“She ain’t pretty, she just looks that way.” It’s the hook that sticks with us. And the song that put Saskatchewan alt-rockers Northern Pikes into the Top 10. The rollicking bar-room tune from the Pikes’ third album, Snow in June, solidified guitarist Bryan Potvin as one of the group’s core songwriters. It was nominated for a Single of the Year JUNO, won for Video of the Year, and remains their best-known hit. Potvin takes a break from prepping gigs with Kane & Potvin (his new project with Grapes of Wrath’s Kevin Kane) to talk about writing about the “model from Hell.”
Snow in June was the third Northern Pikes record, but the first where you wrote so many songs. Whose idea was that?
I wrote a song on the previous record, Secrets of the Alibi, called “Hope Goes Astray” that ended up being the band’s biggest hit to that point. It was the first song I wrote that was good enough to bring to the boys and say, “What do you think of this?” and that gave me a lot of confidence. When it was time to do Snow in June, it was expected of me. The Pikes was the type of ecosystem that encouraged it. I think Jay [Semko, singer/bassist] felt more relaxed that other people were contributing.
With this song, you also become the band’s third singer.
Right. We had two lead vocalists initially. I was doing a bit of harmony, but my role was the guitar player. When I started writing songs, they eventually said, “Listen man, you have to learn how to sing these.” I still, in a weird way, consider myself a guitar player first. I love everything about guitar. But I was presented with different circumstances than I saw coming. I didn’t know I had this in me.
Songwriters often have to remind people that not everything they write is autobiographical, but in this case, this song was, right?
Well, sort of. I really was a dishwasher, yes. This person, she was a composite, a bit of a Ms. Frankenstein. The hook… it’s funny I’m just now remembering it. It came from watching an episode of [‘70s TV sitcom] Rhoda. There was a scene where there’s this typical good-looking woman and she says, “I’m not beautiful, I just look that way.” So I wrote that down in a notebook, as a writer does. I thought it was very funny. It just sat there for a month or two. Then it was time to make hay. That acoustic jam was coming up and I would need to bring some songs. So I took that line and just riffed on it. I knew I had something special with the hook, so I’ve got to write around it and try not to mess it up. It was quick: you hear this all the time, but that song was written in about 20 minutes.
When did you know it was a hit?
The first time we played it live! We had the audience singing the chorus by the end of the first play. Then when [Virgin Records] heard “She Ain’t Pretty,” they knew it was the single that would open up the rest of the record. I thought it was a really bold move by the record company, actually, to get behind it. You’ve got two records, you’re establishing this band, they’re doing well on MuchMusic, and then we throw a monkey wrench in – we have another singer. But it worked out pretty well.
Looking back at the awards, and the video, and the radio play, what do you think is the song’s legacy?
You know, a lot has happened with it but I still think it has a future. Like, this song is going to make a massive country hit for someone one day. It’s got that sassy lyric. An agreeable melody and chord progression attune to something country. I feel that it’s just waiting to be a smash.