In the upcoming July/August issue of The Walrus, I scribbled many words about K’naan, the Somali-born music star who emigrated to Canada (by way of Harlem) as a boy in the early ’90s. Seven years ago, he became one of this country’s favourite urban acts upon the release of his debut album, The Dusty Foot Philosopher. The project went on to win the first of his four Juno Awards, and led him to sign a serious deal with A&M/Octone, a heavy-hitting record label based in Manhattan.
During the last World Cup, K’naan’s fame spread nearly planetwide, when Coca-Cola turned his song “Wavin’ Flag” into a multinational anthem. The exception was America, the music business’s premier market. This summer, he’ll attempt another cross-border invasion with a new album, Country, God or the Girl, that’s been deliberately designed for mass US appeal.
In the spring, K’naan and I met in Toronto to talk about his music and more. Below, some of that conversation, dancing around the parts you can read in the magazine.*
Matthew McKinnon: I have a pet theory about the American music industry: that it’s adopted the blockbuster model that has driven Hollywood for years. Lately, big labels only want artists who can move really big numbers; most of their money gets spent on the relative few who already are or may yet become superstars. There’s less cash and concern left over for smaller artists, smaller projects.
K’naan: Oh, it’s true. You have the chosen very few who [get to experience] that kind of platform. In America, the king is still Top 40 radio. Either you’re getting played on every city’s Top 40 station or you’re getting played on another kind of station, and the difference across the country is something like 60 million people a week. It’s a very significant awareness factor. To be honest, that world is what my new music is entering into. I’m not shy about reaching people. I’ve never been… Whether it’s the right audience for my work is yet to be seen.
Matthew McKinnon: You have a lot of fans, particularly Canadian fans, who have followed you since The Dusty Foot Philosopher. The music you made then is different than the music you make now, and at least some of that crowd seems unhappy about that. You’re on Twitter. You can read what people think about old versus new.
K’naan: Listen, I’m the least affected person by those kinds of things. It’s not that I don’t see it; it’s not that I don’t hear it or think about it. But I don’t live within the context of other people’s expectations. (more…)
Damian Abraham is standing on the front steps of the Masonic Temple, a brick landmark in downtown Toronto that was once the city’s premier concert hall. He’s wearing a striped polo shirt and tie-dyed hat with a large, realistic eyeball on the front, which only accentuate Abraham’s physically imposing figure. He’s bald and burly, with a face that can morph from babyish at one moment to seemingly furious the next.
There is a skeletal television crew around him — a box light, a cameraman and one producer talking on his Blackberry, coordinating with technicians at MuchMusic headquarters a few blocks away. Abraham quickly runs through some patter until he’s cut off by the producer, signalling that they’re about to go live.
“Guess who’s baaack?” Abraham opens. This isn’t the first time he’s been in front of camera at this iconic locale. Four years ago, his hardcore punk band Fucked Up was banned from this very building after their live television debut — a performance in a men’s washroom — ended with thousands of dollars in property damage. That was during a live taping for MTV Canada, the network that currently occupies this building. Now he’s back, working for the other music channel in town. (more…)
Spoons, “Nova Heart” (1981)
With its ethereal guitar line, pulsating drums, and Gordon Deppe’s haughty tenor, “Nova Heart” remains an iconic track from the new wave era. This Burlington, Ontario band generated a string of sleek singles, but it would never top this one.
Rational Youth, “Dancing on the Berlin Wall” (1982)
References to the atom bomb and Len Deighton’s fictional spy Harry Palmer make this a synth-pop meditation on the Cold War. It’s although worth noting that the song’s peppy electro beat predated Afrika Bambaataa’s seminal “Planet Rock” by at least a couple of months. (more…)
Meet John Roby — a writer, musician, composer, and Canadian citizen who says he is sick and tired of Stephen Harper, his big Conservative family, and the political turmoil that the Prime Minister’s leadership has produced. In the wake of Ottawa’s recent wave of political scandals (Bev Oda, Bruce Carson, and Conservative contempt of Parliament, just to name a few), Roby felt himself compelled into action. “In the March  edition of The Walrus I read Erna Paris’s provocative essay, ‘The New Solitudes,’ on Harper and the erosion of democracy in this country during his tenure,” Roby reports. “It made me, usually the most complacent of political souls, want to exchange my usual cocktail for a Molotov and run to the barricades.”
And so he wrote a bodacious little ditty about his feelings (which, it must be noted, neither The Walrus nor The Walrus Blog specifically endorse — we are merely messengers here). Earnest, gutsy, with a Joe Cocker-ish growl and a melody in the vein of Randy Newman’s best tunes, “The Harper Song (Steve, It’s Time to Leave)” was born. We present it here as one voter’s heartfelt take on Canada’s fourth federal election in the past seven years. (more…)
A feminist take on Liz Phair, half a lifetime after her landmark Exile in Guyville
When Liz Phair released Exile in Guyville in 1993, I was fourteen years old and only beginning to understand the less than optimal implications of growing up female in a man’s world. Phair has described herself as a “diamond of pressurized anger” in creating the collection of songs that became a soundtrack for disgruntled, dissatisfied girls, and that has ranked on Rolling Stone and Spin lists of greatest albums of all time. So many of us latched on to her sentiments of anger and dismay, buoyed by the accessibility of her lyrical rage, sexual agency, and unabashed “fuck the haters” attitude. Given our culture’s recent wave of nineties nostalgia, typified by this month’s Matador at 21: The Lost Weekend in Las Vegas (where Phair performed), this seems an appropriate time to revisit her status as a feminist icon.
Now I’m thirty-one, sitting with Phair at a hotel bar on Robson Street in Vancouver, watching her drink an herbal tea. Five albums later, she’s candid about everything from music industry drama to (almost-too-personal) emotional trauma, much like Exile was over fifteen years ago. When I apologize for rambling from early morning flight exhaustion, she leans forward and touches my leg reassuringly, still fulfilling the unintentional promise she made to teenage girls so many years ago: that someone should and will listen to you.
Meanwhile, I’m trying not to be distracted by how stunning she is. I remind myself that detailed descriptions of her “shiny blonde hair” and “striking blue eyes” do not a feminist interview make. When I confess I’m a culture writer, not a music critic, Phair is eager to strike up a conversation about gender. “It’s so hard for me to just say small things for you,” she admits. “I’ve shut up about (feminism) for the last five years. I’ve been patted on the head. But when I start it’s hard to stop. It feels like I’m vomiting because I repress so much. And then I have to dial it down, dial it down.” (more…)
New albums by Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave’s Grinderman, reviewed
There’s something sinister and sad and kind of ugly about the first seconds of Leonard Cohen’s latest live album. Songs from the Road opens with a recording made one year ago today at Ramat Gan Stadium in Tel Aviv; the crowd applauds in 2/4 time as Cohen takes the stage to sing “Lover Lover Lover” from 1974’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony. The knee-jerk, gut-level reaction is that there’s something awfully gauche about clapping to a dirge whose refrain pleads, “Lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, come back to me.” It elevates the song to the status of arena rock standard, reducing this later-life Cohen to showman, to vendor of spectacle: a role which has been imposed upon him in the past five years.
It’s a part he’s played out of necessity and, one imagines, with great uneasiness. The elephant in the room is Cohen’s financial problem, the result of long-time business manager Kelley Lynch siphoning millions from his retirement account, leaving the usually reclusive poet/novelist/songwriter with little recourse but to churn out more work, and exhaustively tour the globe.
This air of obligation hangs heavy over most of his recent work, from the rushed-to-market feel of 2006’s Book of Longing, a compilation of poetry and illustrations that reads like the B-side to much of Cohen’s more accomplished writing, to the 2009 release of Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 (also not very good), and now to this Songs from the Road — the second live album, following 2008’s Live in London, to survey his last two years of touring. But where the London release documented an entire, solitary concert, Songs from the Road stitches together various sets recorded in Tel Aviv, Helsinki, Glasgow, San Jose, England’s London, Ontario’s London, and elsewhere. It’s a best-of live album, padding out the catalogue of an artist whose output has been compiled into a bulk of best-of albums, including The Essential Leonard Cohen, The Best of Leonard Cohen, and the uninspiringly titled More Best of Leonard Cohen. (more…)
Hawksley Workman has always been something of a Canadian secret. Over the past decade, the Juno Award–winning singer-songwriter has released ten critically acclaimed albums on which he played most, if not all, of the instruments. He has produced records for the likes of Tegan and Sara, Great Big Sea, and Serena Ryder, and plays shows to consistently packed houses across the country. Musically, the Huntsville, Ontario native transcends definition and expectation. On the same album, you might find soft acoustic ballads, sexually charged rock, and glam-cabaret numbers, all enhanced by Workman’s soaring voice and nuanced lyrical sensibility.
Despite his seemingly endless store of hummable tunes, Workman’s name has scarcely risen above a whisper south of the border, leaving his legions of Canadian fans simultaneously puzzled and eager to keep him to themselves. This month, however, the secret is out, as Workman has just released his ten-year-old debut album, For Him and the Girls, in the States. Canadian fans needn’t feel cheated: Workman will soon release his eleventh and twelfth albums. Meat will be out on January 19, and Milk will be digitally released over a five-month period beginning in the new year. In addition, Workman will embark on a twenty-two-city national tour in the spring.
In the midst of preparing for his big year to come, Workman was kind enough to sit down with me and chat about his upcoming albums, the limitations of genre, growing up in rural Ontario, and more. What resulted was a fascinating glimpse into the mind of one of Canada’s most hardworking and gifted musical virtuosos.
You have two new albums coming out in 2010, and one of them, Milk, is set to digitally release all the music before the physical product actually comes out. Why did you choose that strategy?
Now that I’m without a major label (which is a blessing), we just decided that we would do things unconventionally. It’s hard to know how to play the game anymore — there are no rules. For a while, it was sort of our standard idea that [illegal] downloading was somehow helping [the indie musician's] cause. Now I’m not so sure. I’m starting to feel the pinch of it. But using the internet as a way to sell music is incredible.
You’ve always had a very distinctive, cryptic web presence. Your Twitter account and mass emails are full of riddles and ambiguities that really draw people in.
A lot of people I know have decided to embrace the internet in its entirety, and I don’t know if I could go quite there. So I meet in the middle and just do what I feel comfortable with. Twitter seemed like my kind of thing. It’s 140 characters, sort of like Polaroids.
That’s a great way of putting it, because I find that your music is characterized largely by its use of imagery and atmosphere. Your lyrics are much more rooted in poetry than narrative. Is that intentional? Do you generally find yourself gravitating toward depicting a series of images rather than a linear story?
I’m a horrible storyteller. It’s my nature to speak in images. I live in a rather cloudy, constant state of observation, which is a hassle for anybody who’s with me. What happens is a convoluted clump of images ends up being the song. It’s not very tidy. I used to beat myself up about it. I always wished I was a songwriter who could tell a story, but I think I’m more of a songwriter who paints a dozen or so pictures.
Along with being visual, your music is very whimsical. Do you find music to be an escape through which you can shape an idealized world?
I do, now that I think of it. My first couple of records were very idealized. I was a kid who never really experienced anything, so I was trying to write from a place of, “What if I had these experiences? What if I had these great lovers? What if I’d been to these great cities?” And what’s interesting is that when you live a little and you have these experiences, the fantasy kind of morphs into a complicated reality. You don’t realize when you’re young how horrible it can all be.
This growing awareness of the world’s harsh realities is especially apparent on 2006′s Treeful of Starling.
You’re right, Treeful was my big political record. I tried to be elegant about it, because a lot of the political songs that have been written post-Vietnam have not really lasted. “Born in the U.S.A.” has a real shelf life. I’d love there to be more political music. I wish people were speaking out more.
This month, you released your first album, For Him and the Girls, in the States. It came out domestically back in 1999.
Yeah! Why did you pick that album as your American debut?
I’m one of those artists who thinks the story of my career makes a little more sense if you read it in order. [Meat and Milk] would confuse a lot of people who thought they were coming to me for the first time. But I don’t know how I’m going to draw the parallel between what I was ten years ago and what I am now, because there’s just a lot of life between now and then. Nobody tells you that things are so difficult. They don’t teach you what you really need to know.
Do you still feel good about For Him and the Girls?
Oh, yeah. It’s a scary record for me to listen to. I hear a very young and naïve, very strange fellow on there, who had never been on an airplane, who had never been anywhere, who had never had a real relationship. It’s like time travelling. I don’t even know how I made that record. I broke a lot of rules, and I don’t even remember quite how I did it.
What else can we expect from the new albums?
Both records are cohesive, but they don’t sound anything alike. Milk is an electro Europop record produced officially by a Swedish dude, [Martin Trome,] which I’ve never done before. Thematically speaking, the records are funny because they were written between the end of a devastating relationship and the beginning of an absolutely brilliant relationship. I don’t know how to say that in code; I’m going to have to work on that. I usually try to avoid bringing that kind of stuff to my public life, but it’s kind of inevitable.
Especially when you’re doing something as personal as songwriting.
Somebody said the other day, “How well do people know you just based on your music?” They know me pretty good, because I find it pretty hard to fib in songwriting.
Well, in the early years of your career, you received a lot of press accusing you of developing a false persona. You published a series of personal ads in Toronto’s Now Magazine devoted to Isadora, your fictional underwater muse. [These ads were later collected into a book of poetry, Hawksley Burns for Isadora]. Then, there was a controversial biography on your website [which has been removed] in which you claimed to have tap-danced at a Dutch academy and made a living as a lake ice-cutter. Journalists raised quite a stir about these embellishments.
In the early days, I felt uninteresting to myself. I was a kid who grew up in rural Ontario. I never really fit into my surroundings, but I also really fit in. I grew up a hick and I still am one, but I also had a certain desire for refined things. Journalists definitely felt like I was trying to pull one over on them…People were saying, “Hey, we know you’re a rural kid who grew up pushing cars out of snow banks. You’re not pulling one over on us, you faux feather boa wearing…” But people are completely willing to buy into the artifice of David Bowie or Bob Dylan or any of the great artificials. There’s a certain unproductive nature to it, and I think our culture can use all the help it can get at the moment. That kind of glib dismissal just for the sake of hearing one’s own voice is a bit sad.
You’ve done a lot of collaborative work to boost the careers of other Canadian musicians: you’ve produced albums for Tegan and Sara, Sarah Slean, and most recently, Hey! Rosetta. Do you feel that this collaborative initiative is an important part of Canada’s music culture?
I’ve always wanted that. I’ve always felt like I was a good hub on a wheel that had a lot of very interesting spokes on it. Everyone I’ve worked with has had a remarkable amount of staying power, and I’ve been a part of their careers at a very early time. To think of the people I’ve been able to make records with is a bit of a mind-blow to me. Working with somebody like Slean, for instance. She’s absolutely brilliant. Tegan and Sara, they were eighteen when we made their first record together, so they were so energetic and ready for anything. With Hey! Rosetta, my job with them was to stay out of the way and keep reminding them how good they are. Most of my collaborations now are songwriting, which is, in a way, the most exciting. I realize that I’m getting older and more funny-looking, so my chances of being on MuchMusic are getting slimmer, but it’s interesting for me to write songs for these kids who are doing that.
This communal aspect of Canadian music seems to be something you’re deeply invested in, from the collaborations to your frequent participation in folk festivals.
It’s everything. I think it’s because I grew up in the church. I learned so much of the nuance of writing music and performing music by going to church, realizing that the best part of it was singing and the sandwiches afterwards. When I was in my early teens, I thought I’d go either way — that I’d either be a musician or a preacher. They both involve music and community, which spoke to me at a very young age.
Do you feel influenced by the Canadian folk tradition?
Absolutely. If you’re including Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Bruce Cockburn, and Neil Young into that, our folk traditions have inspired and influenced the whole world…It’s because of our observational nature. Americans shoot first and ask questions later, and that’s not the best way to write great music. Canada is all nuance and survival, because it’s too easy to die here. The seasons will kill you. The winter will kill you. The mountains will kill you. Consequently, we’re on our creative toes to keep us warm and safe. I think we sit inside and look out at what’s going on. Then, we have a big, loud teenage brother to the south that does things that embarrass us. Our cultural disposition is very strange, but it has allowed us to develop a refined ability to make songs.
It seems that one of the more limiting aspects of the music business is the idea of genre, and any article that’s written about you will classify you differently. How do you feel about being put into these categories?
Genre is something I’m fascinated by, in that it usually comes with a hairstyle and fashion attire. On the CBC’s website [recently], they described me as hip hop, and I thought, “Well, that’s interesting.” I mean, hip hop is what I listen to almost exclusively now, but I don’t know if I’m a hip-hop artist. When I was young, I was just under the impression that there was good and bad, not that there was a need to define it.
Which of your songs are you most proud of?
If I made the list it would be embarrassing. There are some I’ve written that I think are intimidating, like “Don’t Be Crushed” or “Ice Age.” They’re really good, and I don’t know how to do that. There’s a certain astrological alignment that has to happen. I can write a good song any old day of the week, but something that has that kind of weight to it, that’s not just me. That’s having something a little more special.
You’re participating in the CBC’s Great Canadian SongQuest, for which you wrote a song about Algonquin Park. Are you happy with how it turned out?
Yeah, it’s pretty kooky, but it’s fun. You only are who you are when you write. If you’re going through personal crisis, that’s what ends up on the record; if you’re disengaged with your career, that’s what goes on the record, and it becomes such a human experiment. So unfortunately — or fortunately — I was sick and a bit depressed when I wrote that Algonquin Park song. Maybe that bleeds into it. It wasn’t the song I was expecting to write, but it’s what got written.
(Photo by Ivan Otis)
Full disclosure: for roughly four years in high school, I played in a band called Scare Tactic with Jonah “Guinea Beat/Mr. Jo” Falco, drummer for Canada’s best hard-core punk band, Fucked Up. Long before they won 2009’s Polaris Music Prize, for Canadian album of the year, the Toronto sextet recorded one of their earliest demos in my basement.
There are a lot of good bands out there, but a rare few have It, that intangible quality that one can sense only once they’ve taken the stage. When It happens, you don’t care about your job, you don’t care about your girlfriend — nothing else matters. I recently saw hard rock supergroup Them Crooked Vultures blow out the back wall of Toronto’s Sound Academy. They had It.
Scare Tactic ended amicably, so I was very interested to discover a posting on Fucked Up’s blog announcing a secret concert somewhere in T.O. this week. A phonecall to Falco landed me on the guest list at Lee’s Palace, where the band jumped onto a Wednesday night bill headlined by the U.K.’s The Horrors. The Polaris winners opened their set with a hypnotic four guitar and bass intro. Singer Damian “Pink Eyes” Abraham strode on stage wearing a red baseball hat, white basketball shorts and a blue T-shirt with the pro-dog slogan “Pugs Not Drugs.” The hat held firm for most of the show, but the shirt lasted less than two songs. As is his customary style, Pink Eyes let his gut fly free. (Thankfully, his shorts stayed on.) More impressively, he took command of the crowd in a way that only an experienced front man can. He glared at the crowd, stalked the stage, and climbed onto speakers; he finished the set by prowling around the audience, screaming in people’s faces and standing on top of tables. The band, made up of Falco (drums/guitar), Mike “10,000 Marbles” Haliechuk (guitar), Josh “Gulag” Zucker (guitar), Ben “Young Governor” Cook (guitar) and Sandy “Mustard Gas” Miranda (bass), played with tightness forged by countless tours. Fucked Up made excellent use of their multiple guitar assault. Each guitar added something different to every song, rather than just doubling or tripling specific parts. Despite Damian’s repeated insistence that this was just a warm-up show with a “half-assed,” thirty-minute set, the experience was far better than that.
I left the punk scene shortly after my six years with various incarnations of Scare Tactic. My tastes have since shifted toward metal and rock ’n’ roll. I don’t listen to much hard-core nowadays, but have no doubt why Fucked Up beat out such indie luminaries as Metric for this year’s Polaris. Simply put, it’s because they deserved it. The Chemistry of Common Life, Fucked Up’s winning disc, is a hell of an album. Forget the offensive name (chosen, Falco has told me, because the band was never meant to last); Fucked Up is the real deal, a great band that will undoubtedly enjoy more hard-earned success. They have It.