Bill and Joel Plaskett on making music with your dad

On Solidarity, the Plasketts come full circle.

March 16, 2017

Joel Plaskett is watching his dad, Bill Plaskett, from his front window when he picks up the phone. “I can see him pulling up outside,” Joel tells me. It’s 10:30AM in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, where both Plasketts reside. I hear Bill clatter through the door amidst a flurry of greetings from Joel and I. “I just got in from having my teeth cleaned!” Bill announces proudly. Joel chuckles.

The father and son are a couple of weeks past the release of Solidarity, a record that they created together. It’s the first record they’ve made together, but they’re no strangers to making music together. “Dad and I have done a bunch of playing over the years, so it’s not really foreign territory,” Joel explains. They’re about to take the record on the road, touring with Peterborough’s The May Hemingways, who will serve as a backing band for the Plasketts as well. Joel tells me looking forward to having a break from the microphone while his dad sings.

It’s nigh impossible to read the word ‘solidarity’ in 2017 and not hear a political. “You use the word ‘solidarity’ and it rings union bells,” Joel suggests. “It suddenly became apparent that maybe that was the word and the through line for dad and I coming together to make this record.” The chorus on the title track hums with the kind of Seeger-ish sunny, hand-in-hand confidence and optimism of old union choruses, something for a modern day Little Red Songbook. The song flickers into focus with the whip of Joel’s wandering electric guitar work, before fleshing out the whole traditional folk sound. Even the verses seem wildly relevant: “I fly no country’s flag,” Bill asserts, a pointed admission in days of nationalist rhetoric. It’s not necessarily a political song, but rather, for Joel, it reflects “solidarity of ideas starting on a family level, the politics that I’ve inherited from my parents, as well as a musical tradition.”

It’s probably because of the nature of my exposure to Maritime culture that I associate it explicitly, perhaps reductively, with things like family, string instruments, and general gaiety and companionship. I grew up listening to my dad strumming and singing songs from Stan Rogers’ “Fogarty’s Cove” in our front room, or listening to Great Big Sea CDs on family road trips while trees and rocks whipped by my backseat window, or going to see the Rankin Family when they came through town. Listening to the Barra MacNeils and their Cape Breton gaelic trad will always bring me home. There’s something elemental and indelible about the music we grow up with. That’s why Joel Plaskett, one of Canada’s alternative rock heroes, made a folk record with his dad.

“It was a nice opportunity to dive into the traditional element that I grew up with,” Joel remarks. He picked up guitar from his dad, and with it, folk music. “There was a certain point when Joel was a young teenager that he decided that he wanted to play the guitar. ‘Show me,’ he said. So I showed him what I knew,” Bill recalls. Basic chord structures, chord inversions, traditional folk songs that Bill loved. “I’m not a jazz guitarist,” Bill snorts. Young Joel took those chords and ran straight to classic rock and punk, finding a home for these grittier stylings in ‘90s rock essential Thrush Hermit, a band that developed from friendships with Ian McGettigan and Rob Benvie.

Joel recalls the communal draw of playing music. “Rob got a guitar and started learning it, and I thought, ‘Here’s something I can do with these guys I just met.’ The desire to play came kind of from… an identity thing.” But not, as he asserts, a self-celebratory exercise. It’s a more universal activity. “It’s part of the charm of folk music in general,” Joel muses. “It comes out of social occasions and often families as opposed to, ‘I’m going to be a star singing folk songs.’” Not that many folk singers can achieve stardom, anyhow. “These instruments don’t lend themselves to melodrama,” Joel laughs. Bill agrees; he’s never been a bedroom-aficionado, honing mixolydian and phrygian scales. “My experience is not so much of playing on my own and learning technique. It’s rather playing with other people. I’ve always been a group player.” Joel advises:
“Pick up a pot or a pan and make music with your friends.”

It’s a hand-me-down tale, as Bill had a similar introduction from his father, a tenor banjo player. Bill fondly remembers evenings spent “in the chair by the table in our two-up, two-down council house in London, and he’d kind of plunk away on the banjo,” playing English pop songs of 1940s and ‘50s. Bill’s father taught him some banjo chords, and, just like Joel, Bill was off to greener pastures, starting a skiffle band with school friends. Later, he moved on to try his father’s tenor guitar, playing in a ‘60s-style rock crew. “I think it’s interesting that my grandfather was a tenor banjo player, and that there was a tenor guitar in the house” Joel says. There’s a lot of tenor guitar on Solidarity, he remarks. “It’s sort of come full circle.”

Still, Joel shrugs off accusations of being a folk musician. “I’ve never been a trad player. I’ve had an appreciation for that kind of music, but I’ve never been someone who knows [traditional] tunes,” he explains. But whether or not the instrumentation stuck with him, the region’s tradition of narratives and rich, localized storytelling did. He nods to people like Al Tuck and Sloan’s Chris Murphy as sharing a similar philosophy, rooted in their hometowns but filtered through an electric guitar and amp. “There’s a lyrical style that I feel like I’ve become a part of out here.” Joel is similarly rosy in his assessment of the places he grew up; before Dartmouth, there were Halifax and Lunenburg. “I think that there’s something about this part of the world that has a sort of whimsical quality,” he muses.

The record churns to a close with Bill accompanying himself on “On Down The River,” an original tune that he wrote long ago. “That’s one of the earliest songs that my dad had written that I remember,” Joel says. On the song, the elder Plaskett relates boyhood tales of watching ships on the Thames, delighted at the idea of transience and adventure, while his father watches on. Bill expands, “It’s a natural kind of thing, to imagine yourself leaving, following the river, travelling, exploring, getting away from the constraints of where you’ve grown up.” Joel notes that his own song, Thrush Hermit’s “The Day We Hit The Coast,” parallels this theme. And it is indeed an age-old tale, immortalized in countless songs and books and movies and all manner of cultural artifacts. And truly, both Plasketts did get away from where they grew up: Bill left his home in England to come to North America. Joel has spent the past two decades and change travelling the world with his music.

For recording “On Down The River,” the Plasketts went simple: Joel recorded Bill playing the song in the studio lobby, with one mic. For Joel, it’s a reflection of east coast music in general. ”There’s always something a little bit ramshackle about the way it’s put together. I like that,” he says simply. It’s a crackling, lo-fi affair, but it sounds familiar. How fitting that a song about leaving would sound just like home.

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