If there's anyone who knows Halifax's music history, it's Rob Lemon. The 43-year-old street musician has been playing around the city, mostly on Spring Garden Road, since 1989.
He remembers Sloan's Smeared CD release show at Club Flamingo, he's seen country legend John Prine seven times and he's witnessed the industry shift from label to independent. In terms of making his own music, he says "the straw that broke the camel's back" was the first Blackpool show he attended, one of Halifax's most popular '90s rock bands: "That's when I realized I wanted to stay in this town and play music and that's all I wanted to do."
In 1993, he released the Wilderness Radio EP, inspired by his time in Yarmouth County as a counsellor at Camp Wapomeo, where he says his campers were Joel Plaskett, Rob Benvie and Ian McGettigan, three-quarters of Thrush Hermit: "Joel would sit on the girls' cabin steps and play 'Stairway to Heaven' note for note and the girls would all gather," he remembers.
This year, on the 20th anniversary of the album, Lemon re-released his Wilderness Radio EP on Bandcamp. He describes his style as a cross between Neil Young/Crazy Horse and John Denver. But busking wasn't part of his original plan until Houston's Johnny Copeland came to town.
"I had no money to get in so my roommate told me to go stand on the street, play guitar and people would throw money. Sure enough, I made the money to go see the show. That's when I realized I could make more money doing that than I could working the same hours at Harvey's. So I quit my job and went to play music," he says. He's busked almost every day ever since.
"There are challenges, like the weather," Lemon says. Sometimes law enforcement intervenes and space to play is competitive. "There used to be a time where everybody had their own spot and you respected that. If you showed up to play there, they'd bow out gracefully and leave, but it doesn't work that way anymore," he says. Busking has changed, just like music. "It's easier to make records now," he says. "If you have money, you can pay someone to manufacture anything."
But the internet has also created the ability to release music for free. "That's why I decided to re-release the Wilderness Radio EP, because it doesn't have a cost to it. And people were saying they wanted it and it wasn't available anywhere, so now it is." Wilderness Radio is a snapshot of an early-'90s folk style, but Lemon's direction has changed over the last 20 years. He's been recording a heavier rock album with longtime friend Charles Austin at Echo Chamber Audio and, he says, "there's not much folky about it."
With an upcoming show at Gus' Pub on January 2, Lemon plays music because he loves it. He's made it possible to make a living, even if just barely, and be happy at the same time. "I mean, you're just barely making a living working at Wendy's. And there's nothing wrong with working at Wendy's, but if you can just barely make a living doing something you love, you're better off," he says. His unconventionality has made for unique life experiences.
"I haven't thought about where I'd like to go with my music," he says, pausing for a long moment. "I just want to be able to continue to play music and keep on living."
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