Interview: Blue Rodeo, “Many A Mile”

Blue Rodeo - Many a Mile

For long-time fans of the iconic Canadian alt-country rockers Blue Rodeo, the timely arrival of “Many A Mile” last Friday, their first studio album since 2016, was a time to rejoice.  Let’s face it – this seemingly never-ending pandemic has worn us all down past the point of despair – with travel restrictions, the loss of loved ones, ongoing vaccine debates, and new variants or mutations of the virus always knocking on the door.  No wonder many of us are feeling so weary right now.  For me, however, the healing power of great new music does wonders for morale, helping to combat the daily adversity, and provide some optimism in knowing that this life-altering path we are on shall eventually pass.

Co-fronting one of Canada’s most successful and revered bands for pushing 35 years now, it is easy to see why Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor are often a beacon of hope for many of us.  Two great musicians (and equally great human beings) to whom we can turn to in our times of need – both bringing us joy, hope, escape and relief through their music, and a sense of not always having to feel so alone in this world.  Almost 30 years ago, Greg so poignantly coined the phrase that if we are lost, “then we are lost together,” and over these last couple of years, no truer words have ever been spoken.  But, let’s not assume that those who create such magic are themselves immune to these same fears, doubts, and sentiments, and while many of us view these gentlemen as heroes, in doing so, we so easily forget that they are equally susceptible to our traits too.

Indeed, it was very surprising to learn that if not for the onset of this global pandemic, “Many A Mile” may never have seen the light of day.  Per the band’s recent press release: “For all sorts of reasons both complex and mundane, the band’s collective will to record again … had dimmed and a future studio album seemed unlikely.  Yet the pandemic, despite the horror and chaos it visited upon the globe, also bestowed upon [Jim & Greg] something they had long since sacrificed as always in-demand working musicians: time.” 

Bound by the same constraints as the rest of us, both songwriters were forced to hit a pause button and had time to self-reflect.  The will to create was no doubt still there, but this new reality of ‘having time’ diminished arguments of this hindrance.  “For Cuddy, time meant being able to ‘sculpt’ his songs without deadlines … For Keelor, time meant being able to rest and heal the grisly tinnitus that has plagued him for decades.”  As for their bandmates – Bazil Donovan (bass), Glenn Milchem (drums), Michael Boguski (keyboards/accordion), Colin Cripps (guitars), and latest recruit, multi-instrumentalist Jimmy Bowskill, time meant being able to step in when ready to add their own unique contributions, which collectively brought together their timeless Blue Rodeo sound.  And, as we all discovered just last Friday, the pandemic brought with it one of the finest Blue Rodeo albums to date, and a much-needed shot in the arm.

“I don’t want to sound too dramatic, but my ears were in such bad shape from the last tour, I just wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it anymore,” Keelor recalls. “The ringing in the ears gives me migraines, which are humbling to say the least.  But that year off let me rest my head … and I phoned Jim up out of the blue and said, ‘Let’s make a record.’ There is no question this record would never have happened without COVID.” By all accounts, Jim was surprised to receive such a call from his compadre, and was already working on his own next solo project during this time. “I was shocked because the last record had been challenging for everyone,” Cuddy confirms. “Plus, it seemed like a strange time to be making a record, during a pandemic. We ended up making the album in a very unusual way.” 

Due to mandated lockdowns and social-distancing rules in effect across the Greater Toronto Area, both songwriters had to work in separate ‘bubbles’ – Jim teaming up with good friend Colin Cripps and co-producer Tim Vesely (Rheostatics) at The Woodshed – and Greg joining forces with Jimmy Bowskill and co-producer James McKenty at Ganaraska Recording Co. in Cobourg.  “Greg and I were never in the same studio at the same point at any point during this record,” Cuddy adds. “It was done like a patchwork quilt, yet it turned out great. Everybody got personal time to do whatever they needed to do in a song. We avoided those group decisions that always leave somebody feeling disadvantaged.” 

Blue Rodeo

Back in October, Blue Rodeo debuted their first teaser of new music with the single “When You Were Wild,” and would announce news of the album to follow.  Here it was – the fix that many of us craved!  New music from Blue Rodeo is always welcomed, but this was more than just “Good News” – the uncertainties surrounding the state of the world, the barrage of negative Covid-19 coverage – everything about the timing was nothing short of perfect.  And with “Many A Mile” now officially launched, we have twelve outstanding new tracks to enjoy (seven from Greg, five from Jim – for those who keep score).  The band return to their alt-country based roots, offering some stunners such as Greg’s “The Opening Act” and Jim’s “I Will Wait For You” (itself with plenty of Glen Campbell influence).  Prepare for some surprises too, as found on Greg’s “Symmetry of Starlight,” which adds a little psych-rock to the album, complete with some phenomenal backing vocals care of Melissa Payne and Brittany Brooks.  And, talking of vocals, you can’t fail to miss the stunning dual harmonies between both vocalists across many of these tracks, continuing the theme discovered on their previous “1000 Arms” album, and delivered beautifully in “I Think About You” and “All In Your Hands.”

For me, personally, much of the music on “Many A Mile” is reminiscent of that from their earlier, formative years – where great songwriting and carefully-crafted instrumentation was not only genre defying, but constantly sought to push boundaries.  This was a time in my own music listening past that I’m always happy to revisit, having first discovered this Canadian band back in the mid nineties, when still living in the UK.  But naturally, I was curious to learn more about the direction of this album, and how it came to fruition during the pandemic, and as the album was being released to the world last Friday, I had the unique opportunity to discuss this new material with both Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor on an exclusive Zoom call.  Below is a transcript of our highly enjoyable 30-minute conversation.  

GDW:  It’s hard right now, given that we’re still in the middle of a global pandemic – and as much as it dominates our lives, we’ve learned to live with it – but a lot of artists have been successful in releasing albums, and now it is your turn.  This is the only pandemic-related question, I promise, in as far as recording and releasing this new album: what’s the one positive spin you can put on the entire experience?  We all talk about lockdowns and social distancing and isolation, but what’s the positive spin you can put on this?

Greg:  Well, that we’re releasing a record is an amazing thing. That during this time, we established these creative bubbles in different parts of Ontario and we were able to write and record all these songs.  The hardship that comes with the pandemic – to have those limitations and hardships, and turn it into something very positive, it was good for our collective brains and our personal brains.  It was a bit of a wonder that it all came together.

GDW:  So, let’s rewind back to October, when you surprised us all with not only the release of the first single “When You Were Wild,” but announced the upcoming arrival of your first studio album in 5 years.  You did a great job in keeping this under wraps.  In an age of social media and how fast information spreads, how did your team manage to keep it so secretive?

Jim:  I don’t know that we were super aware of that. We were just wrapped up in doing the record. We started back to work in July and August, but prior to that we were pretty much living in isolation. Now there wasn’t much going on, it’s not like you’d heard rumors of somebody doing this or doing that. I mean, I knew what Greg was doing, and I knew the people he was working with, and I knew what I was doing in here, but everybody had their own little bubbles. Not much really happened. So how it was all kept a secret, maybe it was not that important to people. (Greg laughs) I really don’t know.

Greg:  It wasn’t a secret, it’s just no one paid attention. (Both laugh).

Jim:  We tried to tell people! They just wouldn’t listen.

GDW:  Well, let’s jump into this album.  There are a pair of thoughts that hit me straight away. One is that you have this continuation from “1000 Arms” in terms of where you went back to your dual harmonies.  I’m hearing that on this album, with “Never Like This Before” and “Julie Is Painting,” prompting memories of “Heart Like Mine” and “I Can’t Hide This Anymore” in those tunes.  And secondly, what hit me is that this is vintage Blue Rodeo. It’s modern, but it’s vintage – it harkens back to the old Blue Rodeo sound from those “Casino” days and “Diamond Mine” days.  Is this something that you planned to do, or is it more an organic journey back to the past that just came through from the music?

Greg:  I don’t think there were any plans for this record.

Jim:  No, I don’t think there were plans. I think what we did was scoped our songs, record them separately, and then I know that when I was doing my songs, I was carving out space for Greg to sing, and add whatever he wanted.  I’m very conscious of doing that. I think that as much as our singing is a signature part of the band, its also one of the strong elements.  So, when I’m thinking of the song, I’m thinking of Colin’s guitar playing, of course the rhythm section, and Jimmy Bowskill, but I’m also thinking that one of the great instrumental assets is our singing, so I’m always trying to leave room for that, or even write melodies that will accommodate that.  I guess we strayed from that, but if this record’s a little more fundamental, or vintage, as you say, it’s because we weren’t as experimental on this, because we weren’t in the room together. We were just writing songs and sending them. So, there wasn’t a lot of the band playing together, no ‘well how about this, how about this, how about this?’ I guess it comes down to just its most basic elements.

Greg:  Because of the way the songs were recorded, as Jim says, we weren’t sitting in a room jamming the songs. They’re a little more focused and a lot of the records are just a little more singer-songwriter, I would say, especially Jim’s songs.  You know, Jim and Colin sat down and sang the songs acoustically, and then added everything on top. It does have that focus. And my stuff is sort of the same. It’s hard to do songs of experimentation when you’re in a separate bubble without the musicians there. So, you have to imagine what’s going to happen, and try and create some landscapes.  But yes, I think that this record has a certain focus that some of our previous records haven’t had.  I know for myself, when it comes to songwriting, I often overwrite a song. Things will just occur to me, and I’ll want to include them and a large part of that is just jamming and leaving things a little loose, and you couldn’t really do that this time.

Blue Rodeo with Martin Noakes

GDW:  Greg, I have to ask you about “The Opening Act.” This is definitely a throw back to the sounds of Tom T. Hall and Willie P. Bennett. Tell me a little bit about the origins of where this one came from, because this was a true surprise find on the album?

Greg:  Those songwriters, you flatter me to include me there. Especially Willie P., who is one of my favorites.  It is from that sort of era of songwriting. It’s about the guy’s just getting high, and he can’t remember the words to his songs, and he can’t remember the name of the opening act.  He’s visiting all of these towns, and he’s exploiting the – I don’t know where that word came from. (Jim laughs).  And so, specifically, Terra Lightfoot was the opening act, but whenever I went up to say her name, I always said Tara MacLean.  And it was like this horrible-adult-onset-Tourettes-thing that kept on happening in my head.  And the original chorus used to go: “She’s not Gord’s daughter, she’s not from PEI.” 

That song I wrote the night that I got home from the tour, so it had all that road energy in it. Because you get home from the road and you’re exhausted. But you’re also wired, and your body is used to going up, no matter if you have a cold, if you haven’t slept, if you have strep throat, you just go up and you do the show. Like I think I could get out of a hospital bed and do the show and go back to my hospital bed, like, it’s just in my body.  And so, I just had all that energy that night, wrote the song, and the song originally was twice as long. When I brought that song originally into the band, it had every town that we had played – there was a verse about every one, and I’d fall asleep singing the song.  So, I chopped it in half, and it sort of fell into place quite nicely when it was a more manageable length, and it’s a fun one to sing.

GDW:  It’s fun. I love that triple assault that you have there, with Mike’s ragtime piano in the background, Jimmy’s mandolin, and that guitar twang just finishes it off. It’s great.  But Jim, not to be outdone here, your track “Never Like This Before,” has been getting some airplay, and I’m hearing hints of vintage 80s Ric Ocasek here, you know, The Cars.  It’s definitely a great Blue Rodeo song with a live-off-the-floor feel.  Glenn literally pounds the drums on this one, the wailing guitar rings are awesome, Mike again, with those dominant organ notes, it all comes together.  This is going to be a killer on the live scene, the fans will go crazy for it.  But again, as I asked Greg, what was the inspiration for this one, and how does this final studio version that is so well mastered and so well engineered, how does it compare with the original vision you had for this track?

Jim:  So, the origins of this song: we have a little place that’s just north of the city, and I would go up there alone during the week, which was advantageous to me because I could work any hour I wanted without worrying about disturbing my family. This one was one sitting there, and I guess the impetus was we are completely cut off now, there’s nobody coming around, there’s nobody phoning, so that means that we can change our life in any way we like, and the idea was that these circumstances will never happen again. I don’t know, I guess my mind was going to kind of escaping from what my life had been – find a little place, watch the seasons come and go, and that was a big deal for me because I had never really sat in a place and watched the seasons change since we started Blue Rodeo, because we were always on the move. And it was a really remarkable thing. It was incredible to see the leaves go, to see the snow come, to see the snow go, to see the robins build a nest, all that normal stuff, but it was very impactful for me. 

And in terms of recording, I think for me, it’s so remarkable because Colin and I just started playing acoustic guitars in here with a drum beat we found on the internet.  And then we start off like that, and we can get it into shape, and then Glenn – it’s good that you mention Glenn, because Glenn was the first musician I had come in – so he was playing to finished vocals and acoustic guitar, but that’s it, and he had articulated all the parts of the song so well.  Every time this song changed a little bit, either lyrically or instrumentally, he was doing something slightly different.  And then, you know, we have that great off-time ending.  He’d created the skeleton of the song, and then it was easy to get in Bazil and adding everything else. So, it was remarkable to me that it ended up being such a rocking track when it had such a humble start and I was hoping it would be what it became, but I had no idea exactly how to do it.

GDW:  That finished result is just phenomenal, and is definitely a stand-out track on the album.  One thing I do want to discuss is Jimmy Bowskill as the most recent member of the band here.  He’s toured with you for a few years, and played mandolin on a couple of tracks when you recorded “1000 Arms.”  This is his first full album experience with you guys.  In your opinion, how significant has Jimmy’s role been to the growth and current direction of Blue Rodeo?

Greg:  Why, very significant.  Blue Rodeo’s a great band, and when Jimmy’s playing with us, it’s just a little better. You know, he’s the Billy Preston of our lives. (Jim laughs).  And, like Billy Preston – I haven’t really followed this one before – he has an energy that is very positive as well, and he brings that to the band.  The studio that I recorded all my stuff in was his studio in Cobourg that he had just opened up, and it feels great to go in there and be creative, because it just has that feeling, that you’re gonna get it done.  So, I recorded my songs, [and] like Jim, who had Colin, I had James McKenty engineering and Jimmy playing with me, and Ian McKeown as well.  It was just great that during the lockdown, I could go to Cobourg and play with these people that were in my bubble, and so, we were both very lucky to have these creative bubbles that facilitated the songs that we were writing.  When it first started, I wasn’t really sure if it was going to work.  I didn’t know if everyone would be comfortable with this way of recording.  But everyone seemed sort of happy and grateful to have something to do, to apply their art and their craft to bass or drums or keyboards.  Everybody was just thrilled to play and it didn’t really matter how it happened, we just said, “we’re good, let’s do it.” So, Jimmy Bowskill has been a very positive influence on the band and he’s just a great musician, he’s just fun to be around.

Jim:  Let me say a few things about Jimmy Bowskill too.  Jimmy Bowskill is an extraordinary musician. I think everybody in this band are high level musicians. Jimmy is a little bit of a genius. He got his first guitar when he was ten, and by the time he was eleven, he was on the Mike Bullard show playing blues. I once asked Jimmy, ‘what does it feel like to learn things at such an accelerated rate than everybody,’ and he looked at me completely blankly and said, ‘I don’t know, I’ve just always known what to play.’  And I think that that is truly what Jimmy plays with us – mandolin, pedal steel, lots of guitar of course, violin – he just learned those things in the last number of years. He didn’t start out playing those things.  Somebody was telling me that he did a track, was listening to a track, and there was a bunch of horn parts on it, and I said, ‘who played the trumpet,’ and Jimmy said, ‘well I just did, I just learned it.’ He was putting harmony parts down on trumpet. He said, ‘I can only play in E flat,’ which is supposed to give the listener the idea that he’s just human after all.  So, if you ever feel like Jimmy is like the puppy that’s been brought in to invigorate the old dogs …

Greg:  A little bit yes, very much so.

Jim: … well he’s been a fantastic addition. I think that obviously it invigorates the band. But I think also just the way that Colin and Jimmy play together. They’re very different, stylistic guitar players, and the way that they can be merged and encouraged to play together is – I love those points in our live sets where I’m just sitting back and playing some rhythm, and watching those two play.

Jimmy Bowskill

GDW:  Greg, real quick, one song here, “Symmetry of Starlight.”  I mean, just wow!  It’s edgy. It’s psychedelic. For those that love tracks such as “Diamond Mine” and “Venus Rising,” which are some of my go-to Blue Rodeo songs, and I’m hearing some vintage Pink Floyd cues here with this new one, it’s just amazing.  Glenn has that perfect mood setting with the cymbal taps to start, you have the echo in your vocals that kicks back through the speakers.  Where did this one come from and how did it end up on “Many A mile?”

Greg:  Well, it’s a funny thing about this one. When we were recording it, I was hating the sound of my vocals. I love the recording, but the vocals were driving me nuts.  On Jimmy’s pedal steel, there’s a ‘Leslie,’ so that gives it all that shimmery sort of sound.  And so, I sang it, and I thought, ‘oh that sucks, I’m not getting it across.’  And so then, I said, ‘well, what would John Lennon do? Okay, he’d double it.’ So I doubled it, and it helped. But then I thought John Lennon would fuck it up.  So, I put my voice through the Leslie, and that’s when I went, ‘oh this sounds good now,’ and the double gives it that ghosting and the Leslie gives it that ethereal shimmer. So, it’s a nice combination and helps it sit into the whole psychedelic landscape that you described.

GDW:  Just last week, we had an interview with David McPherson, who just put out a new book about Massey Hall, a place that is very dear to your hearts.  Jim, I know from recent press, that you’ve had firsthand experience of Massey Hall since the renovations.  You love to play there, and will be there next month.  What are you really looking forward to about those particular dates, given that you haven’t been on that stage for several years now.?

Jim:  It’s going to be very exciting to be on stage there, because when I first walked out on stage, I thought it feels the same. I mean, it looks like it got shined up. Beautiful, beautiful red plush seats, but it’s still exactly the same construction. Now, all of the stained-glass windows are clear and they’re open, and it’s just beautiful.  The most special thing about Massey Hall is that everyone is close, because it’s kind of a big u-shape, everyone is very close to you, and that intimacy remains. I think the facilities are going to irk the band a little bit – you used to just go back and it was like being in a living room with all the series of rooms, but now they’re formal dressing rooms and there’s an elevator to get to them.  But being on the stage, it’s going to be easier for our crew to get stuff in and out, so they’re going to like that, and we’re going to be back to a place where we’ve had so many great concerts and such fond memories, and for me, the feeling is okay, this place is going to be here for another 100 years, and it’s gonna now age in this form.  But if you’ve read David McPherson’s book, you realize how often that hall was on the chopping block, it was really close to being destroyed. 

Greg:  Oh really, eh? Like sixties?

Jim:  Oh my God, well, if you remember, in the eighties that was one of the closest it came.  But in the fifties, it had already been voted to be knocked down and developed. So, I guess late seventies. When they built Roy Thomson Hall, it was built to replace Massey Hall.  Can you imagine, Roy Thomson Hall?

Greg:  Yes, I can.

Jim:  Yeah, that’s the way Toronto has been for a long time.  But Roy Thomson Hall, they have made it a good place, but it is NOTHING compared to Massey Hall, and it was a DISASTER when it was first made. It was cavernous and the sound was horrible. It was a long time where Toronto made a lot of bad decisions, and that would have been right up there in the top five.  They seem to be changing that around now a little bit. …  They built this tower in the back and so much of it is devoted to art. It’s devoted to encouraging new artists, new musicians, and I think, I don’t know, where’s the commerce aspect? Where am I going to be sold something?  It’s just doesn’t seem like that yet.

Greg:  And it’s always been one of our favorite rooms to sing in. There are a few rooms that we play that are just exceptional, and they sort of, again, they raise your game a bit. For me, it would be the Orpheum in Vancouver, the Walker Theatre in Winnipeg, and Massey Hall.

Jim: (Laughs) It hasn’t been called the Walker for a while, but I know what you mean.

Greg:  Oh, what’s it called now? The Burton Cummings, yeah.

Jim:  I like the Walker too.

Greg:  We opened the Walker, the Burton Cummings, but you hear your voice so well that you just speak the lyric better, you annunciate, you finish your words – like you’re conscious of actually finishing your words, and it’s just a beautiful room that has this lovely finesse.

GDW:  One final question, because we know you have a busy media schedule today.  We’ve had the pleasure of seeing you guys when you’ve toured down here in the US – there was a great show at Artpark several years back, and then when you did your mini-tour to promote “1000 Arms,” you opened in Ardmore, PA.  Jim, you may remember that show in PA was Devin’s very first US performance too?

Jim:  Yeah, yeah.

Greg:  Oh, really?

Jim:  Yeah, yeah.

GDW:  You were on the side of the stage there. You were filming away. We were in the front row that night and that was a blast, we always love it when you travel down our way.  Of course, we’re looking forward to seeing you come back down to the US – Greg, I’m sure you have those memories of the Erie County Fair? Don’t let that put you off.

Greg: [Laughs]

GDW:  No more ‘Battle of the Bands.’ But obviously, once we get past Covid-19 and back to some sense of normalcy in our lives, any chance of Blue Rodeo looking at heading back down south of the Canadian border to perform for your US fan base?

Greg:  You never know.

Jim:  I think that anything that makes sense is something we’d do, and I know we’re already booked in Buffalo for the summer, so yes, anything that makes sense.  I think at our age, we have to be judicious about what we do, but yeah, we love playing down there.

GDW:  And we love having you guys down here.  Jim, Greg, it’s been a pleasure. This is a bucket-list item for us to have a chance to chat to you, and we appreciate you taking the time.  We’d like to thank you both, thank your team at Starfish Entertainment, and for Warner Music Canada for helping set this up today.  Again, congratulations on the new album – we hope it does very well for you – and good luck on the upcoming tour, and hopefully we’ll get to see you guys again soon.

Jim:  Right on, and thanks a lot Martin. Nice talking to you.

Greg:  Yes, thanks. Very nice talking to you Martin. Take care.

Photo Credits: Justin Rabin (Official Band Photo) / Martin Noakes (Zoom & Jimmy Bowskill Photo)

The British guy that crossed the ocean and crash landed in central Pennsylvania (to quote Greg Keelor, “And I wonder what am I doing here?”). As the youngest of four siblings, exposure to music from a very early age nurtured my passion and appreciation for many musical genres. Continuing to discover some amazingly diverse and talented musicians based in Canada, I gravitate to live music experiences and remain devoted to spreading the word about such a vibrant music scene.

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