Joel Plaskett never stands still. The Dartmouth singer/songwriter has been evolving and reinventing himself for over 20 years. His ’90s alt-rock band Thrush Hermit began the journey. From there, he’s gone on to solo endeavours and his eighth record Scrappy Happiness with Joel Paskett and The Emergency.
He’s also been proving his chops as a producer since 2005. He has produced music for Charlottetown indie rockers Two Hours Traffic and recently worked on Toronto-based singer Sarah Slean’s last record. He’s currently working on another record with emerging Nova Scotian singer Mo Kenney, and has produced the roots music of David Myles and songs by California based songwriter Steve Poltz.
With all of these musical ventures, he needs his own studio space for his New Scotland Records label. The space was a labour of love for Joel and a work in progress for the past year. Now completed, the studio space is raw yet familiar, with Persian rugs tossed across parts of the hardwood floor. Electric and acoustic guitars, many from the ’60s, are scattered about, surrounded by retro amps and striking drum sets. It’s the ideal setting to discuss his unique take on music.
You have built up an impressive list of production credentials recently. Do you have a special approach to recording?
That’s why I built this place; so I could make my own records and produce records in a space that I like to work in with the equipment that I like. This studio is very analog, where as a lot of modern recording is done digitally. I do use computers a little bit, but I track on the tape a lot of the time. This stuff is all physical. A lot of musicians now record in a virtual, digital environment.
Would you say you are more tactile?
I am of the approach of having my hands on the desk, so when I am doing a mix it’s a live mix as opposed to, ‘oh lets turn up the guitar a little bit’. Then you’re just getting into the visual world, whereas with this approach you can be here, turn your head a bit, close your eyes and go ‘that’s good—I like that,’ as opposed to having to articulate. I find the computer distracting and visual.
When writing your own music, is it a solitary endeavour?
I generally don’t collaborate, but I have done some co-writing on someone else’s record; when I am producing and someone wants my two-sense worth. I wrote with Mo Kenney and I just produced an album with Sean McCann of Great Big Sea, which has not come out yet. I was very reticent to do any co-writing for years. With my own stuff I am protective of it. The brass tacks of the writing—the words and the melody are me. The band helps to form it rhythmically and arrangement wise. I don’t tend to write songs with the world in mind. I tend to write with me, or my friends or my neighbourhood in mind. I like the peculiarity of a singular point of view and vision. Even if it almost makes it feel less universal, I feel it’s where the personality is. That’s why I like Joni Mitchell so much; it’s her perspective on the world. You find your home in her music. You can relate to the poetry and the language she presents in it.
What’s the impetus for the title of your most recent album Scrappy Happiness?
It was the idea of finding joy in imperfection, because if you go chasing perfection you never find happiness. I was coming back to a band record. My album Three was a solo endeavour. I was back with the Emergency and I wanted it to be fun and stress free.
Where do you think the appeal of your music lies for the listener?
I managed to find an audience from a relative grassroots approach by continuing to make records and I am interested in making them differently and experimenting a bit. At the core of it is a lyrical song and I found an audience that cares about that perspective.
It’s not easy to slot you into any musical genre. What do you gravitate to?
I am a rock and roll guy at heart: Led Zeppelin, Chuck Berry. But I am also very indebted to the late ’80s and early ’90s. Underground punk like The Pixies, The Replacements, Pavement…American indie. It was a very formative time for me. There was kind of an irony or a bit of an attitude to that time that’s still part of my fabric.
You could have lived in a larger hub like Toronto, yet you have always called Nova Scotia and now Dartmouth home. Why is that?
I grew up in Lunenburg until I was 12. Then I lived in Clayton Park until my early 20s. After that I moved to downtown Halifax and in 2002 came over to Dartmouth. I am lucky enough to have been touring since I was 18. I have been all around, to all these big cities spending time there. I get my fill of them. I felt when I moved at 12 that Halifax was a big city. I never had the desire to be in a bigger place and I had opportunities here. One of the fortunate things about living out here is playing the small towns or festivals. Sometimes outdoors in the summer time, like here in Dartmouth down by the harbour at Alderney landing, or maybe in a field somewhere. You show up as the entertainment and all these people are congregating around Mother Nature. You get the strong feeling of wanting to do your job. It’s like, I came here to bring the noise!