t my experience. That being said, Halifax definitely wasn’t a bustling place in the ‘90s, and certainly had an underdog status in the national context. There wasn’t a lot going on, but there was a lot of art. Some music did come out East, and there used to be this really cool venue called the Flamingo, that people would come and play at, but there were fewer international musicians touring here generally, so I think that people had to entertain each other … By the late ‘90s though, a lot of Nova Scotians started leaving. So, when I would tour, there would be a sea of Maritimers at my concerts, and all of the sudden the Nova Scotian flag would go up and everyone would say ‘You’re from back home!’ I think I stayed because of a sense of place, and opportunity, but there was definitely a weird serendipity in my staying, in being able to connect with other Nova Scotians living elsewhere.” 

Your 44 album was released right at the beginning of the pandemic; do you feel like any of the themes from your album spoke to themes or experiences from the pandemic? 
“I’ve been a touring musician for all my adult life, and I think that in some of the songs, there was sort of this sense of trying to slow down and take time to move through memories and ideas, and life, at a different pace. And then that got forced upon us. The first part of the pandemic was definitely difficult for me, because it happened right before my tour for my 44 album. I think that touring is the period when the music I make becomes gestural and naturally starts changing, after a really hyper-focused creation period. So I had to change my flow. With touring, you tend to move through places so rapidly, you’re just taking in the big picture environment, but I feel like during the pandemic, I’ve been moving really slowly … I think the album contextualized itself a bit in the sense that it’s a boxset, which inherently takes a lot of time to digest, and I got some really nice notes from people who told me they had listened to the whole thing. So, it’s definitely been difficult and surreal, but I’ve been trying to find blessings in it.” 

To you, what is your 44 album about? How do you think it differs from the tenor of your Three album? 
“I feel like there are production touches that I’ve developed through experimentation that are still there. I also think that there are lyrical connections that are in both albums, in between the lighthearted and melancholy. I was also processing the loss of a few friends, which I think appears in my album. I feel like in both projects, I was set out to do something ambitious, and I do feel like the numerical feel of Three relates to 44. I also feel like I don’t often know what I’m doing when I’m doing it, but I have a sense of what I’m doing. I think that themes and ideas in 44 tended to make constellations and relate to themes of Three, and my earlier work, when I’m reflecting later on.” 

What is your favourite song from the new album? 
“I’m quite fond of ‘Kingfisher.’ It definitely felt like it transitioned something in my mind, with the album. I’m also quite fond of ‘A Benefit for Dreamland.’ We brought a lot of local female musicians on deck to perform it — did a live recording, which you can find on YouTube. The performance itself was kind of emotional, and also cathartic, because I knew that it was going to be the last song on the album. The last line of the song is ‘you’re a soft drug from a wildflower / life’s a slow dive through the magic hour’ — I think the song itself is about slowness and togetherness.” 

What are you looking forward to musically? 
“I’m excited to perform, and to feel more relaxed. It doesn’t necessarily have to get back with what it used to be, but I am a hopeful person, and I’m hopeful to perform again. I’ve been doing a lot of introspective and solitary writing, which I’ve been enjoying, and which I think might find a place. I’ve also been doing some video performances and guitar tutorials for old songs. There isn’t a lot of urgency at the moment, which I think is OK.” 

What makes you excited about Halifax now? 
“I’m interested to see how the city can grow, and become a busier place, while keeping a balance between capital and a sense of uniqueness. So, for example, if you are removing an old building, you have to be mindful that you are removing a place that held memories for people. Now that’s not to say that every old building can stay, but I’m interested to see how Halifax develops. Sense of history runs through cultures, and not all histories are good, and we have to acknowledge that, but it is through this flow that we develop a sense of who we are. Histories and cultures keep us alive.” 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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