An exclusive interview with Joel and Bill Plaskett
By Jennifer Wood
Photographs by Lindsay Duncan
You live in nostalgia / And fear for the future / The age of distraction / Is no age at all / There’s much to be learned / From the nothing but silence / The light at the end of the hall
From “Dragonfly” on the Solidarity album, 2017
Joel Plaskett is one of the most-renowned singer-songwriters in Canadian musical history. His father, Bill, has always been a huge inspiration for Joel, but they have never toured together. Until now. Mere days before embarking on a cross-country tour to promote Solidarity, their first album together, they met with The Maritime Edit’s Senior Editor, Jennifer Wood, at the Bicycle Thief, a hip restaurant known for serving “North American food with an Italian soul,” located in an elegant setting on the Halifax harbourfront.
Solidarity’s playlist is an eclectic mix of folk, rock, and even a hint of blues. While the genre varies from song to song, one can easily grasp the Plasketts’ shared perspectives—on politics, heritage, the “downer days,” and even the paranormal. Solidarity is Bill’s first officially recorded album, and he was thrilled to share the experience with his son.
As a heritage bylaw officer, Bill Plaskett, 71, has spent a lot of his career preserving buildings, largely in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Some might say that Bill has played a major role in keeping the town true to its historical roots. Lunenburg is also where Joel, whose birth name is William, was raised until the age of 12. At the age of 41, he still has a deep-rooted nostalgia for the place. He shares Bill’s sensitivities about preservation, and the two continue to be actively involved in heritage projects and activism in Lunenburg and Halifax.
From early on, Joel was encouraged by his parents to pursue music, and he is quick to point out that a lot of his success is thanks to them. His rise to fame began in the early 1990s as the front man for the alternative rock band Thrush Hermit. Joel has won multiple Juno Awards and toured throughout North America, sharing the bill with other Canadian power bands, including Sloan and the Tragically Hip.
I was originally scheduled to meet with Joel and Bill for a 90-minute lunch, but what unfolded was an afternoon of introspective conversation with lots of laughter and delicious food. By the end of our time together, I no longer felt like a semi-crazed fan but rather like a friend who didn’t want to say goodbye.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Bill, upon arriving in North America, you purchased a bus ticket and travelled throughout the continent. Can you tell us a bit about that and about what drew you to Lunenburg? Did this experience solidify your decision to become a musician?
BILL: The experience opened up a new horizon for me. I was a student in England at the time, and there was a student union thing where you could get a transatlantic flight for something like £60. Another part of the package was an option to purchase a Greyhound bus ticket called “99 days for $99,” which permitted travel to any Greyhound destination. One of my most-desired destinations was New Orleans. Throughout my experience, I stayed with distant relatives and friends. I met Joel’s mother, a native of Halifax, in Vancouver, and I visited places like the Grand Canyon, Denver, Mexico City, and San Francisco. That was when the hippie movement was exploding.
I can still remember my entry into Canada. It was such a stark contrast to what was going on in the United States, where people were being shipped off to the Vietnam War. Kids 16 or 17 years old, with shaved heads, were enlisting. There were armed guards at the border, and Canada just seemed so quiet, so civilized. It felt a lot like Britain that way. Joel’s mother and I decided to settle in Halifax. It was a great place to raise kids and do the work that I love, which is preserving the heritage of communities.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Joel, understandably, your father was your first musical influence. When did you decide that you wanted to dedicate your career to music, and what kind of support did you have?
JOEL: I was pretty single-minded about music beginning at an early age. That I have never had a Plan B has helped my career. I was lucky to have the support—and more importantly, the blessing—of my parents. My mother is also artistic; she was a dancer. Neither of them tried to steer me down a more conventional path. They were always more lefty, for lack of a better term, in their politics and in their thinking. I feel so lucky to have had that encouragement because it made it easier for me when I went through the struggles associated with making art my career. I never had to defend myself to my parents. I never felt I had to make a certain amount of money or start a family. I have always had the freedom to follow my own nose, and I consider myself very fortunate and grateful in that respect.
THE MARITIME EDIT: I know that the album’s title, Solidarity, is a testament to the fact that we need solidarity now more than ever, especially in this political climate. Is the title also a reflection of your father-son relationship?
JOEL: The album’s name could potentially be seen from a political perspective. It’s a word associated with politics, unions, and social justice campaigns, but the song “Solidarity” existed before the album title did. I wanted to reference the—relatively speaking—easy ride I have had. The word also makes reference to our shared political views, which are largely inherited. We didn’t run from the political undercurrent of the record because, in some ways, it is generational. The American election campaigns were also happening while we were making this record, and you really couldn’t run from what was taking place there unless you hid from it. Ultimately though, the title Solidarity is about connecting people. It connects Dad and me, and we want it to connect people at a higher level. In the end, it’s fair to say it’s a call to come together.
THE MARITIME EDIT: As a father-son team, what is your working relationship like? Did you keep regular working hours when making this album? How did you manage any artistic differences?
BILL: I don’t think there were any differences really. The album’s process was developed by way of a map that we drew for ourselves. We knew we were recording in the fall, so we knew what needed to be done prior to that.
JOEL: I was also producing the album, and I knew that having a set schedule doesn’t always work. I knew when my sound engineer, Thomas, would be there, and Dad was there for the majority of it. But there were occasions when I was mixing and/or overdubbing things, so when Dad came in, I could say, “So what do you think of this?” Whereas if people are there watching you do things, it can interfere with the creative process and create unnecessary pressure. Ultimately, we chipped away at things and tried new things. Sometimes I would say to Dad, “Just play that song, and we will see where it goes.” With his being so chill, it made for a lot of great recordings. Sometimes your first kick at something is your best and the freshest. At other times, you have to kick a song to death until it becomes alive again. I worked on the album for about 30 days straight. By the end, I was getting a little cross-eyed, but finally it made sense.
I also tend to think a lot about sequence when I make records. I want to know not only what the songs are about but also what the album is about. Obviously, the angle behind Solidarity is that it is a father-son record, a new experience for both of us. It reflects our shared and individual influences. In this case—with the album having two singers, with Dad and I each writing our own songs, and with him bringing some traditional songs to the table—I thought about how to sequence the album so that it would tell some version of the story. Dad and I wanted to alternate back and forth to avoid the concept of Side A–Bill and Side B—Joel because that wouldn’t have represented an album about coming together.
THE MARITIME EDIT: The opening track, ”Dragonfly,” is about a paranormal experience. Can you tell us about it?
JOEL: I felt a spirit or a presence in my studio, and I could tell that this presence was upset. There were things going on there that I couldn’t explain, so I hired a medium—a really great guy whom I use to this day—to help with the building. A dragonfly showed up after the spirit cleared, and I had never seen a dragonfly in Dartmouth before. It felt so strange to see it there. This song is about things in life that we can’t see. It felt as if this spirit may have been looking at us humans and thinking, You think you’ve got this stuff figured out, but I’ve been here for a while and you don’t. It’s as if we are super distracted by social media and screens. Most of us are walking around half asleep and missing the larger picture. I was trying to step outside myself when I wrote this. I don’t know whether I was successful or not, but it felt good, and it represents a change in my thinking about inner connectedness versus individuality. The older I get, the more I understand the concept that life is about shared experience, collectiveness. I am now a parent of an eight-year-old, and I think about what I am going to pass on to him.
BILL: This inner connectedness is not the idea that we go out and conquer other people. It’s about how we channel our shared experience for good in the world. This connection—our connection to the earth and our respect for the natural world, the plants and animals—also represents our future together. We all have purpose.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Could you tell us about your heritage work?
JOEL: Part of what Dad and I have a passion for and a shared sensitivity about is heritage. We believe in passing on our knowledge, learning from the past, and being inspired by places while giving people the opportunity to relive some of their memories. Lunenburg, where I grew up, was an ideal setting for this. I remember my youth through the buildings that make up the town. The idea is that these places we are trying to protect are important.
“The Next Blue Sky” speaks about that. In part, it is about development and the changing landscape of a city. It’s getting harder and harder to feel that attachment when buildings are being torn down. When I walk through Halifax, and the older I get, I tend to feel more and more sad. I miss what I know was there. You can feel one way or another about development, but for me, what is happening here is, in a sense, erasing many memories of the place in which I grew up.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Does the song “The Next Blue Sky” also represent the pull that Atlantic Canadians feel to move west for work?
JOEL: Yes, for sure. A lot of my friends from Atlantic Canada have had to move west. You could name a part of Toronto “Halifax.” And of course, a lot of people end up in Alberta, so there is that as a backstory to the song. But for me, although Halifax is known as a “historic city,” it is becoming less so by the month. Many of those friends have gone west, and the buildings have been replaced with newer, larger ones that don’t seem to make any sense.
BILL: And you know, Joel, you’re pretty young, so to be feeling this way at your age says a lot about the speed at which the city is changing.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Do you enjoy a certain anonymity here in Halifax?
JOEL: I often get recognized here, but more and more it is because of the heritage work that my dad does. He is well known for his heritage work and expertise. There are people who know me as a musician, but most of them know me through my dad’s work first and foremost. Besides, “Plaskett” is an unusual name.
BILL: I am often asked, after producing my ID for something, whether I am related to Joel. I tell them I am his brother.
JOEL: I certainly get recognized in the Maritimes, but by no means am I a household name. By and large though, in the Atlantic provinces, if you get too big for your britches, people will let you know. It doesn’t work here to have an ego. Don’t get me wrong—I have an ego. When I get on stage and start rocking a guitar, I feel like, “OK! Let’s go!” I guess this is my own version of playing sports. Game on! Entertaining on stage is a show. I want to entertain, and I want people to clap, so I am going to dance and make jokes. I am going to try to . . . win even though I am not competing with anyone.
In larger metropolitan centres though, you might find situations in which people are willing to indulge an ego more easily than you would find here. I wouldn't get anywhere if I was strutting around. That shit comes back on you pretty fast.
The only time I really notice it or feel irritated by the recognition is when I am out with my friends or my family. I don’t want to be rude, and I want to engage fans, but it often comes at the expense of a conversation I am trying to have with a friend or when I am out with my wife and son. Most people will respect that and leave me alone. I think it’s because they know that, given this is Halifax, chances are, they will see me on the street the next day. The nice thing about being known for your work, especially in the music industry, is that people relate to and like what you are creating. It’s not like, Oh, you are a celebrity, and so I need to get my picture taken with you because you are famous. I’m not that famous. I guess the more you talk about the perception of fame, the more you feel self-conscious about it anyway. I just don’t indulge in it. I mean, we don’t tour on a bus. We cram into my van. We don’t create distance between ourselves and our audience, and we all like it that way.
THE MARITIME EDIT: How do you wind down after a live performance?
BILL: In the scheme of things, there is still work to be done after a show. There is the teardown and repacking of the equipment, and this in itself can bring you back down again. This work can be a good thing because it can tire you out, but in a good way.
JOEL: I have a hard time sleeping after certain shows. I think this is one of the reasons why many musicians struggle with alcohol. As a depressant, alcohol can bring you down pretty fast. I am good about knowing when to stop, but I usually have a Jameson or two after a particularly energetic performance. At the start of my career, I was doing a lot of the driving, helping with the set-up, performing, and then selling merch and talking with the audience following a gig. We would then have to tear down the show, pack it up, and start the whole thing all over the next day. I would come home from a tour totally wrecked.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Do you have any rituals when you are on the road?
BILL: I like to go to music stores to check out instruments. And dinner is an important time!
JOEL: I like to collect old instruments and check out music stores. Breakfast has become important, as has eating well in general when I am on the road. I can’t eat french fries three times a day anymore. That stuff catches up to me pretty quick now and wreaks havoc on my system.
THE MARITIME EDIT: What do you like to do when you are not performing and making music?
BILL: I like to read and paint, and I still do my heritage work part-time. I am what you would call semi-retired. I also really enjoy getting together with my friends and playing music.
JOEL: I am envious of my dad, that he can still make time to play music as a means to wind down or be social. I used to do more with less of an agenda. Now, being a husband and father, my priorities have shifted a bit.
THE MARITIME EDIT: The song “Help Me Somebody Depression Blues” is such an upbeat reflection on the experience of feeling like shit. It is so inspiring and unlike the platitude of sad songs we have heard. Can you tell us how this song came to be?
JOEL: We found this track on a cassette of Dad’s that had 12 songs on it, and we wanted to re-record the song with a similar sound. So my sound guy and I put Dad in our studio hallway and plugged him into an amp, and I set up the drums so that we could see each other through a window. When we first recorded this track, it sounded a bit older, which worked.
BILL: Like anyone, I have had some low periods. I found a book once that talked about the feeling of not being able to escape. But the premise of this book was that, during a low period, sometimes a light comes on and you are able to come out of it. The inspiration came in part from that. When I wrote this song, it was donkey’s years ago. Like anyone, I have had low periods, but in a way, there is some humour in the song that also makes it relatable.
JOEL: What I really like about this song is how it feels, in that it came from another era. When I am making music, I feel pretty happy and pretty lucky. There can be the perception that making music is a selfish endeavour and you’re not engaged with your community. But oftentimes, you need that solitude and the introspection that it brings to get the job done. I mean, you retreat to create, and that can bring some lows for sure. But let’s face it—sometimes a sad song can be really fucking great.
Joel and Bill Plaskett are currently on tour with opening act the Mayhemingways.
Solidarity is available from all good record stores.
What They Ate
Merlot, Duckhorn, Napa Valley 2013
Roasted Cauliflower Zuppa, shaved Brussels sprout and cauliflower sauté, chili and herb oil drizzle
House-Made Meatballs stuffed with fior di latte mozzarella, San Marzano tomato, pesto Genovese and parmigiano
Livon Pinot Grigio, Fruili Italy 2015
Roasted Cauliflower Zuppa, shaved Brussels sprout and cauliflower sauté, chili and herb oil drizzle
Handmade Ravioli, “crab cake” stuffing, garlic, white wine, cream, fresh chives, bread crumb sprinkles
Joel and Bill’s Favourite Maritime Spots
- Lunenburg County
- Parrsboro Shore