The term “lifer” can refer either to a criminal serving lifelong jail time, or a person sticking to one job for their whole career.
The tough task of survival in the Canadian music business may sometimes make it seem like a self-imposed life sentence, but we recently interviewed four Canadian singer-songwriters who are more than content to fulfill the second definition.
Two of these artists, Lee Aaron and Ron Hawkins, have enjoyed periods of genuine commercial success over the course of their long careers, while Kyp Harness and David Leask have worked outside the commercial boundaries, earning a decent living and immense respect from their peers.
All four have worked as recording and performing artists for more than 20 years. We wanted to find out what keeps them creatively energized, productive, and economically viable.
Prior to emigrating to Canada in the early 1990s, Scottish-born folk singer-songwriter David Leask worked as a financial adviser. “My financial advice should have been ‘don’t go into the music business’,” he says jokingly.
His commitment to songwriting, and love of performing, has sustained him over a recording career now spanning 20 years and five albums, beginning with 100 Camels in 1996. He’s earned a JUNO nomination and taken top honours in multiple international songwriting competitions.
Reflecting on the milestone year, Leask says “I feel comfortable and happy with what I’ve done on all my records, but I’m more of a look-forward guy.”
His well-received new album The Clarke Hall Sessions was recorded live in Port Credit, Ontario, with Justin Abedin and Sean O’Connor. It includes five songs written in Nashville, with three written right in the SOCAN House there. “Working On Faith,” a co-write with Bill DiLuigi, was cut by a young U.S. artist for a top gospel label, while other co-writers included Daryl Burgess, Tim Taylor and Tom Jutz. “It’s been a big thing to have the opportunity to go down there and work with some great writers,” says Leask of his SOCAN House experience.
He’s no stranger to writing trips there, recalling a period when “I was trying to hang my hat on being a writer as my path,” he says. “I never stopped performing live, though. That’s where my bread and butter comes from, so I was still out there playing, singing songs from previous records and testing out new ones.
“That combination of being a writer and performer is important. The energy that comes back from performing confirms this is something worth doing. It’s much tougher if you’re just a writer in your basement, trying to write a hit.”
Leask has also written with the likes of Suzie Vinnick and Jay Semko, and had songs recorded by Vinnick, Alex Runions, Mandy Ringdal, Twin Kennedy and more.
“My commitment to music has never really waned,” he stresses. “It’s a constant road of hills and valleys, but I’ve found enough creative fuel along the way. Things change over time, as you grow and develop as an artist and individual.”
Toronto folk-rocker Kyp Harness has often been described as “a songwriter’s songwriter,” given the peer respect he’s received. Those loudly singing his praises have included Ron Sexsmith (who has covered Harness songs), Daniel Lanois, Bob Wiseman and Mary Margaret O’Hara.
Though never scoring significant commercial success, Harness has remained prolific over a recording career that has just turned 25. “I don’t usually reflect on stuff like that, as I’m just doing it every day,” he says. “But then you realize, ‘Holy shit, I have 13 records out!’”
His body of work was recently augmented by a strong new album, Stoplight Moon. “I do feel that on every one of the records there’s some great stuff,” he says. “I won’t say everything I’ve ever done is gold, but I get a lot of enjoyment out of my music, so I’m proud of it in that sense.”
Commercial imperatives have never fueled Harness’ work. “Artists produce art because that’s what an artist does. You don’t know if it’s just meant to be a fringe thing, but every day you create something as an act of faith. I feel I don’t have a choice other than to create, so let ‘er rip!”
Harness acknowledges that “there have been periods where I went through darkness, doubt and questioning, but I seem to be someone for whom this has always felt like a calling. Ultimately, you’re not doing it for the end result.
“If you’re writing an episode of Who’s the Boss, you’re trying to find a certain slot and the royalties come later. I’m aiming at something higher and different. I’ve been doing it so long now that it doesn’t make sense to do anything other than aim for the best version of what it is I do.”
Harness has also kept his creative fires burning by writing in other forms. He has had his own comic strip, Mortimer The Slug, and critiques of his comedy heroes Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy were both published by a scholarly imprint.
His first published novel, Wigford Rememberies, recently appeared via Harbour Publishing. “I’ve been writing like that, concurrently with music, all these years” he says, “and this is the first one accepted. Readings in Toronto and Ottawa went over well, and I love not having to carry my guitar around!”
Music remains a key passion, and the collaborative aspect keeps Harness energized. “I love the sense of aliveness and spontaneity that occurs when playing with people,” he says. “Things happen that can’t be predicted. Your fellow musicians breathe life into it, and you want to do it for that experience alone.”
Known primarily as a hard rock singer and songwriter, Lee Aaron has had a career that dates back to the early 1980s. Once dubbed “The Metal Queen,” she scored major commercial success in Canada, Europe and Japan, earning 10 JUNO nominations and going double-platinum for her 1989 album Bodyrock.
Business and financial troubles (including a bankruptcy) later intervened, but Aaron’s stylistic diversions into jazz, blues and alt-rock (the 2preciious project) brought critical credibility. She has returned to her hard rock roots with well-received new album Fire and Gasoline.
“I’m now committed to making music for the right reasons,” says Aaron. “I get to write music simply because it’s enjoyable.”
She does confess to some earlier questioning of her career choice. “It’s a tough business, and you’re going to have some failures along the way if you’re in for the long haul,” she says. “You also put yourself out there to be criticized, misunderstood and/or dismissed by an industry that knows nothing about you personally, so you need to develop a thick skin.”
Aaron is still deeply in love with making music. “The creative process of taking a seedling idea and turning it into a song, with an identity, then taking that into the studio where musicians breathe life into it, is so exciting,” she says. “I view producing as creating a sound painting with layers of color, texture, movement and space, then refining that until it stirs something in your soul.”
The do-it-yourself approach also keeps her energized. “It’s a whole lot more work,” she admits, “but if something gets screwed up, the only person I can get mad at is me. I also don’t ever have to wear red spandex shorts again!”
Aaron tours more selectively these days, explaining that “with a young family, the kind of touring I used to do wouldn’t work. Minimum time away, maximum impact is my approach. It keeps it fresh to play ‘Whatcha do to my Body’ 25 times a year, not 250.”
Contemplating her eventful career, Aaron says, “I’ve made choices that were not monetarily motivated, but were the right choices for me. The big payoff is creating a piece of music that resonates with people.”
Toronto indie-rock troubadour Ron Hawkins embraces the term “lifer” with pride. At a recent solo show he said, “I haven’t had a real day job since 1990.” Since then, he’s had a highly productive career, first as chief singer-songwriter in 1990s faves The Lowest of the Low (LOTL); then as leader of The Rusty Nails; and now as the head of a reunited LOTL, plus newer band The Do Good Assassins, and as a solo artist.
“Having three bands on the go keeps me motivated,” Hawkins explains. “My manager suggests I may have a higher profile if I focused a bit more, but for me it’s about keeping yourself interested. I’m certainly living a blessed life, where I can write songs and then go ‘I wonder who those are for.’”
Recently-released solo record Spit Sputter and Sparkle is Hawkins’ 15th album since 1991’s LOTL debut Shakespeare My Butt. He played most of the instruments on the new album and recorded primarily at home, a process he finds liberating.
“I can do this because of technology that wasn’t around 20 years ago,” he says. “In the early days of The Low, I’d write songs sitting on my bed with an acoustic guitar in my one room punk-rock flophouse. Now I have a high level of demo capability, so the excitement is a cycle. Doing it begets doing it more.
“It’s a real treat to spend the time and energy experimenting at home, with no clock, then go into [top studio] Revolution Recording to add drums, horns and strings and have $75k worth of microphones on the drum kit.”
There have been life lessons learned and wisdom gained along Hawkins’ journey. For instance, he won’t repeat the intense touring schedule of LOTL in its heyday. “I can’t ever imagine going back to that,” he says. “Back then, part of the problem, but part of the solution, was that we were drunk and high all the time. You could just lose days. Now I’m painfully aware of time passing.”
Hawkins declares “I’m quite comfortable in the knowledge that my personal audience is about one-tenth as large as The Low’s audience. I realize that happened to all my heroes, like John Lennon and Joe Strummer.”
The personal creative satisfaction of the work keeps him fueled. “First and foremost, you’re entertaining yourself the whole time,” he says. “That makes this easier than most people’s jobs.”