Interview: Bill Plaskett

Bill and Joel Plaskett, Solidarity

When Joel Plaskett announced that he was releasing an album with his father, we immediately knew that we would not only be picking up the album as soon as it came out, but also doing our utmost to catch Joel and Bill Plaskett live. We did both those things and were totally blown away by the album and by the live performance.

We had seen a number of interviews with Joel, or with both Joel and Bill, in support of the album.  But especially after seeing the pair live, we had some questions that only Bill could answer – and we are thrilled that he took the time to do so.

Now that the tour is over and you’re back home, how did you enjoy the experience? And would you do it again?

I had a fabulous time on the tour. We did twenty-six shows all across the country and back again between March 15th and  May 7th.  It was a thrill to be on the road with Joel again and a special treat to be playing with Josh and Benj (the Mayhemingways) and Shannon Quinn (when she could join us). Travelling with them all , along with Steve (Joel’s tour manager and soundman) was a real pleasure. We played well together and the audiences were great, with full houses and high energy everywhere we went. All in all, for me, it felt like a gift and a privilege to be doing this at this stage of my life.

And would I do it again?  Well, in early July, we played in Iqaluit at the Alianait Arts Festival; in Wakefield, Quebec at the Black Sheep; and in north-western BC at the Atlin Music and Arts Festival.  We have more shows and festival gigs coming up in August and September; and we are doing a two-week Maritime tour in late October. After that, who knows?   Maybe I’ll be so tired out by it all that I’ll never want to get in a van or a plane or set foot on a stage again.  But somehow, I doubt it. If the opportunity arises and Joel wants me to play out with him again, and if I’m able bodied enough to do so, I’ll jump at the chance.  We’ll see what the future holds in that respect. You never know what’s going happen. For now, I’m happy with what we’ve done and what’s coming up over the next two or three months.

Is there one thing in particular that really surprised you during the tour?

Towards the end of the tour we played in Picton, Ontario in the beautiful old Exhibition building. It was a rainy afternoon/early evening show with lots of families and kids and older folk.   The following morning, I had breakfast at a café down on the main street and I was walking back to the motel when an old Ford pickup truck came to a halt beside me and an elderly man, perhaps in his eighties, rolled down the window and, with the motor running, said “Hey Bill,  I just wanna say it was great seeing you play with your son yesterday and when the two of you sang that Solidarity song and that other old union one, from the Little Red Song Book, I’ll tell ya, it brought tears to my eyes. Nobody sings those kind of songs any more so thank you, thank you and keep it up”.  And, before I could respond, he rolled up the window and drove off.  Out of the blue in Picton Ontario. To me, that was pretty special .

Many adult children share anecdotes about our work with our parents and try to explain what it’s like (usually not very successfully!), but very few of us get to share the actual work itself with them.  What has that been like for you, after mostly observing your son’s career for so many years?

When we embarked on making this record together last October we had a 30 day deadline for completion so that it could be mastered and reproduced and ready for release in mid-February in advance of the tour, which was to begin in mid-March.  I told Joel that I was putting myself  in his hands, that he was the producer, and that I would take direction from him.  He said yes, but we’re working on this collaboratively and I want it to be a reflection of both of us, in whatever form it takes.

Our starting point was a photo of the two of us taken back in 2011 when we played at the Canmore Folk Festival. We also had a working list of songs – some traditional, some written years ago, and some written recently – that we thought could be arranged and woven together in an acoustic folk-rock vein to express something of our individual lives and our shared world view. And we had a working title: Solidarity.

It took us a while to get rolling.  We did some trial runs of the songs and made adjustments here and there to lyrics, chord structures and keys, and we experimented with various microphones and setups, finally settling on a pair of rented classic vintage Neumanns.  Joel and his studio engineer, Thomas ran some late night sessions to lay down bass and drum tracks for the songs where we envisioned layers of production.

The first song that we completed was Dragonfly, with clean vocal and acoustic guitar tracks by Joel, some added tenor guitar by me, fiddle by my friend Ronnie MacEachern, and accordion by Erin Costello, all mixed into “the loud part’ with Joel’s electric guitar.  We also completed my songs On Down the River and Jim Jones quite quickly, both recorded very simply using those beautiful mics. The other songs followed in a series of sessions, with the addition of electric, acoustic, tenor and tiple guitar tracks, mandola and bouzouki, fiddle (by Shannon), whistle (by Glenn Coolen), more accordion (by Erin) and backing vocals by Mo Kenney. After several weeks it all started to take shape. Then came the mixing, and listening and mixing and listening again … and again , until we were satisfied that this is what we were after. And following that: the sequencing, which also took several trial versions  before arriving at the place where the flow of the songs from one to the next and the dynamic balance felt right, from start to finish. Miraculously, we got it completed just before midnight on the deadline day!

Next step was to think about how the songs would be presented in the tour.  Joel had met the Mayhemingways back in 2014 at the Peterborough Folk festival and knew they would be a perfect fit to accompany and play with us. So he called them up, they agreed, and we arranged to have a preliminary rehearsal  in mid-January.   Also, by this time, photo shoots and  a few interviews took place, gearing up for  the tour promotion that would begin in the new year

In January, we rehearsed with Josh, Benj and Shannon for three days, after which Joel took off for shows with the Edmonton and Calgary Symphonies. Then, immediately following that, we met up in Toronto for three days of “press”, which included  a TV interview, an interview and performance on CBC Radio “Q” (with Josh & Benj), newspaper interviews and photo shoots, and a video shoot at  Revolution Studios (again with Josh and Benj).  Then, the following week, we rehearsed with Shannon alone and played  a show, as a trio, before a studio audience, in Joel’s studio, recorded and filmed  for CBC’s First Play Live series. This was my first exposure to this level, of promotion, and it was all a bit of a whirlwind. But, it did push us into performance mode and start to get us psyched for the tour.

The First Play Live show aired on February 15th and Solidarity was released on the 17th.  Then on March 2nd we recorded an interview for CBC Radio’s East Coast Music Hour which was aired on Match 11th . Josh and Benj had driven to Halifax by that time, bringing all their gear and, from March 10th to 14th we had our final rehearsals before setting out on the road.  On the 15th, we packed the van, loaded to the gills, and, with the six of us in fine spirits, drove one hour to the Marigold Theatre in Truro, Nova Scotia for the first night of the tour.  Two days later we were at Club L’Astral in Montreal and the day after that in Ottawa at the NAC.  After that it was points west …..

That’s what it’s been like for me, sharing in Joel’s work.

One of my favorite songs from “Solidarity” is “Help Me Somebody Depression Blues” (and I’m really glad we got to hear it live!) – to me it has such a great feel of some of the best of 1960s Brit rock… which I suppose is entirely logical.  ☺  According to the liner notes, this song comes from one of the tapes that Joel kept stealing – what, in fact, inspired this song when you originally wrote it?

Your question triggers the memory that I wrote this song in the early 1970s when I was living in Vancouver. I had hit a bit of a low spot after returning from a hitch hiking trip to Mexico with a case of hepatitis  which left me physically weak and emotionally wobbly for several months.  I was living on my own in a dingy, 3rd floor flat on East Broadway.  I had hardly any money and I was in no shape to find a job.  And it was raining a lot.  Hence: The Blues.  But, fortunately I could see the North Shore mountains out my back window and I still had my old  guitar.  Hence the song. 😉

I’m of course not a songwriter or performer, but I think that if I had been and had asked either of my parents to sing my songs with me, they would have flatly refused on the basis of not liking ‘that type’ of music.  (Unless of course I wrote in the style of Glenn Miller or the Andrews Sisters.)  Have you felt any of that sort of generational gap in singing some of your son’s songs?

Not really. Somehow, the thirty-year age difference between us disappears when we are playing and singing together – at least it does in my head. And there’s a lot of overlap in our musical tastes.  I like Those Bastard Souls and Joel likes Paul Brady.  I know I couldn’t front the Emergency but I sure do love singing my parts in Wishful Thinking.

The genre of folk music, by its very nature, is often a source of commentary on politics, culture, and the reality of the world around us.  Especially in our world right now, how do you see the potential of music to make a difference?

With the right singers and the right songs, I think that music has tremendous potential to wake people up to what’s going on around them and change their thinking.  Here’s a few of my own favourites:

Bob Dylan: Times They Are a-changing

Billy Bragg:  World Turned Upside Down (by Leon Rosselson)

Ralph McTell:  Streets of London

Pete Seeger: Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream (by Ed McCurdy)

Mark Spoelstra:  Don’t Say it so Slow

Damien Dempsey:  Colony

And here’s something I read just this morning by Leon Rosselson, which pretty much says it all:

And then there’s this recent book by Mat Callahan that takes it all a bit further:

There’s lots to be learned in this world of music.

Are there more gems from the aforementioned cassette tapes – and could we perhaps see either another duo album with Joel or a solo album?

Yes, although I would hesitate to call them gems until they’re shaped and polished up a bit.  I want to revisit them over the coming winter and  I also want to rekindle and hone my repertoire of traditional songs.  And yes, I’d like to think that there will be another album in the works at some point and I have a hunch that it will happen but, as with my answer to your earlier  question about going out on tour again ….. only time will tell.

~ L

Learn more about “Solidarity.”

Order the album here.

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