Steven Page on making music and letting go of an artist’s guilt

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Canadian singer-songwriter Steven Page was in Huntsville Saturday night as the mystery headliner for After Party – Night on the Hill, a sold-out fundraiser for the Huntsville Hospital Foundation. Doppler caught up with him the next day at Lions Lookout to talk music and creativity.

It took Steven Page a long time to accept that he can control neither how his music is received nor how he is perceived as an artist.

“I’ve always had a problem describing myself as an artist, and it got even harder after moving to the U.S. where that word has been devalued considerably,” he said in a release for his latest album, Heal Thyself Pt 1: Intuition. “There was always a sense of guilt that I didn’t have a ‘real job,’ and that got channeled into some of these new songs, almost as a reaction to the mistrust and spitefulness that pervades so much of our current discourse in North America.”

It’s his first record in six years and many fans still associate him with the Barenaked Ladies, the band he co-founded with Ed Robertson and split from in 2009. He still talks about the music he made then with pride. And as a solo artist, both his voice and his visage are instantly recognizable to old fans.

We’ve been talking for less than five minutes when a white SUV pulls to a stop next to where we’re sitting and the passenger window rolls down. “I recognize you! You look beautiful!” the woman exclaims before the vehicle slowly pulls away. I make a comment about polite Canadian fans and suddenly there’s his humorous side.

“Usually a polite Canadian will then tell you to do something in their slightly passive aggressive polite way. Come over here and do this, you’re not too big for that now,” he laughs. “I know you’re from Canada so you should be able to just come and talk to my daughter on the phone right now.”

But then we’re instantly back to talking about music.

I had just asked him if he’s ever surprised at how people react to his songs. He says it’s hardest when people don’t look too deep – into the music, the lyrics – but then he has to remind himself that they don’t have to. “That work is really for me and for anyone who does want to look that deep. And if they say, ‘I love that thing you just did, it’s great to work out to,’ hey, if it serves a purpose in their life and it’s a positive one, I can’t complain about it. But it took me a while to get to that point. If what you do for a living suddenly has some place in someone else’s life, once you see it that way, it makes this job more fun, it makes life a lot more fun.”

And having fun doing what he does is where part of his guilt came from, despite knowing that it can fill a void for listeners and fans. He says making music is spiritual work, too, but laments that it’s not valued the way that of a rabbi or a priest is simply because it’s perceived as fun.

Steven Page plays at After Party - Night on the Hill, a fundraiser for the Huntsville Hospital Foundation. Photo: Liz Rice

Steven Page plays at After Party – Night on the Hill, a fundraiser for the Huntsville Hospital Foundation.

“Work has to be rewarding for us to want to go back to it the next day. And I think most of us feel a sense of guilt over that reward because that’s not what it’s about. You go and slog it out and you come home and relax. When you are a travelling musician and you’re playing for other people’s pleasure — so there’s enjoyment already in the room and you’re seeing the world – it took a long time for me to be okay with it being fun.”

Often, the work part of the equation gets glossed over, too. His new album was several years in the making, some days working 18 hours on songs, arrangements and edits, until he got it to sound just the way he wanted it, “as uncompromised as possible.” But not perfect, he stresses.

“I leave lots of imperfections in the record because I realized that’s what makes the records that we all like sound right. Sometimes there’s flubs and not everything lines perfectly on the grid. But I wanted it to sound like what I imagined it to sound like in my head and once I got as close as I could to that, I was okay with it.”

The album cover from Heal Thyself

The album cover from Heal Thyself

Heal Thyself has 12 diverse tracks, from the Calypso styling of Mama to some nods to the 80s with The Work at Hand and I Can See My House From Here, to the soaring strings and mostly one-note lyrics of There’s a Melody II which Steven calls the centerpiece of the record on his Facebook page: “…where the ability to express the sounds in my head come from the meeting of instinct and discipline.”

There are another dozen songs waiting in the wings for Heal Thyself Pt. 2 which will likely be released sometime in 2017.

Always, after a record is out, he feels anxiety, more than he felt when two of his sons left for college and university, he says. “You can’t control it anymore – you can’t control what anybody thinks about it, you can’t control how it sounds to yourself or anybody else, you can’t make any more final changes. And you don’t know if what you intended to do actually translates. If people don’t get it, did you actually succeed at what you were trying to do?”

He summed it up best in the album release, perhaps: “The best you can do is make the art you are driven to make, and in the end I know this album sounds like me.”

When we parted ways, Steven drove off in his own vehicle, headed to drop his son off at a rehearsal for Seussical. And that’s just like him, too.

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5 Comments

  1. Christine Crawford on

    As a long time fan of Steven, as well as of BNL with Steven, I am thrilled that he is still writing and recording songs! I will definitely be getting this new album and am looking forward to giving in a full listen!

  2. Morris Eccles on

    How great for Huntsville to get to meet this artist. Congrats to the foundation.
    Morris Eccles

  3. Peivand Ryks Cerna on

    I still listen to the current formation on BNL. But, boy, the oldies with Steven’s powerful voice are classics.

  4. Anita Chappell on

    I love both Steven Page’s music and his voice. I’m always torn between wanting to grab everyone and say, “You just HAVE to listen to this!” and keeping it all to myself like some special little secret thing. Keep going, Mr. Page – I haven’t heard all I want to hear from you, yet.

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