They were just kids from the ’burbs, but Burlington, Ont., outfit The Spoons found themselves at the centre of Canada’s burgeoning new-wave scene in the early ’80s. There would be a string of club and radio hits (“Romantic Traffic,” “Tell No Lies,” etc.), a high-profile ad campaign with the Thrifty’s clothing chain and shows with Culture Club and The Police. But it all started with a synth-pop song called “Nova Heart,” from the 1982 album Arias and Symphonies. On the eve of celebrating the band’s 30th anniversary, vocalist/guitarist Gord Deppe talks about bringing back those old emotions.

 

What is the origin of the phrase “nova heart”?

Well, a nova is an exploding star, an all-encompassing phenomenon. The song was written way at the beginning, when we were still pretty young. In university, I was reading science fiction, and was into this book by Arthur C. Clark called Childhood’s End. If people want to hear it as a simple love song, I don’t want to take that away from them, but it was about an idea in that book — that no matter what happens, we’ll be all right.

 

How did a guitar player end up writing a song that’s all about the keyboards?

I actually wrote the song on a keyboard. And I’m no keyboard player! But when you write on guitar all the time, your hands go to the same place, and I wanted something different. I had just seen OMD at a little club in Hamilton, Ont.,  and I was so inspired. I borrowed a lousy old String Machine, with fake orchestra sounds and not even enough room to move your hands on it. That was fine for me, I was just klonking around. Our keyboard player, Rob, said he could never have written it, it was too simple. That melody only has three notes.

 

How important was it to you that people could dance to this?

That was [producer] John Punter’s doing. He introduced us to the 808 drum machine, this little box that helped create the rhythm patterns, like those handclaps. There was no real formula for what works in the dance clubs in those days, but he knew what would be best. The song was originally just supposed to be a B-side to the track “Symmetry,” but half-way through recording, when the drums and the synths came together, we knew we had something.

 

Were you surprised by the success?

I never thought it would do anything, no. We just wanted to make it onto the chart at CKOC in Hamilton! That was a big deal. Then I remember seeing it on the CHUM chart, right next to Led Zeppelin and Queen. I think it hit No. 4. KROQ in L.A. had it on its Top 10 for the year. I was really surprised that it did what it did.

 

You still play the song live today. Considering how a lot of ’80s synth pop sounds dated, how do you think it holds up?

In the 1990s, we got rid of the drum machines and did pop/rock interpretations, with more guitar. But we’re appreciating the synths again. We realize that the drum machine sounds are key to it, and people can be disappointed when they don’t get what they expected, what they remember. They want the handclaps.

 

What do you think is this song’s legacy?

It really caught us when we were innocent, at our most creative and vibrant. We may have written better songs, technically, or improved on our instruments, but you can’t capture that youth again. I like knowing that, in our small way, we were a part of a musical shift. People remember us, if not the cause of it, as a part of it.


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Ron Sexsmith is an unassuming anti-star: a consummate and critically acclaimed songsmith known for his low-key delivery and an ability to say more in one three-minute song than many people do over the course of an entire record. Sexsmith is also one of few artists who can count a number of iconic songwriters — some of them his own early influences — among his dedicated fans. But for all the critical recognition, multiple Junos, a Genie Award and a cult following that includes, most famously, Sir Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello, widespread mainstream success has eluded him.

 

“I’ve always considered myself a pop songwriter,” Sexsmith says, speaking from his home in Toronto. “But for some reason I haven’t been able to make the record yet where that translates.” That may change with his latest release on Warner Canada. Entitled Long Player, Late Bloomer and produced by Bob Rock, the record marks a bit of a sea change for the St. Catharines, Ont.-born singer/songwriter. “It’s not a shy record. It kind of comes crashing through the door,” Sexsmith says. “I played it for Elvis Costello and he said it sounded like I had my head up for the first time in my career. That was interesting,” he adds with a laugh, “but I know what he means.”

 

Recorded in late 2009 at Sage & Sound Recording in Los Angeles, The Orange Lounge in Toronto and the Warehouse in Vancouver, the album is a departure from past records where, Sexsmith says, it might have appeared that he was trying not to call attention to himself. But the shift is more a matter of subtle changes in approach, rather than a deliberate attempt on Sexsmith’s part to reinvent or reposition himself. Long Player, Late Bloomer is a strikingly deep-sounding record. Still intimate, still characterized by Sexsmith’s ability to capture the heart of a sentiment or story in a few well-chosen words, but more lush than some of his past efforts — a result, in no small part, of Rock’s production.

 

“Working with a record producer is like working with a movie director. You have the same script, but it’s going to be a different movie, depending who does it. Bob was good at nudging me to get out of what I usually do,” says Sexsmith. “When I was singing, he would go, ‘You know, you’ve got to sell me this song. We need more William Shatner here.’ And I would try anything because I felt I was in good hands. I wanted him to be able to do the kind of record he would normally do.”

 

Prior to a chance meeting at the 2009 Juno Awards, Sexsmith assumed the kind of records Rock normally produced were almost exclusively hard rock and metal, and admits his first words with the producer were a bit flip. “I had these songs, but I didn’t know who to work with. I saw him on the curb and said, ‘Do you know any good producers?’”

 

Later that evening, conversations with artists like Michael Bublé — whose 2009 record, Crazy Love, Rock co-produced — prompted Sexsmith to rethink his initial assumption. “The first people I mentioned it to still kind of thought I was joking, but I sent him the songs and he was into it. With every producer I’m there to learn. He’s got a great way about him in the studio. He helps you frame the song in a way that brings it to life.”

 

Life is something Long Player, Late Bloomer has to spare. “Recently I’ve tried to write hopeful songs, just for my own head,” Sexsmith says, referencing tracks like “Miracles” and “Heavenly,” calling the latter “the equivalent of walking around wearing a pink shirt.” Largely written on acoustic guitar during a two-week period in early 2009 while Sexsmith was visiting friends in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the record certainly sounds hopeful, partly to its often upbeat feel and what Sexsmith terms the “fearless” contribution of the musicians assembled to record it. Among them were guitarist Rusty Anderson of Paul McCartney’s band, bassist Paul Bushnell, pianist Jamie Edwards and Barenaked Ladies keyboardist Kevin Hearn.

 

But it’s not all sweet love and bright T-shirts. “One time we were playing the record for some people and they were saying, ‘Wow, I think this is your happiest record yet,’ and I was like, ‘Someone get that man a lyric sheet.’”

 

As proud as Sexsmith is of his last two records, the response to them and the current state of the music industry had him feeling a bit gun shy. Correspondingly, a number of songs on this new record are very much a mix of light and shade. “Michael and His Dad,” for example, on which Sexsmith tells a story of everyday struggle, relying on his own experience first looking for work in Toronto with his own son in tow, and “Believe It When I See It,” which is upbeat, almost Beatles-esque, but clearly reflects Sexsmith’s sense of disillusionment.

 

Other songs, he says, grew out of a feeling of being wounded. “Get in Line,” for example, suggests anyone looking to bring Sexsmith down should head to the back of what he calls “a very long line. It was fun to write a song with that kind of sentiment,” Sexsmith says. “It’s like that Bruce Cockburn line, ‘Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight.’ That’s what I was trying to do in my mind. I was in a funk, but I was excited because I’m always excited when I have a new song. Because that’s when I feel like I’m making myself useful.”

 

The title track itself, “Late Bloomer,” was meant as a bit of a joke, Sexsmith says. “It’s a song about cynicism taking over, but in an ironic way, where I’m listening to these wide-eyed people talking about how everything is going to be great and I’m this curmudgeon in the corner.”

 

That cynicism may be partly a result of Sexsmith’s reverence for the idea of a record as a collection of closely related material, and the fact that music is increasingly being marketed and consumed as single songs and EPs. “The Long Player part is that I really love albums. None of these songs existed as an idea before I went to Santa Fe. The thing I love about records is they’re not just 10 songs unrelated to each other. You’re going through something. They belong together.”

 

Like other artists’ records that Sexsmith himself is fond of, Long Player, Late Bloomer demands repeated listens. “That’s what you hope for,” he says. But ultimately what is most important to him is that he be remembered for his songs. “You want to make good records, but they’re more of a document so people can hear the songs.”

 

The hard part for Sexsmith now is just that, waiting for people to hear his new material. Since January he’s been in what he describes as a holding pattern. He’s been writing plenty, he says, generating a good portion of the material for his next record and co-writing with other artists for their projects, but performing only sporadically, mostly the occasional guest appearance at the shows of friends and peers in Toronto.

 

When it comes to his records, however, he prefers to write alone. One notable exception is “Brandy Alexander,” a track he wrote with Leslie Feist, which appeared on both Feist’s 2007 release, The Reminder, as well as on Sexsmith’s 2008 album, Exit Strategy for the Soul. “I do a fair bit of co-writing,” Sexsmith says, “but I like to steer clear of it for my own records.” Currently he has been writing with a variety of artists, among them British folk singer Linda Thompson and Canadian jazz sensation Nikki Yanofsky.

 

On this record Sexsmith’s lyrical sense is as acute as ever and his voice has never been stronger. That, combined with Rock’s talent for capturing the essence of where an artist is at a given moment in life — as both a songwriter and an individual — while simultaneously honouring the artist’s history should appeal equally to existing fans and new listeners alike. Clearly that’s something Sexsmith also hopes for. “One of the things I wanted to get out of Bob was to make a record where people who never got me before would hear it, you know? This whole record was about me dreaming big.”

Regardless of the outcome, Sexsmith’s legacy is already impressive and assured. Not because of the endorsements from his well-known friends and fans, but because of his unique voice as a performer and songwriter and commitment to his craft. The support of artists like Sheryl Crow, Costello and McCartney was “encouraging,” he says, “especially early on when I didn’t have a lot to show. There was a feeling that I was doing good work, but that’s a bonus. I’d still be doing this if nobody had said anything. It’s just the thing I’m obsessed with and what I work on all the time.”

 


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One of hottest touring bands in Canada at the moment eschews the standard instrumentation of guitar, bass and drums in favour of sitar, dhol and tabla — mixed with a little Irish fiddle. Delhi 2 Dublin, a five-piece outfit from Vancouver, is riding a wave of South Asian music that has permeated Western culture. This year, the group’s concert appearances have included dates at the Vancouver Olympics, the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, TX, Festival d’été de Québec in Quebec City and the World Routes festival at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre.

“We play to mostly white audiences — it’s not brown people who are coming to see us,” says Delhi 2 Dublin’s tabla player Tarun Nayar. “And they don’t get scared away by the fact that there’s a bunch of Indian instruments on stage and that our singer sings a lot of his lyrics in Punjabi. They don’t even care. It’s awesome.”

Delhi 2 Dublin, whose other members include vocalist Sanjay Seran, sitarist Andrew Kim, dhol player Jaspaul Ravi Binning and violinist Kytami, is just one of a number of Canadian South Asian acts enjoying crossover success. The group’s current album, Planet Electric, which was produced by Nayar and mixed by noted U.K. producer Diamond “DJ Swami” Duggal (Apache Indian/Maxi Priest/Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan), is winning college-radio airplay and rave reviews in the indie music press for its energetic mash-up of bhangra, Celtic, dub reggae and electronica.

East-meets-West fusions are nothing new to Canadian music. In the 1990s, Punjabi by Nature, a Toronto-based band led by Tony Singh, built a large following with its mix of bhangra with reggae, dance and industrial music. The group performed at jazz and folk festivals across Canada and even opened for hip-hop heroes the Beastie Boys. Meanwhile, Mississauga, Ont., sitarist Irshad Khan released a series of fusion albums and Vancouver’s Indian Lion, who blended bhangra and reggae, issued his Under Cover album on the BMG label.

More recently, Indian-born, Toronto-raised singer Kiran Ahluwalia earned acclaim for her entrancing arrangements of ancient Persian and Punjabi ghazals, or poems. Ahluwalia, now based in New York, won the 2004 Juno World Music Album of the Year prize for her Beyond Boundaries album. After winning the Songlines/WOMAD Newcomer of the Year Award in England in 2008, Ahluwalia and her five-piece ensemble performed at the London Jazz Festival.

Now that Hollywood has discovered Bollywood, A.R. Rahman’s Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack has won Oscars and Grammys and even the Pussycat Dolls have taken to wearing saris, the time seems ripe for Canada’s latest wave of Desi-flavoured artists. Singer Suba Sankaran, who performs with Toronto’s Indo-jazz outfit Autorickshaw, agrees. “Audiences have open minds and open ears and they’re ready to take bigger risks,” says Sankaran, daughter of renowned South Indian percussionist Trichy Sankaran. “The fusion in things like fashion, film, books and cuisine, plus the information highway, has really helped to lift the veil of exoticism off the music.”

Raghav knows all about fusion. The Calgary-born singer, who has based himself in England since attending Sir Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, has become one of the world’s leading urban Desi stars by mixing English and Hindi vocals over music that blends R&B, hip-hop and Bollywood-sampled beats. Raghav’s 2004 album Storyteller featured Kardinal Offishall and sold more than 1.5 million copies worldwide. His new album, Identity, includes the Bollywood-style ballad “Humrahee,” sung entirely in Hindi, as well as a thumping dance track with U.S. rapper Redman.

Raghav’s manager, New York-based Jay Gatzby, who also represents Montreal’s the Bilz & Kashif, as well as a number of U.S. and U.K. musicians and actors of South Asian descent, believes artists like Raghav can transcend their own communities. “Look what happened to Latin artists like Shakira or Ricky Martin,” he says. “With their talents, they’ve been able to translate their success into the English market.”

Sitarist Rishi Dhir, who leads the Montreal group Elephant Stone, says he doesn’t understand music marketing. But he knows that his five-piece band sticks out from most other groups. “There aren’t many bands that have sitar, especially in Canada, and people are intrigued by that.” A classically trained sitar player, Dhir was a member of Montreal psych-pop outfit The High Dials until he grew disillusioned with the rock lifestyle. “I love Bollywood music, Indian classical music and psychedelic rock, so that’s what I wanted to mix,” says Dhir. With tongue in cheek, he calls Elephant Stone’s sound “hindie rock.”

With more than one million people of South Asian descent, Canada has become a major breeding ground for Desi talent, including Vancouver’s En Karma, currently the country’s top bhangra band, and Toronto’s Gurpreet “the Tabla Guy” Chana, who has recorded and performed with Canadian artists like Jorane, Ron Allen and Nelly Furtado. “That’s the beauty of Canada and our diversity — there are hybrids everywhere,” says Sankaran, who also sings a cappella ’80s hits with Retrocity. “We’re on the precipice of something really exciting here.”

 


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