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Singer-songwriter Joel Plaskett spoke at a workshop at St. Michael Catholic secondary school today, although he feels singer-songwriter might be a bit too "James Taylor" of a title, and would probably prefer songwriter-singer.
This was the dialogue that kicked off the funny and insightful conversion between Plaskett, teacher Andrew Damon, and a drama room full of rapt St. Mike's students and staff.
The workshop is part of an ongoing annual series, tenuously called the St. Mikes Concert Series, that has been held for the past four years. Plaskett follows successful engagements with performers such as Jeremy Fisher, Sarah Slean, and Peter Katz at the Stratford high school. In addition to the workshop, Plaskett will perform a concert tonight in the school's Eckert Hall, accompanied by his father Bill.
The show will be the last in a seven-show tour Plaskett has played with his father.
"It's a great way to spend time together," he says.
The Nova Scotia-born Plaskett says his father, also a musician, saw that his son grew up around music. The younger Plaskett started his musical studies by first trying the drums, then later saxophone. When the family moved to Halifax when Joel was in the seventh grade, he met a group of friends who would later become the members of his first band, Thrush Hermit. That was when he asked the elder Plaskett to teach him how to play the guitar.
"It wasn't about playing music then … it was more about me wanting to do something with my friends."
Damon, a fan of Plaskett's and the teacher responsible for booking the engagement, asked the Canadian music star questions about his past, his inspirations, and his successes.
On the topic of inspiration, Plaskett says he keeps a running collection of ideas on his cell phone. But when, Damon asked, do you know when a song is finished?
"The song is done once you've said what you need to say," answered Plaskett. "You throw stuff at a wall, step back, stuff falls off, and eventually, there's your song."
Damon asked Plaskett whether his songs, which often include stories of events and places around the world, are all based on personal experience. Plaskett admitted that many of the stories in his songs are based on things that happened to friends of his, and that sometimes exaggeration is necessary for the sake of the story. As an example, he cites his song Extraordinary which begins with the lyrics: "I was raking leaves in my own backyard/ Putting them in piles and burning them up/ The flames got higher, they were out of control/ I was hosing them down when the cops showed up."
"That actually happened to my neighbor," he laughs.
Plaskett's been performing for 20 years and has released eight albums as a soloist, many of which are backed up by his band The Emergency. He says his music is inspired by artists as varied as Joni Mitchell, Chuck Berry, and The Pixies. He also says that cutting his teeth in a port town like Halifax, with its mix of sailors and students, taught him the importance of engaging audiences via a number of different genres and perspectives.
Eventually, Plaskett and Damon's conversation led to the Internet, where Plaskett admitted that the audience, high school students brought up with the Internet as the norm, might have a better perspective than someone like him, who had to learn to adapt to the new media.
Plaskett told the audience how his first recording session when he was 16 was done on a four-track cassette recorder. He's since had to adjust to digital recording, as well as things like file-sharing and social media.
"Bigger bands were affected," he said of the rise of the Internet and the way it changed the music industry. "Bands that sold 50,000 records were suddenly selling 10,000 … but I never sold that many records. For me, it was always about the live show. My record sales actually went up."
He also spoke of the short lifespan songs tend to have in the fast-paced digital age.
"The currency is really short," he says, adding an artist will release a new song only to have something new come along 20 seconds later. "It can be really tiring as an artist. You can't always have new songs out."
Plaskett imagines the music industry will return to a singles-based culture, much like it was in the 1950s. He also notes the Internet took a lot of the mystery out of touring; whereas artists would often be left playing in towns and clubs they'd never heard of, now they can research venues before they book their gigs.
"There used to be a real sense of the unknown in the '90s," he says.
During a question and answer period, students asked Plaskett about his guitars, recording, and his own favourite lyrics (the answer being those found in his song Absentminded Melodies). The show ended with a live performance of his new song Park Avenue Sobriety Test.
"I just asked," says teacher Damon about how he managed to book the popular musician. "For him to play for 1,200 people, then come here and play for 250 is really admirable."