By Nicholas Jennings on Sunday, 01 January 2012
Category: Magazine

Feature Article: The Midway State - From Riches to Rags and Back Again

Nathan Ferraro doesn’t seem the least bit bitter—which is surprising, given everything he’s been through. In fact, the affable, afro-haired frontman exudes all the serenity of a Buddhist monk, as he sits in a Toronto café and calmly recounts the rise, fall and rise again of his band, the Midway State.

Ferraro and his bandmates were teenagers from Collingwood, Ontario, a small ski town two hours north of Toronto, when they became the subject of an intense bidding war from 13 record labels. After being flown around the world and getting wined and dined by industry executives, including legendary figures like Clive Davis and Jimmy Iovine, they eventually signed a deal with Iovine’s Interscope label. The record company was excited about the band’s emo-rock sound and was touting the already prolific young Ferraro as a gifted pop songwriter.

But then the bloom fell off the rose. Despite a video recorded with then rising star and labelmate Lady Gaga, the Midway State became victims of the A&R shuffle: the man who had championed the band was gone and the group became the proverbial football, kicked around from one label person to the next. Although the band had recorded a promising debut album, Interscope never released it. Next came a two-year battle to terminate the contract and win back its recorded masters. “It was a kind of purgatory,” recalls Midway State manager Mathieu Drouin. “The whole process really put Nathan and the boys through the wringer.”

There was, however, a silver lining. The association with Interscope got the band on several high-profile tours throughout North America and Europe, opening for the likes of Jimmy Eat World and Death Cab for Cutie. Meanwhile, the band’s debut album, Holes, was released in Canada through EMI and made a significant impact. Produced by Gavin Brown (Billy Talent, Three Days Grace), it earned the band a pair of MuchMusic Video Awards and two Juno Award nominations: Pop Album of the Year and Songwriter of the Year for Ferraro and his compositions “Unaware,” “Change for You” and “Never Again,” the group’s gold-selling single.

“That meant a lot to me,” admits Ferraro, a singer, guitarist and pianist who found himself in esteemed company, alongside such fellow nominees as Dallas Green, Gordie Sampson and Alanis Morissette. “I’d written those songs in my parents’ basement when I was 17, so it was a really nice affirmation.” He added: “I started writing songs when I was 14 and had over 500 by the time I was 18. I liked the feeling—I could walk down the hall in school knowing I had that up my sleeve.”

Confidence also came from performing at a young age. Before he finished high school, Ferraro’s father bought him a van so that he and his teenage bandmates could tour during the summer months. They logged thousands of miles across Canada, playing everywhere from bars and community centres to fans’ living rooms. Recalls Ferraro: “We’d sell T-shirts and hopefully make enough to pay for gas to be able to drive to the next show.”

Drawing on all its past experience, good and bad, the Midway State is embarking on the next chapter of its already well-established career. Armed with a strong new album, Paris or India, Ferraro and the band—including guitarist Mike Wise, bassist Mike Kirsh and drummer Daenen Bramberger—is touring widely across Canada this fall. The album, produced by Thomas “Tawgs” Salter (Lights), is a mature step forward for the group, featuring a mix of commercial songs like “Atlantic,” a sweeping, Coldplay-style epic, as well as such adventurous numbers as the driving indie-rocker “Fire!” and the haunting, dream-like “Hartley Salters Kite.”

For Ferraro and his bandmates, the maturity is a direct result of their personal and collective growth. “We’ve already put in our 10,000 hours,” he says with a laugh, citing Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book, Outliers, and its theory about diligence being the prerequisite to success. “In fact, we’re probably up to about 25,000 hours now. But there’s still plenty more to learn.”

In particular Ferraro, who co-wrote with Tawgs and Simon Wilcox on Paris or India, is focusing on the craft of songwriting and lyrics in particular. “I’ve been reading a lot of poetry by e.e. cummings and studying the writing of Peter Gabriel and U2’s Bono,” he says. “Like all the best songwriters, including Leonard Cohen and Neil Young, they’ve found ways to do more with less. That’s why their songs stand up over time. There’s so much depth and so many layers, yet their words are very concise.”

Ferraro’s songs, thoughtful and reflective, often express a yearning and wisdom well beyond his years. For Drouin, who also manages Metric, this is the quality about Ferraro that impresses him the most. “With everything Nathan and the band have been through, he could’ve easily gone off the rails or given up or become extremely jaded,” says Drouin. “Instead, he took all that experience and channeled it into a really positive place.”

FYI

Discography: Met a Man on Top of the Hill (EP, 2007), Holes (2008), Paris or India (2011)

www.themidwaystate.com