By Nicholas Jennings on Friday, 21 August 2009
Category: Magazine

Cover Story: Joel Plaskett and the magic of 3

To open a recording studio and launch a record label in these days of economic uncertainty takes confidence. To release your own triple album at the same time requires something more like audacity. Yet Joel Plaskett, who clearly believes that good things come in threes, has done exactly that.

The Nova Scotia musician, an indie-rock hero since his Thrush Hermit days in the 1990s, hatched the ambitious plan last year after finding a recording space in his hometown of Dartmouth and purchasing some old analog equipment. The studio, which he named Scotland Yard, enabled Plaskett to produce several local artists for release on his New Scotland Records label while allowing him to record a sprawling collection of his own songs.

Plaskett’s album, Three, is aptly named since it comes as both a triple CD (released on MapleMusic) and triple vinyl set (available through New Scotland). Many of the song titles involve three-time repetition, such as “Run, Run, Run,” “Down, Down, Down” and “Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin.’” It also stands as a concept album, with each disc thematically linked to issues affecting a traveling musician: leaving home, getting homesick and returning to one’s roots.

Such meticulous conceptual legwork and numerological attention to detail (Plaskett also recorded most of the album when he was 33) bears the obvious mark of an obsessive. And Three could easily be dismissed if it was just a novelty or vanity project. But the 27 songs are uniformly strong, a mix of heartfelt country ballads, Celtic-tinged folk tunes, freewheeling rockers and horn-driven soul numbers, featuring some of Plaskett’s best lyrics, with stark confessionals and plenty of witty wordplay.

In fact, Three is a landmark Canadian album and a high-water mark in Plaskett’s discography, an impressive body of work that includes two Thrush Hermit albums, three recordings with his band, Joel Plaskett Emergency, including the Polaris Prize-nominated Ashtray Rock, and now three solo albums. For his latest, Plaskett sings and plays guitars, piano, bass and drums but is often joined by his guitarist father, Bill Plaskett, and two singers, Halifax’s Rose Cousins and Saskatchewan-born/Brooklyn-based Ana Egge.

Plaskett traces the inspiration for Three and, later, Scotland Yard and New Scotland Records to a trip that he made to Memphis in early 2008. “I had been compiling a lot of songs into my iPod Dictaphone, which is what I record on when I’m traveling,” recalls Plaskett. “I was making notes about the material and started to notice a lot of lyrical connections, like songs that repeated the same word three times. Once I saw the pattern, I just started connecting the dots.”

After recording the song “Wishful Thinking” at the Memphis studio of his friend Doug Easley, who’d produced Thrush Hermit’s Sweet Homewrecker album, the songwriting floodgates opened. “I suddenly felt myself entering a really creative phase,” says Plaskett, who’d just returned from a tour in Australia. “I think all the traveling sparked that, plus the fact that I really had something to write about. The songs just started coming fast and furious.”

One of the next songs to pop out—and the first to repeat a word three times—was “Gone, Gone, Gone.” “I love language and repeating myself in my writing and I’ve always like writers who used the same phrases, like Chuck Berry and Bruce Springsteen,” observes Plaskett. “I like how when you listen to their records they create a whole world for you step into. On this record, I found the more I repeated myself the more it held together thematically.”

Plaskett’s other discovery was how much the voices of Cousins and Egge added to his music. “It was so much fun writing for Rose and Ana,” he recalls. “There’s a lot of counterpoint that I created for them. Their voices blend beautifully together and, because they’re singing in unison so much, they become like this weird third person that you can’t quite identify. In fact, there are a lot of times when I can’t distinguish Rose’s voice from Ana’s at all.”

Plaskett’s dad also filled a major role. Bill, a longtime musician who works as a heritage planner in Halifax, has sometimes performed with Joel and played banjo on the Joel Plaskett Emergency’s Down at the Khyber album. But Three represents their first major studio collaboration and it resulted in more of a folk-oriented, Maritime sound, including fiddles and tin whistles, than any previous Plaskett recording. “There are some nuances with how my dad and I play together,” says Joel. “When we play, I realize how much I’ve inherited from him and his style. He can play quite grounded, super square folk rhythmic playing. I can be more flighty over that, which makes for a neat weave.”

At one point, Joel had wanted to make an entire album with his father. He also dreamed of doing something soulful with horns. “But I also really wanted to do a stark acoustic record,” recalled Plaskett, who had both a surplus of songs and a new studio to record them in. “It dawned on me that I could make a triple album. I had a lot of slow, blue songs, so I knew that one of the albums could be moodier and more downtempo. Then I realized that I could frame that record with two others that had more levity.”

Has he ever thought of himself as prolific? “I’ve never had trouble writing songs,” admits Plaskett, a smart, talkative sort who’s been called “unfailingly earnest.” “I turned a corner with my album La Di Da, when I drove down to Arizona to record it and hadn’t yet written most of the songs. I had a few ideas, but I wrote a lot of the lyrics on my Dictaphone as I drove. I got there, finished the album and was really happy with it, even though it was created on the fly. Realizing that I could do that really freed me up.”

That freedom carried over to Three. A lot of its songs were written and recorded the same day. Plaskett says he didn’t want to toil over pitch-perfect singing or strive for the ultimate, definitive performance if the take felt right. “Part of the reason why the Emergency is not on this record, with the exception of one song,” he explains, “was so that I could move quickly. I didn’t want to have to rehearse the material. For me, it was more important whether the composition was good or not.”

Plaskett’s focus on songwriting is one of the qualities he brings to his production work for other artists. So far, he’s produced two albums for Charlottetown guitar-pop band Two Hours Traffic and has just completed work on a third. Plaskett has also produced singles for Egge, Peter Elkas, Tyler Messick and Yellow Jacket Avenger, all of which are recorded at Scotland Yard and released through his New Scotland label, whose proud motto is “From Dartmouth to Your Doorstep.”

“I really love lyrics,” says Plaskett, “so if I’m producing someone I like to ask them what the song is about and get right to the heart of what that is. I try to balance that with not mucking too much with somebody’s thing if it’s idiosyncratic and cool. Then I try to heighten what they’re doing for people who don’t know their stuff.” He adds: “I also love great instrumental playing. I’ve recorded three songs with a local band called Myles Deck & the Fuzz, who play a Stooges-like thing, with shades of Thin Lizzy and the Stones, really scrappy but a lot of fun. I learn something with every project.”

Plaskett has also collaborated with Luke Boyd, a Halifax rapper known as Classified. Their duet, “One Track Mind,” appears on Classified’s major-label debut, Self Explanatory, on Sony Music Canada. “I had a hook and he had a chorus,” recalls Plaskett. I recorded bass, drums, guitar, piano and sang this hook. He then took it back to his studio, cut it all up and rhymed over it. It’s about somebody who’s insanely focused on one thing.”

Asked if the song could be about him, Plaskett laughs. “Yeah, I get pretty possessed by every project I tackle,” he admits. “That was the case with Ashtray Rock, where Gordie Johnson and I recorded and mixed it in 21 days straight without a break. Then I drove back home from the studio in Toronto and pulled into my driveway just in time for Christmas Eve with my wife and parents. By then, my mind was rattling and I was all googly eyed. I had that same feeling a bit with Three, although I had the luxury of doing it in my own space.”

So, does he feel just a little smug, now that he’s self-sufficient with his own studio and record label? “We’ll find out if I go bankrupt by the end of the year,” he says, chuckling. “I’ve made all this stuff and have no idea if any of it is going to sell.” But at least, with Three, he’s made what could be his magnum opus. “This is the time for me to make a statement,” says Plaskett, “as a songwriter and a producer with his own little label. What am I here to do if not to try and create something that people will remember? Besides,” he adds, “I’ve always found that if I take risks it usually pays off.” By taking chances, the prolific Plaskett has found good fortune in the power of three.


Publisher: Songs for the Gang (SOCAN)
Selected Discography:  Ashtray Rock (2007)

            La De Da (2005)
           Truthfully, Truthfully (2003)
           Down at the Khyber (2000)

            In Need of Medical Attention (1999)

Nicholas Jennings is a Toronto-based journalist who has written two books on Canadian music and hopes that his third will be his magnum opus.