Episode 35b: An Interview with Steven Page
Steven Page has been writing songs for over 35 years. Most of his famous songs were done while he was with a previous group, Barenaked Ladies, a band that he wrote and played with for 20 years, a band that to some extent still defines how people see him and talk about him. I mean, look at my second sentence. Or the beginning paragraph of any article or interview he has done in the last 10 years. Some performers would become bitter, and rail against fans who only want “what I used to be” and ask him about rejoining the band. But, as the kind gentleman that he is, Steven not only doesn’t let that bother him, he actually appreciates it. “it’s not uncomfortable for me. But it’s persistent… because it’s never gone away. I’ve always had people asking me to get back together with the band or if that’s going to happen or when is it going to happen, or whatever else. And, you know, I was really pleased and moved with how well people responded to my reunion with the guys at the Junos. And I’ve learned over the years how much the band and the songs have meant to people who are fans and what it represents to them, like in their own histories, their childhoods, their college years, their marriages, whatever it is. And happy to be, well, you know, honored to be a purveyor of that. So I’m not uncomfortable with people asking me. I just also don’t want to get people’s hopes up about… they feel like that’s things they can aim for. I really don’t know if there’s ever going to be any other kind of reunion beyond what we just saw. But I really enjoy what we did and was happy that it happened.”
So gracious and relaxed. But also dedicated. When talking about his upcoming tour, I asked him if he intends to take requests from people online, as he has done for his recent European tour. “I’m interested in hearing what people want to hear. The last time I went to the U.K., I had done that and I was really surprised at the number of requests that I got for “Tonight Is The Night I Fell Asleep At The Wheel”. And I’ve done it live before, but I hadn’t considered it as something that a lot of people would want to hear. And it became a big part of the show.” When I requested one for his U.S. tour, he imparted this knowledge, “‘Break Your Heart’, as long as I’m in good voice, tends to make the set quite often too. It’s one of those ones where if I feel like my voice is not going to hang on for the next three shows… I’m never one to do anything by half. It’s like, I’ve either gotta give it 100% or find a different song to sing… (T)he yelling doesn’t do my throat any favors but it’s a big part of the song.” A man that continues to think of the craft and his audience, even after all of these years, putting 100% into it.
One of Steven’s signatures in his music, that you can see even in his recent music, is his use of the bridge of a song to reveal a nuance of the narrator or another perspective on the narrator of the song, sometimes through an aside to the listeners. It is Steven’s Bridge of Reveal. “Well… I mean, I love writing bridges, like I do think it’s a thing that, it’s an opportunity inside of a song to break out of the kind of the repetition of the verse and chorus, and it’s also an opportunity to walk into a different space. That’s how I always visualize it. It’s like a door has opened and who knows what’s on the other side. Like it could be a darkened room, it could be a rainbow, you know, it could be all kinds of different things. And for that brief moment, you can kind of paint another whole picture or another angle of the same picture. So it sometimes, yeah, I think quite often it is like that, it’s the aside to the audience. And I do like that, I like bouncing back and forth, where it sounds conversational, but it’s with myself. And then you have yet another section where it’s an aside, that says, ‘Here’s what I’m really saying or here what I want to say but can’t say out loud.’”
Sometimes, when with Barenaked Ladies, he would write those bridges alone, but most of the time, especially in the early days, he would collaborate with Ed on the songs, much like the Beatles would do. In speaking about the bridge in “Be My Yoko Ono” and what it taught him, “that was a perfect example of when you look back at the bridge, you know Ed sings that bridge and he wrote that bridge, and I had written everything else around it, and that was quite often how we, in the early days, used to write songs, but he was able to encapsulate what the song was kind of about in a brief period of time, where I could give more metaphoric use in the verses.” And as you explore the Barenaked Ladies catalogue, you often find examples throughout the music, where the song is direct but the bridge is metaphorical, or vice versa. Since leaving the band, Steven continues to write like that, just mostly by himself.
Steven’s songs also often have a manifest story or purpose, but he also likes to play with words and “alternative” meanings. Sometimes such that even the secondary meanings have deeper implications. I discovered this as I asked Steven about one of his early songs, “Alternative Girlfriend”. As ardent Barenaked Ladies fans most likely have discerned, the song is about a narrator who is in two relationships at the same time, one of which he has become bored with, and the other, his “alternative” and more exciting girlfriend. The song explores how relationships become boring with “no surprises up its sleeve”, while affairs often provide excitement. At the same time, the song plays on the dual meanings of alternative, describing the other girlfriend as a person living an “alternative” lifestyle as defined in the ‘90’s. However, the lyric “now you cannot pretend, there’s nothing left that won’t cross over” has often confounded me. Steven explained, “…in that era…the concept in art but also in politics was about selling out, the fear of selling out or being seen as a sell out, and then crossing over, which is kind of the co-opting of, well, we saw as the progressive culture by the corporations. You know, I use that same kind of idea again in songs like “Queen of America” where it’s about the kind of progressive and artistic ideas get co-opted for Pepsi commercials or whatever else. And have crossed-over from the germ of an idea into something much more mainstream and then it and then are also potentially watered down so, using either the relationship in the song as a metaphor for that somebody, kind of a regular schlub who’s with somebody who is far more risk taking and edgy and interesting, perhaps, or so he sees, might be the ultimate sell out for her, for being with a schlub like him…so, crossing over would be like crossing over would be like crossing over from alternative to the mainstream.”
One of the mistakes that people make, and I have to admit that I myself fit this definition, is blending the line between the narrator of the song and author of the song. Too often we talk about how “Steven” feels a certain way in a song, forgetting that the narrator or subject of the song is not necessarily autobiographical. While talking about the meaning of the song “A”, Steven expounded upon this important concept, “it wasn’t always me trying to talk about myself. I mean, I certainly played a role in those things but, you know, I watched a lot of people. I think when a lot of people go through these things, they just don’t say them out loud, but if feel like they want to make change in their life. You know, for instance, a song like “Upside Down” is something that I think a lot of people can relate to. I was not leading nearly as stagnant a life as any of those characters lead. You know, I was leading a relatively exciting and fulfilling life but at the same time, there’s part of your psyche that says, “I need to change myself. I need to change my environment. I need to change everything about me if I wasn’t so afraid.” And that’s kind of what “A” does. Or, you know, “A” suggests perhaps it’s harder to change than one might let on.“ It makes me consider more carefully how I digest and discuss the narrator in Steven’s songs.
Steven’s work, while with Barenaked Ladies, often played not only with words but with the sounds. There isn’t a song on Gordon that sounds alike: rock, samba, pop, jazz, somber, folk, and power ballad. A pattern that continued throughout his time with the band, and also after. On his first solo album after the split, Page One, he has Techno (Entourage, Queen of America), Tango (Entourage), Shakespearean again (All the Young Monogamists), the 80’s rock (If You Love Me), and of course folk rock and pop rock. On his second album, Heal Thyself: Part 1: Instinct, he had big band (Leave Her Alone), calypso (Mama), 70s (No Song Left To Save Me) and Country/Mexican (Here’s What It Takes), and then he was also playing with notes, and chords, and harmonies, on things like “There Is A Melody” I and II. I was curious where this exploration comes from. “I think it’s just kind of always been around in my brain and just whatever I hear and whatever I listen to… I’ve never liked being restricted by the boundaries of it. I love pop music and I love the form, but, and think about it, my favorite band always has been and always will be “The Beatles” and they were never afraid to try whatever styles they felt best suited the song. And, yeah, so making an album like Page One and then the Heal Thyself records are like, opportunities to try things, to experiment. That’s what music is for me. And I think that does, that goes all the way back to Gordon. And that was the joy of making Gordon back then was the fact that we didn’t feel any boundaries at all.”
And Steven loves to be eclectic. Not only have many of his albums with Barenaked Ladies played with various forms of music, he has continued the pattern with his solo career, between playing with the Art of Time Ensemble (and releasing an album of cover songs, A Singer Must Die), touring with two bands (TransCanada Highwaymen, and Steven Page Trio), and releasing two solo albums, both varied in their ranges. He also continued to work with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, writing and recording music for FIVE more plays: Bartholomew’s Fair, Coreolanus, Hamlet, MacBeth, and Cymbeline. When asked about these other plays and what happened to the scores, he stated, “I don’t think we’ve sold any of the other scores that I did. ‘Cause all the other ones were done just that I did myself and I haven’t released any of that stuff… But, I’ve considered putting together a “Best of…” compilation of stuff from those other shows.”
Now, that is just a tease. We don’t know if he will ever release these recordings or even a greatest hits, although we can hope and watch for falling stars. But we can be happy that Steven Page is not one of those “falling stars”. For lovers of Steven’s music, this is not a dangerous time. You will be ecstatic with the next paragraph. Not only does he have a United States tour starting at the end of September (9/20 in Washington, D.C.) with 32 dates, some of those recently added, but one of those is in Maine on Oct. 2nd. You can buy the tickets online on his website (www.stevenpage.com) or through any of the venues. But, the news gets better. He has a new album: “Heal Thyself: Part 2 Discipline” dropping on iTunes and Amazon and released in stores on Sept. 14. “(T)he next record has a whole bunch of sounds as well. It’s got another big band song, it’s got some very ’60’s influenced stuff, some very ’80’s influenced stuff. It’s got a lot more kind of classic soul and R&B styles as well…some of the songs will draw a line back to songs, like whether it’s Box Set or Break Your Heart or Wizard of Magicland or whatever else. There are similarities. You know, they come from the same guy. But, you know, I’ve also grown as a musician and I have other musicians I get to play with now who bring new things to the table.Craig (Northey) as well as The Odd (Craig’s original band) play on a lot of the record and, yeah, Kevin and his cello are on it, as well as those guys, both harmonies.“ Having listened to the album, Steven’s definition is very true. The album is highly eclectic with experimentation and flavors of his new bandmates, but at the same time, you hear hints of the places he has been, much like an aged wine from a quality vintner.
And like a good winemaker, who is careful with the flowers and plants grown next to the vines, Steven’s decisions with his songs are deliberate. When he named his last album and the upcoming album, originally a double album, 1) Instinct and 2) Discipline, a line in his song, it was a well-thought decision. “Once I realized that I was going to be kind of putting this out as a two partner, I felt like those two traits and those two skill sets are the things that help me most do the work, the music work, but also, I think that those are in a certain way the keys to health sometimes. Like that sense of like, “Trust your gut, trust yourself. Don’t always second guess yourself.” But you also need to have the discipline of sitting down to do the work. Don’t expect that it’s just going to come to you.” Wisdom that speaks to a some aspect to all of our lives.
To the Barenaked Ladies fans who are still angry about his departure, I say this: I was once like you. I once railed against listening to him out of anger that he had changed, maybe ruined, a band that defined formative years of my life. But at a certain point, we must put anger away. Anger, as Steven notes, can be healthy, but it can also be counterproductive. In talking about “Angry People”, he said, “The anger can sometimes stop you from hearing other people and that anger can be constructive. And that really is like a reflection, saying that ‘I’m angry, too, but I’m angry about… I’m angry at myself. You know, you might hate the government or immigrants or whatever else you might hate. But I’m too busy hating myself.’ is really what that song says. That’s where ‘We just drag them down until they’re just like us’ is like, it’s really about angry people and sometimes, you know, that’s what I think we see now online, in the world of Twitter trolls and whatever else, is like, people are angry for the sense of being angry, sometimes. And there is something else that their angry at and they’re directing it all over the place. Like, spraying their bile. But at the end of the day, it’s just about trying to make people hurt on the inside as much as they do. Anger can be productive and we talk about that in lots of other songs. But in that song it’s talking about how it can also be counterproductive.”
Anger over something I couldn’t control and couldn’t change. When I released it, I became open to seeing all these amazing qualities in a man I once used to, and again be able to, admire. I regained the ability to hear his solo music for the magic it is and allow that magic back into my life. And I hope that all Barenaked Ladies’ fans out there do. For while they have parted ways, both groups are highly talented people with a message to give. Steven Page: relaxed, wise, disciplined, poetic, dedicated, and eclectic. What isn’t there to like about his music?
Steven did take the time to talk more specifically about questions relating to specific songs he has written over the years. And many of the answers gave a more extensive look into the genius of songwriting that is Steven Page. For more of that interview, I encourage you to listen to the episode on our podcast Barenaked ABCs. Episode 35 that drops on Sept. 4 will have the edited interview. Or read the transcript on our website www.BowlingStormtrooperEntertainment.com. In the meantime, go buy your tickets and pre-buy the new album. You won’t be disappointed.