Joel Plaskett readies for folk-rock album release with his father by sitting in with the CPO

It should come as zero surprise that as he’s gearing up to release a new album and head out on an extensive tour, Joel Plaskett is heading off to do something else entirely and entirely different.

The beloved Nova Scotia popsmith is, after all, notoriously ambitious, ridiculously productive and seemingly always pulled from one project to the next, with always some overlap — be it his solo work, recording and touring with his back up band The Emergency or producing other artists.

Never content, never standing still or on resting on his considerable laurels.

Hell, this is the man who wasn’t content to just release the triple-album 3 in 2009, which was written and recorded all on his lonesome in his Dartmouth studio, he thought it a good idea to release some of those outtakes the same year as the Three More EP.

So, again, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that in the midst of rehearsals to support his forthcoming album, a folkier collaboration with his father, Bill, titled Solidarity (due Feb. 17), the younger Plaskett is packing and prepping for a quick trip to the prairies for two other very unique shows — one on Monday night with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and the next, a Tuesday night performance with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra at the Jubilee Auditorium.

And still, despite the hectic schedule, prior to heading west the artist was kind enough to take some time out from it all to chat with theYYSCENE about the shows, his forthcoming album and the tour that will follow.

Q: How did the shows with the CPO and ESO come about?

A: The first symphony gig I did was over 10 years ago in Halifax, I did one with Symphony Nova Scotia and it was fun. It was right when they started having the occasional pop series. And it was probably the most nerve-wracking gig that I’ve done in my life, but it was really cool. And then years and years went by and they asked me to do another one — that was just after (2012’s) Scrappy Happiness had come out; the first one was after(2005’s) La De Da. So we did some more charts for that. And then (I) got the call to do one at the (National Arts Centre) in Ottawa, the big orchestra there, I mean that was a huge, that was a big orchestra, and that was a real nerve-wracking one, (too). So I’ve been adding charts as I went along …

They’re fun. (Laughs) I find them daunting, if I’m going to be perfectly honest. They’re really, really thrilling to do, they’re great, but they always come when I’m in the midst of other things — like I’m working on this tour with my dad and stuff. And it’s kind of a great thing because it’s this complete change of mindset. It isn’t jamming. You’ve got to show up prepared and everything is arranged so you can’t have bar, you have to know the tune. I mean, I wrote them, so I know them, but they’re always in flux when I’m doing them solo or with The Emergency. So I have to remind myself the way they were recorded and they way they were arranged symphonically. And it’s really, really cool because there’s nothing like the experience of having all of those musicians behind you and all of that sound. But, I’ve got to say, they’re great to do, I’m in the moment, and when they’re done, it’s like, “That’s so cool, look at it in the rearview mirror, it’s amazing.” (Laughs) You know, I mean that in the best way. I’m really thrilled to be bringing it to Calgary. It’s such an awesome place to play over the years, it’s cool to bring a different show there.

Q: So is this the greatest hits of Joel Plaskett? Do they span your entire career?

A: Greatest hits would be pretty small. But for a diehard audience it spans aspects of my entire career. The thing about the orchestral shows, which is partly the challenge, but also what’s really rewarding about them, is slower, dramatic material works so well that you basically just want to stack your entire set with the saddest or most epic slow songs. But that doesn’t necessarily make for the best (show). So I tried to find the balance between digging in and doing some cool, different arrangements of things, turning one of my more epic rock songs on its ear a little bit and trying to change the dynamic of it so that it will work with an orchestra. Because you don’t have distortion in volume and the same kind of aggression on your side when you’re crescendoing. You can get a kind of crescendo, but there is a maximum, and so it isn’t based on sweat, you know? … In a weird sort of way the arrangements almost go sideways, not totally upside down, but they take turns in slightly different places to achieve the same thing you felt just in a different place …

It’s a neat thing. And I’m excited about the mix of songs. I also do a little bit of a show on my own just so I can bring that kind of unscripted conversational element to the gig, as well, because I can’t relax unless I can play a little bit just winging it. And then the symphony also does a piece or two on their own as well.

Q: Do you ever get attitude from the symphony musicians? Do you ever hear the eyes rolling? And do get the sense they look down on you and your little pop songs?

A: My experience with every orchestra I’ve played with, for the most part, people are really pleasantly surprised. (Laughs) … So, no, I haven’t really experienced any great degree of (attitude). But they’re all behind me, they could be making faces at me the whole time. But no, I’ve met a lot of the players and there were a lot of people who were really positive and encouraging. 

There’s one moment in one of the songs where I get to rip a fuzzy guitar solo over the symphony. And that’s my favourite part of the show, where I get to play a skronky guitar solo over this symphonic arrangement. It’s really satisfying.

Q: Congratulations on the new album, it’s wonderful. That, too, must have been fun for you to do?

A: It was really fun … (but) it was a challenging record to sequence and to just put together because it was different than me trying to sequence my own tunes. It has my dad’s songs and I wanted to balance us going back and forth. And also conceptually I wanted it to feel like it had a little bit of a story and an arc, although you’re dealing with two singers. So it was actually quite challenging, and we worked really hard, and I was super exhausted by the end. But I will say the thing that made it really rewarding was the fact that: a.) my dad was there; and, b.) that he was so into it. I was, too, don’t get me wrong, but for him, I think, he’s played on records of mine before and he was actually in a band called Starb’ard Side years ago that made an album with the CBC, and so he’s not a total stranger to the recording studio, but it’s not like a place where he spent a lot of time and thought conceptually about things or experimenting. And we did a lot of experimenting to try and make it feel like a folk record, but a folk-rock record, particularly the ones that the influence I have from my father — my love of British folk-rock, like Richard Thompson, things like that — there are hints of that on this record …His influence was very much dictating the way I was imagining producing it, if that makes sense. So he was really involved in that process, and that was part of the joy of it.

And even now as we’re getting ready (for the release and tour), my dad is pumped. (Laughs) Do you know what I mean? He’s just about to retire from this job that he’s being doing, doing city planning and heritage stuff for years and years and years … and that’s coming to an end before we go on the road. He’s maxed out with that stuff, so he’s really excited to be playing music and out on the road. It’s a great way for us to spend time together, so, yeah, it’s cool.

Q: I see that you’re skipping Alberta this tour?

A: I suspect I’ll bring the show that I’m doing with my dad to Calgary hopefully later in the year or something, but there are radius clauses as well as just saturation point where people just don’t need to see me for awhile.

(Note: This interview was edited for space and clarity.)

Joel Plaskett performs with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra on Tuesday at the Jubilee Auditorium. For more information, please click here.

Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for, and the co-host of the show Saved By the Bell, which airs Wednesdays from 4-6 p.m. on CJSW 90.9 FM. He likes beer. Buy him one.

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