Psssst. Come here. Lean in. Shhhh. It’s a secret. Montreal-born Neville Quinlan, voice and chief raconteur of Toronto’s roots veterans NQ Arbuckle, doesn’t read his own press. Nope, not now, not ever. So, shhhh, this whole piece could be lies, damned lies, and even statistics. He’d never know.
And while his two sons, aged seven and nine, are out in his West End backyard, tossing a baseball against the garage the day after Quinlan hosted several of their friends for dinner and a garden-destroying round of dizzy baseball (spin the batter around about 50 times, hit the ball, and go from there), the songwriter is generous with his laughter, which is mainly directed at himself. He carries the same kind of go with it — but with an uncanny knack for understanding the “it” you are going with from an odd, insightful angle — that his songs reveal.
In researching this article, it becomes apparent that NQ Arbuckle’s music inspires a lot of poetic lines from a lot of poetic music writers — noticeably more than most bands inspire.
“Oh my God! You know what, I’ve never actually read a review of any of our stuff. Ever. Nooo! There’s only sadness coming from reading your own reviews,” he says, adding that he really appreciates press because it gets people into the room with his music. “There’s no album sales (that have any impact.) It’s all about being able to go and stand in a room and actually have people come to your show and interact with each other. That’s the whole goal. Journalism — awesome — but that’s the whole goal.”
And some of that journalism has been mighty kind to the band, including a glowing review of their fourth album, 2014’s searching The Future Happens Anyway (Quinlan had a solo album out before meshing with the band to release his second, their first album, the road-trip worthy companion, 2005’s Last Supper in a Cheap Town), in a no less exalted forum than The Globe and Mail. But as to whether that helped the band with their career or popularity, the singer’s succinct. “No.”
He does, however, guess right away who wrote the review, and states that he clearly remembers a night when they were standing at the front of the stage at The Horseshoe Tavern watching roving troubadour Richard Buckner when both reached a simultaneous epiphany that the brilliant Buckner “had never written a chorus in his life.”
And it was said Buckner, indirectly, that lead Quinlan to the start of a long, fruitful, and soul-filling artistic relationship with Victoria’s unparalleled songstress Carolyn Mark — an artist who should have her own martini-clutching version of a plastic Christ on a dashboard as the patron saint of fearless, fun-loving, low-impact tours across the Great White North with a song in the heart, a smile on the lips, and a hangover deeply embedded in the soul.
Mark and NQ Arbuckle co-released the band’s third album, Let’s Just Stay Here, as a duet. Mark has also relentlessly toured with them, trading off sets, and, Quinlan points out, she appears on all of their albums in some form, usually as backing vocalist. Lifeboat (Song for Carolyn Mark) from their last album was in her honour. Clearly, she’s kind of an unspoken sixth member.
It was through Buckner that the two met. In those days, Quinlan was the booking agent for Buckner, among others. Mark phoned him to ask if her then-current band, The Corn Sisters, could open for Buckner in Victoria, Vancouver, and, boldly, Toronto. “So Carolyn called me up and we started talking and it was probably two hours before I put the phone down and we’ve been talking ever since,” Quinlan recalls.
“I find her a firecracker you can talk to. Really real. We just get along. I don’t know if it’s we like the same music or we have an affinity for each other or we’re both able to stay up really late at night talking. We spend a lot of time disagreeing and yet I really value her presence in my world.”
He adds it was Mark who opened the door for his band in Alberta. “When we started going out there we were a band from Toronto playing the west, and not a lot of people are interested in that outside of Calgary and Edmonton. And she introduced us to all the small towns and the venues I really love going to, be it at Twin Butte or the others we are going to play (this) week because of her.”
On the same subject of gigs in high places, Quinlan agrees he’s delighted but puzzled to play at the Calgary folk fest, as the band hasn’t released an album for four years, although he notes artistic director Kerry Clarke has been at “so many of our shows.” Quinlan also appears as part of the festival’s infamous Boot Camp, giving workshops on songwriting and the song publishing business. Once again, he seems perplexed by his popularity, or, as he infers, his luck.
“I have no idea why (Clarke) booked us. There’s no demand for our career,” he scoffs.
“What happens is it (the career) just became a sort of meandering thing, which is really lovely, so we spend a lot of time sort of reacting to people coming and asking us to do things. We’re really open to participating in things. It’s not about tying into a grand strategic plan; there is no plan. We’re just going and doing it.”
And that meandering career is partly because of the aforementioned kids playing in his yard. “The kids, definitely, it’s a thing and sometimes it’s where you want to concentrate your efforts. For the first long number of years I was more interested in being a better dad than I was being a better musician. You choose your priorities.” This explains fewer than five albums over nearly 14 years.
“You are doing one thing; it’s always at the sacrifice of another,” he says of fatherhood’s impact on his career.
“I also think it allows for a longer career. Your artistic voice is going to change throughout your career and if you keep fuelling it and having a life that’s interesting and stable and happy, I really think you can go and do this until you’re older instead of the crash and burn that so many people have over the past 20 years of Internet hype and people’s fame rising so fast and so big, and (they) just disappear.”
A guy who doesn’t read his own press and has no idea why he’s been booked to play this weekend on an island that will, over the course of four days, host about 52,000 people, obviously has zero ego. Thus, he doesn’t flinch when revealing the laugh-inducing label given to him by, he thinks, Vancouver musician Ford Pier. Quinlan related the story of learning The Cowboy Junkies’ song Sun Comes Up It’s Tuesday Morning on guitar and obsessing over the original phrasing and how to make it his own phrasing when he was in high school or college. The obsession didn’t stick.
“I’m a terrible guitar player; I peaked at 14. In the band I play with, someone like Pete (Kesper) or John (Dinsmore) brings a musicality that I don’t have any connection to. And I’ve absolutely been called the windshield wipers of the band. I don’t mean to be discouraging — I love the idea of music and I listen to music all the time, but I just didn’t have the gift to sit down and learn to play really well.
“It’s funny. When you’re playing you never really know what you sound like because you’re onstage. For years, I never heard my guitar onstage because we play in rock bars and it’s really loud, so I never actually heard myself play short of some recordings and breakdown sessions and songs. I was always just strumming along.
“I think now I’ve really started listening and paying attention to it. And it’s really interesting to find out — oh, my God, how terrible that must have been. I just assume that the sound man just buried it. It’s a real eye opener to try and be more musical as opposed to just creating a vibe.”
Along the same theme, although Quinlan writes the lyrics and chords, the songwriting credits go to the whole band.
“I’m way too boring on stage (to get up there solo), and I don’t totally have an interest in doing that. So playing with my friends onstage is always the impetus for doing the whole thing.
“You know, I can write a hundred songs, but without actually fleshing it out with the band or my friends and being able to play it in a place where people can dance … (it’s) the reason I actually do it, it makes the songs valid.”
(Photo courtesy Heather Pollock.)
NQ Arbuckle play Friday, July 27 to Sunday, July 29 at the Calgary Folk Music Festival, with a showcase Saturday at 12:50 p.m. on the National Stage (Stage 4), and workshops Friday at on the Field Law (Stage 3), Saturday at 4:20 p.m. on the ENMAX Stage (Stage 6) and Sunday at 4:20 p.m. Move Forward YYC Stage (Stage 2). For tickets and the complete schedule go to calgaryfolkfest.com.
Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer.