Tom Power is Lifting Up Our Spirits on Q
by James Mullinger
photographs: Denis Duquette
He’s the host of CBC Radio’s q. He is the lead singer of The Dardanelles. He has interviewed everyone from Harry Styles to Margaret Atwood, Dan Aykroyd to Emma Stone. George Clooney to Margaret Trudeau, Guillermo del Toro to Chuck D. And during the COVID-19 lockdown he was there for us all every day and launched a brand new TV chat show from his home titled What’re You At? With Tom Power.
If you are reading this magazine, chances are that part of your daily routine is tuning into CBC Radio to hear Tom Power on q. Hailing from St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, he started his career programming folk music on college radio while studying folklore at Memorial University. In 2008, after a stint as a news announcer for a local radio station, Tom joined CBC as the host of Deep Roots. At 21, he was the youngest national radio host since Peter Jennings. In 2011, he became the host of CBC Music Mornings, their daily-morning national music program. In 2016 he took over q on Radio One. And, in 2020, in response to the nationwide lockdown, launched a new television show on CBC, What’re You At? With Tom Power on Sundays at 8pm. So how did he become one of Canada’s greatest interviewers? Three-time show guest James Mullinger turns the tables on Tom Power and learns how he landed one of CBC’s most coveted and sought-after jobs, and continues to raise the bar on a daily basis — even during the COVID-19 lockdown, when his show was combined with The Current and he brought us daily updates that gave us the inspiration and strength to keep going.
[EDIT]: We have all seen how poorly interviewing can be done on late night American shows. But you have found a way to convey your admiration and respect for guests without allowing that to trample on a very natural conversation. How did you learn that skill?
TOM POWER: I’m not pandering to the audience of this magazine, but I was thinking about this the other day, when someone told me that their girlfriend is from Newfoundland and that she always gets a bit homesick listening to the show. And I said, “But my accent isn’t that strong.” And please know that because I am from the East Coast, it is incredibly hard for me to say nice things about myself. She said “No, it has more to do with the way that you talk to people. It has more to do with the environment that you create for them. It feels like a kitchen party in Atlantic Canada.”
The answer is I don’t know. When I first started doing the show, I didn’t have any idea how to do it. I was kind of doing impressions of people who I admire in this job, and I think that works but… Like with stand up you start off doing impressions of your favourite comics and then eventually find your own style. I would listen to As It Happens and do a version of Carol Off. Listen to The Current and do a version of Anna Maria Tremonti. I would listen to Howard Stern or Marc Maron or Terry Gross. But over time, like a golfer, I just stopped thinking about it.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, we don’t see celebrity; we just see people as humans and as they are and that’s what I think I do. When Nickelback came to Newfoundland and Labrador and they were like the biggest band in the world, and Chad Kroeger brought security with him to a bar in St. John’s because he thought he needed it. But no one bothered him. I am not attracted to celebrity or fame. I know that deep down they are vulnerable about things. They are normal people so I just talk to them in the same way I would in any normal conversation.
[EDIT]: I like that you have passion for people who are passionate about what they do. The one thing they all have in common, no matter what they do or how famous they are, is that they have a good work ethic. What in your upbringing gave you this respect for work ethic?
TOM: That’s a good question; I’ve never thought about that before. I think when you care about what you do you end up working really hard at it. My dad used to say that if you love what you do, you never really work at it. With comedy, even when you are slogging it, it’s still kind of fun. When I’m here at ten at night, it’s still fun. I think in the past there has been a tendency to view artists as these mythical icons who were born with some God-given ability that turned them into these celebrities. Inherent in that was this idea that they are better. It’s an odd thing to call someone a god or an icon. What you are hearing is that because you and I have made stuff, and because almost all of my friends act, direct, do stand up, I know how much work it takes. So I’m not interested in what makes you do so great. And what did you have to do to do this. And I find they love talking about it.
[EDIT]: You don’t need to be interested in that field or genre. They all toiled and worked to get where they are. There is no short cut. You can’t trick an audience. TOM: Well, you can get close. But if you really connect... I can’t think of a single human that we have had on q who hadn’t worked really hard to get where they are. Whether that be late nights, being broke, writing scripts or thirteen hours in a tour van, it is really important.
[EDIT]: What was your upbringing in St. John’s like?
TOM: My mum was a teacher. She taught English. My dad was an instructor for the community college, but before that he was one of the people who formed the big public-sector union in Newfoundland. I think because of that I was raised with a deep respect for kind living, a deep abiding empathy for everyone who is working. I remember my dad not taking a turn because he wanted the cab driver to go first because he is working. I was raised Catholic with a rare, human Catholicism: we are all equal; we all deserve love. A rare, beautiful, humanist Catholicism, and they always instilled in me a very union, lefty thing that no one is to be above anyone else. Everyone deserves respect and love, and we should think about these things critically all the time. So, when people come in to the studio that’s what we do. What you sense in Newfoundland and Labrador is a respect for people. That’s not to say there aren’t problems with inequality, but you sense a respect for people who are trying. And I try to see people that way when they come in. I am also aware that they may not always want to be here, but they have to promote an album.
[EDIT]: How can you tell when someone comes in and really doesn’t want to be there, and how do you deal with that?
TOM: I have a hunch right away, but what I try to do is make them feel very welcome and very normal in the first couple of minutes before I do the interview. Like when you were on, we had a little chat before.
[EDIT]: Yes, it definitely put me at ease.
TOM: I always try and do that. When a big movie star comes in, I introduce them to everyone — cameras, sound, producer. Melissa and I will make a little joke, and they will just get the environment we have here. Before I turn the mics on, I will ask what time they came in, when they are leaving, talk flights, and I’m not being Machiavellian. I just want to talk to them, and that puts them at ease.
[EDIT]: Many people don’t realize this, but celebrities hate fawning. Sure, they want to know that you didn’t hate the movie but that’s it. One of my favourites was when you interviewed T Bone Burnett. Your love for him was apparent, but it never overshadowed what needed to be talked about.
TOM: Chris Trowbridge, our producer, suggested we put a lot of music into it. We talked about his new project but used that as an opportunity to jump off into his other work, and I did something interesting there. I did at one point tell him music and art can change your life.
[EDIT]: And clearly the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack did change the course of your life. What you do now musically was defined and determined by that.
TOM: I can’t diminish that, but I wanted to talk to him like a normal person. Chris did really intense research, and we found a recording of one of the first bands he ever played in. We found this old rumour and asked if he played drums on this record, and it turned out he had. I think because we had done the research and studied his new record, he gave us explicit permission to ask him anything. We weren’t trying to get a Bob Dylan question. We weren’t doing a fawning interview. He knew I’m a musician and he liked that too, so we could talk on equal terms. I reminded him I knew Robbie Robertson. So when it came to O Brother, I asked him a bunch of questions and why it worked. I had said to Chris, “I want to tell him,” and he said, “Yeah, take that opportunity because you don’t get many of them in your life.” No one gets that opportunity. I know you talked to Jerry Seinfeld.
[EDIT]: Yes, and I think he appreciated speaking to someone who understood the shorthand of the profession. You don’t want to fawn, but you want to acknowledge the impact they have had on your life.
TOM: Exactly. So I had this opportunity to look at this guy, and I’ll do this for anyone who is involved in the O Brother soundtrack. I told him the story of how I got the record from my brother’s room when he was out one day. I took the CD out from his room, went back to my room, put it in the CD player, and it changed every single bit of my life. “And I just want to thank you so much for it.” And he just said, “I’m so glad to hear it.” That’s all I needed.
[EDIT]: It was based in a story. That’s not fawning. How often do you still tour with the band?
TOM: We did Celtic Colours last year and Vancouver Film Fest. I need to do this, or I lose the part of me that I bring to the show. But that’s not why I do it. It’s because it’s the most fun thing in the world. I love it. I’m with my best friends, the four other people in that band. We have been together for twelve years, and it has never been anything but a labour of absolute love. When we played traditional Newfoundland music, it was never about preserving anything. People would try to put meaning in it — look at all these young people playing traditional music. It was never about that. I just loved it. Here’s what I try not to do when artists come in, and maybe this is sort of it. I know what it’s like to have a lot of meaning put into my work. We are not George Clooney or The Black Keys, but I know what it’s like going into an interview and having somebody say, “So you guys are young musicians trying to keep traditional music alive against the scourge of pop music.” And I would go, “Seriously? I love pop music!” We just really like this music. We’re not preserving it. We are not deeming it to be important. We are not rebelling against the trends of our time. We just like it. Is there something culturally interesting about the fact that we like it? Maybe. I don’t know — we just like it.
So I have a really smart group of producers who know how to avoid that kind of thing. I think guests like that. And that comes from the fact that I make stuff. If you make stuff, you understand how much hard work it is. How fun it is. How incredibly effortful and effortless it is at the same time. And you don’t overthink it all the time.
[EDIT]: If feels like we have really found the key to what you do. Have you heard of what people refer to as the CBC East Coast mafia in Toronto?
TOM: (Laughs) What is the CBC East Coast mafia?!
[EDIT]: I’m amazed you haven’t heard it used! We started this magazine to redress the balance because so many other, supposedly national publications, ignore the East Coast, and many don’t even have correspondents in Atlantic Canada. And the two biggest newspapers don’t even distribute here. But CBC seems to be one of the few national media outlets that gives a fair shot to everything across the country. As much credence is given to East Coast artists as to Ontario artists and West Coast artists.
TOM: That’s our job. If there’s a mafia, Rick Mercer is the godfather. I am Fredo! I’ll tell you this, when I was growing up in Newfoundland and Labrador, and I was listening to the CBC, I wasn’t a big Canadian. I grew up in a family that was questioning of Confederation. I grew up with grandparents who voted against joining Canada, and I grew up at a time when we were trying to look deeply at our relationship with the country, and I didn’t always feel very Canadian.
Peter Gzowski, he was kind of our Michael Parkinson (Britain’s chat-show king). Shelagh Rogers had this show Sounds Like Canada, and I started hearing people in Vancouver, Manitoba, Iqaluit, Yellowknife, people in Toronto who were kind of going through the same stuff I was going through. Telling the same kind of stories I was telling. And all of the sudden it made the country feel really small, and what it did to me was make me feel like I was part of the country. I didn’t feel like a Newfie joke. I didn’t feel dumb. I didn’t feel like I had a stupid accent. I didn’t feel like I was going to be stereotyped. I think that goes for all East Coasters. I felt that this was an organization that treated where I was from very, very seriously. And it is absolutely something I think about way too often on weekends when I should be relaxing: what can I do to better shine a light on everywhere in this country and make everyone feel like that? As much as the CBC does this very well, I think we can always do better. We took the show to Nunavut this year, which was a small little thing we did. And it was unreal, an incredible experience, to see a community of 8,000 people churn out some of the greatest art in this country. I said on stage that I remembered what that was like when Stuart McLean came to St. John’s. It made me feel like I was part of something. It made me feel like I was worthy. And I want to look at what parts of the country aren’t getting that sort of attention, what parts of the country would need something like that now. It is definitely something I think about. What can I do to shine a light on the really incredible things that are happening in this country, the incredible music that is happening in this country? Finally, the conversations we are having around truth and reconciliation in this country. When Gord Downie got up and gave voice to people who for hundreds of years were being ignored when they said there need to be changes in this country. It is a good time in Canada right now because we aren’t just waving the flag any more. We are also thinking about what it means to be Canadian on a really deep, existential level. I remember what it’s like to be a part of that conversation. (Laughs) There may also just be a bias because I’m from the East Coast, and I love the East Coast so much, and I just think we make great art. [EDIT]: Well, the balance needs to be redressed. Turn on CBC and you feel part of the country. Read a national newspaper here and you don’t. TOM: I tell you what I love about CBC: in travelling this country I’ve been to places with spotty broadband where data costs a lot of money. I am really grateful to be a part of an organization that you can listen to free on a radio you bought at a yard sale for two dollars. For the cost of a two-dollar radio, click and we are there. And that’s probably my favourite thing about working for the CBC: we’re everywhere, and even though you pay for us with your taxes, we are still kind of free. Look at this really great country and look at the challenges and the incredible art that’s being created: that’s what we try to do on q. For instance, who knew that there was a guy in Saint John selling out arenas? Many wouldn’t have known that without the q show.
[EDIT]: True, when that happened the second time, it made newspapers in England, but no one here cared because it happened east of Quebec. Except for your show. And after the interview with you, I got so many messages from people across the country, and people started buying my CDs and Blurays on my website. It’s a huge boost to artists.
TOM: Great. I’ll take 10%