There's an indescribable hum of excitement over the room of karaoke regulars just before the show begins. Like sprinters waiting for the start gun to fire, singers anxiously flip through songbooks—though they already know what they'll perform—watch a stack of request slips grow at the front of the room, ask for the lights to be dimmed (because, come on people, ambience) flip through the book again and sip on whatever form of poison will fuel the evening. It's 10:05pm when an all-smiles Laurie the Guy (AKA Laurie Goulden) buzzes through the back room at the Lion's Head, glass of ice water in hand. He picks up the stack of slips, cues up the first CD of the evening and grabs hold of the mic stand as the opening riff of tonight's opening track, "Night Moves," begins to blare. It's a Saturday night in 2013, but it could just as easily be 1991.
That Bob Seger song isn't really the beginning of Goulden's night, though. He actually started by filling his van with gear, most of which he's designed and built so that it all fits perfectly into place, Tetris-style. That's a 20-minute ordeal. Then it takes nearly an hour to drive into the city, and another 40 minutes to unpack dolly-loads of stuff.
Rubbermaid containers of instruments, props and puppets and large, black, wooden boxes that, in clown car fashion, are opened to reveal microphones and speakers, lights, a TV, the Books box, piles of cables and CDs—over 2,000 of them, featuring more than 27,000 tracks. Living life nearly nocturnally for the past 22 years, setting up his "office" in different haunts across town, he's seen many nights roll out nearly identically, down to the wardrobe, with just a slight change in soundtrack. And somehow, his excitable and humorously self-deprecating persona barely wavers. He's quick to point out, "I'm a routine kind of guy."
Yes, he's routine, but he also breaks the mold of the stereotypical karaoke host by being kind and patient with potentially nervous singers. Ask most people if they've sung karaoke and you'll get the same answer: "Only if I'm drunk." Like speaking in public, or asking someone out, karaoke can summon the same level of anxiety that'll have you wishing for a shot of Dutch courage. A Laurie The Guy show attracts a mix of the these nervous Nellies and seasoned regulars, who need nothing more than their names called to awaken their extroverted sides. And Goulden happily welcomes both karaoke personality types to the fold.
"I'm a terrible host," says 41-year-old Goulden. "I'm supposed to offer you a drink or something, there's a coffee machine but I don't know how to work it."
Goulden sits in his sunny kitchen, a stunning view of Musquodoboit Harbour—sun, rocks and trees visible through picture windows on all sides. We've been talking for an hour, and he's not only lamenting his skills as a host, but as an interviewee. "God, I suck at this," he says.
To say Goulden is humble would be an understatement. He's quick to point out—repeatedly—that he feels he doesn't deserve the view, this house, his successes in life. But that could be because chatting with a stranger in his kitchen is an unfamiliar situation for the solitary man.
"We don't get much company out here, so this is kind of foreign to me," he says. "I don't have a social life. I never was a partier even when I was a kid, since I was 10 I was working. That's probably why I don't drink today, and probably why I don't have friends."
As someone who works in the entertainment business, this is surprising. Then again, his schedule could have something to do with it. Goulden hosts karaoke six nights a week, arriving to the bars around 9pm, packing up at three in the morning (he often helps the bus boy close up for the night). After that he heads to the grocery store, then drives 45 minutes back to his house in Musquodoboit, does a few chores, has a snack around 6am then goes to bed. Goulden's day starts at 2pm, when he has breakfast, then spends the afternoon either surfing or working at his family business. By day, Goulden does custom woodworking at Pieces of Wood in Cole Harbour. "We were the biggest tole-painting company in Nova Scotia," he says. "But tole painting became less popular and now I mainly make cremation cases."
Despite strong family ties and an equally strong work ethic, Goulden had to cut down shifts at his day job to make more time for karaoke hosting, and himself. "Balance is the key to life. When I was 30 I was working six nights a week and five days a week at Pieces of Wood. I was out of shape. First I got on the pedal bike, then I thought kayaking might be fun, now I've got five kayaks. As soon as I started spending more time on me I somehow had more money, I had less stress and was in better shape. Karaoke fits in with my lifestyle because most people come home 5pm and they're too tired to do anything. The start of my day is when I get to do what I want to do," he says. "This is my free time."
That time is spent either surfing, fixing up his house, playing hockey, mountain biking, kayaking, cutting trees or playing with his cat, Dexter, a big orange tom who arrived on his doorstep one day. "I had another cat that died and it was too hard on me, I thought that's it, no more pets. Then he found me. Maybe we were meant to be together."
Surfing takes up the bulk of our conversation. "If you were to interview me about surfing, watch out, you may as well just plug the charger in now cause you're going to run the battery down," Goulden says. "I surf every chance I get. It's like nothing else. I surf longboard so I can surf crappy waves, and I surf year-round. I surf until my arms get tired and I still want to surf more."
Like longboard surfing, where even crappy waves provide a thrill, Goulden seems to thrive on an almost Depression era-style thriftiness. An extremely routine, Spartan schedule on the surface, the luxuriousness of Goulden's life is immediately evident to anyone familiar with the work-home-eat takeout-watch TV-sleep-repeat schedule that leaves many of us overweight, overtired and vitamin D-deprived. Goulden is as thrifty as thrifty comes. "I get all my clothing at Frenchy's, that's why I look like this," he says, gesturing towards his sweatpants and sweatshirt. He says the only way he's able to make a living doing what he does is by saving obsessively. "I've never been on a plane, never had a vacation. But the way I see it, every day I'm on vacation.
"When I get home I have my snack, and it's always the same. I have a bowl of chips and a glass of milk, when that's done I have six cookies and a glass of milk," he says. "It's embarrassing but I love cookies. I can't get enough cookies. I eat a dozen cookies a day." We take a trip to the pantry for evidence. It looks like a store-shelf stocked pantry of an extreme couponer, with floor to ceiling boxes of cookies and cereal.
He asserts that cookies are his only vice. "I never drank, in the early days if someone bought me one I would drink it, but it might be once a week," he says. "I had a friend in the military who drank a lot and I asked him, 'If all the money you had spent on alcohol you put into a house what kind of a house would you have?' Quite the house! And that's how I looked at it."
But there are other costs that come with his solitary life. "I'm a social moron, I can talk to people if they talk to me, but I'd rather go surf, kayak, mountain bike or work in the yard than go to someone's house and just chat."
So how exactly does someone who has no social life, hates drinking, loves to exercise and be outside come to work in bars six nights a week, in the middle of a nightly party, hosting, singing and entertaining?
It was 1987 when a 16-year-old Goulden first stepped into the world of karaoke. In front of a high school audience of about 300 he and two female friends belted out another Seger jam, "Old Time Rock and Roll." Though his suggestion to re-enact that famous Risky Business scene was shut down, the trio rehearsed the entire performance which, unsurprisingly—if you've seen his enthusiastic, animalistic stage presence—Goulden didn't stick to. In those days, karaoke songs were played off of cassettes, and there was no TV screen feeding performers their lines—you either knew the song, or read lyrics off a sheet of paper. This wasn't only his first karaoke experience, but his first time singing in front of a crowd.
"I've always loved performing. When I had to get up in front of the class and give a speech I got a charge out of it, my heart would be racing," he says. "I don't know if it was the challenge, or what. Maybe I wanted to be loved, or have people pay attention to me, I don't know." Performing was a natural high. "I'm still in control of my body but I'm euphoric, or some big word that would describe looking over a mountain and feeling like the king of the world.
"When I was a teenager listening to heavy metal I always imagined being on stage, but that could never happen," says Goulden. "I think karaoke makes it easier for a lot of people to get on stage and be that star. But I don't want to be a star, I just love performing. And if somebody gets it, someone smiles and enjoys it, it's awesome. And, the thing is, I'm enjoying myself, too."
Once he turned 19 it didn't take long for Goulden to become a regular on karaoke rosters around town. After singing from a TV screen for the first time, for a crowd of 400 at Cole Harbour's Big Leagues in 1990, he was hooked. Within a few months he was already performing multiple times a week at venues around Dartmouth, getting to know, and getting inspired by, the likes of the quirky, flute soloing, karaoke celebrity Mike Mosher—a legendary host in his own right—eventually helping him to set up his gear before gigs. As a familiar face, and voice, on the scene, it wasn't long before he was asked to fill in occasionally, and eventually, he got his first gig running Wednesday nights at the now-defunct Beazley's. Then, his gear was a bit more modest: a house amp and speakers, a karaoke machine and 20 discs.
"It paid seven dollars an hour for a five-hour show. Thirty-five bucks a night and I was tickled! This was my hobby and I made enough money in one night to go elsewhere for free," says Goulden. "When I talked in the mic I spoke too quickly, and people couldn't understand me. I was so energetic, I'd lose my voice every night. I had to train myself to pause. After. Every. Thing. I'd. Say." One Beazley's gig turned into two, then four. With two day jobs along with his karaoke, Goulden was doing alright for himself financially, though lacking in the sleep department. That was until he got the first taste of the uncertainty that comes along with working in the bar scene, when one by one he lost his hosting duties with no warning or compensation. Maybe there was someone willing to do it for less, or maybe there was no good reason at all, regardless, Goulden kept his chin up and moved on to the next gig, and the one after that.
"To me, karaoke was supposed to be a stepping stone. I wanted to go do bigger and better things. I'd love to be in a band and make a living in music, but I'm really lucky I went this route. Everybody I know who were in bands when I started aren't in bands anymore," he says. "I'm still making a living doing this. I'm not making a great living, but I'm paying my bills, there's food in the fridge, the house is warm, so really I'm very lucky. If I could say one thing to describe me, I'm a lucky guy."
He picked up his first guitar after singing karaoke and got into songwriting. But a karaoke host who wants to perform original songs provides a unique challenge. "People don't want to listen to me sing my stuff," he says. "I love to express myself and I love to sing, but I don't find myself to be a good singer. Ideally a Gordie Sampson type is who I'd like to be, I want to write songs for other people and they'd perform it," Goulden says. "My dream in a way came true— musician David Champagne said he wanted to record my song 'Close My Eyes.' I thought he did a fantastic job. He even made a karaoke track. I think I'm the only karaoke host who has their own song in the book."
Goulden says he has a catalogue of over 100 original songs, and dreams of playing soft-seaters, but the unreliability of a band just didn't work for him. "I thought if I do karaoke I don't gotta worry about the bass player being drunk or the drummer not showing up. I just gotta show up. It's just me.
"I dreamed of playing in the NHL before I realized I wasn't good enough to do that," he says. "As a songwriter I still have that little feeling like 'I could do this, someone could hear my song.' I keep writing but I'm probably a little disillusioned. I think, 'Just another crappy song.' But if one of my friends listens to it and likes it, I'm feeling pretty good.
"My favourite artist is Stan Rogers, not just because he's an amazing singer-songwriter, but because he likes to set songs up with a story. It's the same thing I do with segues between karaoke songs. It's not only filling up dead air, I'm trying to entertain."
The Laurie The Guy brand stands out from the average karaoke night, even in a scene as small as Halifax's. He'll repeatedly remind you that it's "no-pressure karaoke," and he means it. Goulden's as supportive as karaoke hosts come, keeping it positive by chiming in to help singers stumbling over melodies or struggling to keep in key. "I don't care how good you are. If you're having fun for four minutes and not thinking about how bad your day is, I'm happy" he says. "If the crowd's into it then so am I. Really it's all performance art."
Taking cues from Mike Mosher's musical and comedic style of hosting, he delivers killer segues, incorporates zany outfits, wigs, strange props—like, a huge sequined plush penis—and brings live music into the mix, digging into his stash of 50 instruments. Goulden's also known for sharing the mic with about 20 puppets he's collected from second-hand shops, or been given as gifts, over the years. "A lot of times the stuff that I do is just to keep me entertained, and it just so happens that sometimes it entertains other people." he says. "It sounds corny but I think a lot of good people have found me, and really I'm only as good as the people who come up here. If no one showed up and I had to sing all night long, my energy's not going to be there and it's not going to be the same show."
Karaoke's timeless nostalgia, between the decade-spanning music and the child-like rush of risking a new song, is like a magnet for not just performers but eager people-watchers as well. And in many ways Laurie The Guy embodies that sentiment, his iconic look hasn't changed much in the past 22 years. Known for his baggy neon pants (from his body-building days of the early '90s), his fanny pack (Hammer pants don't have pockets) and his mullet (which he recently shaved for a charity fundraiser, raising $1,680 for cancer research), Goulden's persona isn't a schtick. The goofy guy on stage is the same goofy guy you'd run into in the cookie aisle at the grocery store.
Goulden's been going strong, bouncing between Monte's (Tuesdays), Michael's (Wednesdays and Sundays) and The Lion's Head (Thursday-Saturday) for over 10 years, meaning he's set up, torn down and performed 3,000 shows in that time. His entire karaoke career is knocking on 5,000 gigs. Sure, now he's got drawers upon drawers of CDs and the support of dedicated singers, all walks of life and all levels of talent, that'll follow his every show, from (see sidebar). He's also gained keen sidekick Brother Tim Gravelle, who started as a regular over a decade ago and whose Sagittarius Security ad graces the bottom half of Goulden's karaoke slips—but in some ways not a lot has changed since Beazley's. His main worry is job security, or the lack there of. Karaoke, because it's driven by the bar scene, follows an unpredictable ebb and flow. You have highs, like 2009, Goulden's best year, and lows, where you squeak by on a minimum guarantee, or worse. Drink sales have a huge effect on what he takes home—ironic for a non-drinker—and, like his first job, and many after that, his slot could be cancelled without reason or warning. No matter how hard he works, Laurie The Guy is essentially at the mercy of bar managers and public consumption.
"It's pretty hard for me to be sitting here going: 'I'm poor, I'm doing so crappy' when I'm sitting in a house like this."
When it's pointed out that he's worked for it, he shrugs it off. "I'm lucky, lucky, lucky, that's all it was."
He bought his undeveloped property 25 years ago and worked through it the hard way. "When we moved in I cut a path by hand—I didn't have a chainsaw—I used an ax and a bucksaw to cut a path from the house here to the paved road," he says. Over a kilometre of trees, rocks and shrubs were cleared before the building even started. Thanks to his family connection to the construction business—he's been working with his father since he was 10—the house was built inexpensively.
"Deadliest Catch is one of my favourite TV shows, they go crab fishing and sometimes they pull up two crabs, but they keep going, they grind on low numbers. That's what I'm doing, I'm grinding on low numbers but I'm working six nights a week," he says. "At the end of the year, I almost make a living."
Yet the idea of people thinking he might make a living at his "vacation life" makes him uncomfortable.
"In a way, I'm excited that people might want to know what I do but I'm scared that people are going to be like, 'Laurie doesn't deserve that,'" he says. "I don't think I deserve a place this nice. I feel like I don't deserve this for what I've done. I mean I do charity work, but it's like winning the lottery—you buy a ticket but you don't deserve to win, it's just luck."
He's at an age where retirement is a growing concern and long-term plans seem uncertain. "I'm worried about where things are going in the karaoke business. But then again you gotta sit back and think 'Look where I am.'
"In a way I'm lonely, but I'm used to it. I don't want lots of money, I just want enough that if I have to retire—I don't want to—but if that were to happen I could say, 'Hey, I can stay at home in the house that I built with my own hands,' and enjoy the view."
Arts editor Stephanie Johns' go-to song is "Love Will Keep Us Together." Food & life editor Allison Saunders' go-to song is
"I'd Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That)."
Laurie The Guy
Monte’s Showbar & Grill, 245 Waverley Road, Tue 10pm.
Michael’s Bar & Grill, 6100 Young Street, Wed & Sun 10pm.
Lion’s Head Tavern, 3081 Robie Street, Thu 9pm, Fri-Sat 10pm.