Can you remember which Canadian indie band beat out Lady Gaga, Eminem, Katy Perry and Lady Antebellum for Album of the Year at the Grammys?
Flash back to Valentine’s Day 2011 when “The Suburbs,” the third studio record from Montreal’s Arcade Fire, took home the gold gramophone, sending shock waves throughout the mainstream music industry. For bestselling author Michael Barclay (“Have Not Been the Same,” “The Never-Ending Present”) this was a WTF moment — in a good way — that showed how far this band, which started out playing small clubs like Sneaky Dee’s in Toronto and Casa del Popolo in Montreal, had come.
It also spoke to what the music critic had witnessed first-hand in other venues from Halifax to Victoria and New York City to Austin for more than a decade. Beginning in the new millennium, artists including Arcade Fire had charted a new course to success marked by a do-it-yourself entrepreneurial spirit and epic live shows. These artists also took advantage of the dawn of file sharing when the major record labels and FM radio were no longer the sole gatekeepers of the music consumers discovered.
“Suddenly, being a Canadian independent band was no longer a disadvantage,” Barclay explained. “You didn’t need to convince the corporate Canadian music industry that you were good enough to get a shot at the rest of the world. You could leapfrog that and reach people directly, so many Canadian artists benefited from that.”
Barclay is no stranger to chronicling the Canadian music scene. His first book “Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985-1995,” co-authored with Jason Schneider and Ian Jack, explored another key decade when Canadian artists including Blue Rodeo, the Tragically Hip, the Rheostatics, the Skydiggers and the Cowboy Junkies, to name just a few, revitalized a dormant domestic scene and left a lasting legacy.
His latest book, “Hearts on Fire: Six Years That Changed Canadian Music 2000-2005,” is a natural followup to that rich resource, which is an indispensable reference for both aspiring — and veteran — Canadian music journalists.
“Hearts on Fire” is a love letter to a seminal time in our country’s collective music history sometimes forgotten. At nearly 600 pages, ample space is devoted to revealing the rich sonic landscapes these artists created and painting a vivid picture of their divergent paths to success.
Barclay peels back the layers of what made these six years crucial to our domestic music ecosystem by weaving together entertaining and enlightening stories of 42 diverse artists: from poetic punks and queer orchestras to hip-hop trailblazers and art-rock collectives. These narratives percolated in Barclay’s brain for more than a decade before they coalesced and ended up on the pages of his latest book during an intense two-years of writing.
“When people ask how long it took me to write this book, I tell them either two, 10, or 20 years, depending how you count,” he said when we caught up via Zoom 10 days before the book’s official release. “‘Have Not Been the Same’ came out in 2001 and, in writing the epilogue for that book, it became evident that something new was starting. Canadian indie bands were getting noticed and given international attention in a way they were not used to getting.”
Thanks to Barclay, who studied history and has written about Canadian music for more than 25 years for media outlets including Exclaim! and Maclean’s among others, these artists and the music they created are now captured for future generations.
“Hearts on Fire” is important because it makes sure this prolific period in Canadian music history is not forgotten. The two common threads, for the majority of the artists Barclay picked to include, were their DIY approach and the fact the rest of the world took notice of their art. A sampling of those acts includes: the Weakerthans, Danko Jones, Hawksley Workman, Joel Plaskett, Kid Koala, Caribou, Stars, Metric, Kardinal Offishall, Broken Social Scene and the Sadies.
Taking advantage of the pandemic pause when, due to COVID-19 many of these musicians were unable to tour, Barclay conducted more than 100 exclusive interviews with these outsiders. He also relied on gig diaries and journals he kept from concerts he attended.
“These were the weirdos,” the author said, admitting he’s always been too mainstream for the weirdos and too weird for the mainstream. “This was not Avril Lavigne or Nickelback. Many Canadian artists were successful during this time, but to me those are other trajectories and other stories.
“Mainstream success was not their goal,” Barclay added. “These artists wanted to create something unique and interesting. And, they did. Part of their success is that, in their respective genres, they brought something new to the table; they did not sound like everybody else … that is what the rest of the world noticed.”
This validation by international media and global music fans was another key criterion for narrowing down the list of artists who made the final cut. “This weird stuff we were making had to have resonated with the rest of the world,” Barclay explained. “That meant excluding some of my favourite artists and even some of my friends.” (In the book’s introduction, the author tells readers that, for the price of a drink, he will reveal the reasons some artists were omitted and also share 50 other great records from this time period.)
In exploring the paths these weirdos took toward international success and recognition, the author wanted to make sure he took a pan-Canadian lens. The artists he chose include examples from across Canada to illustrate this was not just an isolated scene in one particular city. Another thing that helped these artists succeed at the time is that the cost of living in major metropolises in the early 2000s was still reasonable. “You could afford to pay rent in your hometown and focus on whatever weird art you wanted to make,” said Barclay, who asked nearly every artist interviewed for this book how much rent they paid back then.
As a music critic, historian, and champion of Canadian arts and culture, Barclay believes it is crucial to capture, collate and curate these stories for future generations. “One thing that I suspected and that was confirmed during my research is that this period of time in particular is already quite lost to history,” he said. “A lot of this stuff was not covered in the major papers; instead, a lot of it was covered in the weeklies, which have gone out of business and do not have online archives.”
As our conversation ended, I asked Barclay how this seminal period in Canadian music compares to today. “There is no scene now because everything has been locked down for two years, so the future is unwritten,” he said.
“Despite this, real estate prices are the primary difference. Musicians’ income today is the same or less than it was 20 years ago while the price of real estate is 10 times higher. That affects everything, not just the clubs, but also the type of music being made. It’s hard to be a band if you’ve got no place to practise and rehearse. I’m really curious to see what happens coming out of this pandemic and how the price of real estate will affect the type of music made.”
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