The two Joels

As his star has risen past the Thrush Hermit days, through five albums alone and with the Emergency, Joel Plaskett has become increasingly uncomfortable with his hometown fame, trying to balance his personal life with his rock star persona.

photo Chris Smith

The Joel Plaskett Emergency is set to go on stage in five minutes. Outside, at Alderney Landing in Dartmouth, roughly 3,000 fans wait patiently in the unseasonable chilly July fog. This is the band's first hometown gig in support of its latest record, Ashtray Rock, a semi-autobiographical album of teenage love and music set in Clayton Park.

It would seem that the stakes are high for this show but backstage, you'd never know it. The Joel Plaskett Emergency—singer-guitarist and songwriter Plaskett, bassist Chris Pennell and drummer Dave Marsh—appear mellow and relaxed. With them are Plaskett's father Bill; opening act, multi-instrumentalist and longtime friend Peter Elkas and Gordie Johnson, Emergency producer and former Big Sugar frontman.

The small group is thoroughly impressed with Johnson's black Stetson and are trying to decide what chapeau styles each of them could pull off.

The Monday before the Alderney show, there's a palpable buzz about Plaskett's homecoming gig. He has three interviews scheduled this afternoon, and the announcement this week that Ashtray Rock is shortlisted for the Polaris Prize further fuels anticipation for the show and raises Plaskett's profile around town.

"I would sooner try and exist in a small place and know everyone," he muses, sitting in the Economy Shoe Shop on Argyle Street. "Like, just to have met everyone, so at some point they all just wave. That's it. They don't feel compelled to introduce themselves anymore. Everybody just waves to each other."

It's an interesting sentiment from Halifax's most recognizable musician. And with his down-to-earth charisma, one gets the impression that he could actually follow through on his off-the-cuff remark. At the same time, a natural bashfulness comes through. When asked if he can speak about growing up in Lunenberg, Plaskett's only stipulation is that his high school graduation photo isn't printed with the story. "I just don't like it," he says, laughing.

Speaking with him in the Economy Shoe Shop, two sides to Plaskett's personality become visible—the Plaskett who doesn't want to offend, who wants to talk with each and every person that stops him on the street, and the Plaskett who values his privacy, his friends and his time with his wife Rebecca.

But the dichotomy of Joel Plaskett doesn't end with his personal life. Ashtray Rock, which he describes as a "party record," is probably the slickest, most commercial of the five albums he's released since Thrush Hermit disbanded in 1999. At the same time, it's artistically his most ambitious, a quality supported by his Polaris nomination alongside less mainstream fare like Junior Boys and Besnard Lakes.

Perhaps the record's most direct comparison is British grime artist The Streets' 2004 album A Grand Don't Come for Free. "That's a record," he says, "when you listen to the whole thing, you follow the narrator and everything's happening to him, it's wicked."

Sound familiar?

Despite its success, Plaskett says Ashtray Rock has polarized his fans. Some love the diverse array of songs and the emotional depth of the story. Others resent the frivolity of songs like "Drunk Teenagers." (Detractors should rest easy though. The band made serious efforts to get Tone Loc to sing the breakdown of "Fashionable People.")

"Music should be fun too," he says. "So much stuff right now is so fucking melodramatic."

Onstage at Alderney, Plaskett turns his homecoming gig into a party for his friends and family. The band comes onstage, mops in hand, wiping down their instruments before launching into a beefed up version of "Absentminded Melody" from La De Da. The Emergency is augmented by Johnson, beefing up the band's sound as a second guitarist, and Elkas on keyboards.

In the wings is guitar tech Phillip Zwicker, guitarist for Air Traffic Control and a friend of Plaskett's since elementary school in Lunenburg. Zwicker was playing guitar long before Plaskett and Bill points to him as a direct catalyst for his son's interest in the instrument.

"He could do pyrotechnics on guitar," says Bill of Zwicker's playing.

Plaskett's mother Sharon is in the audience, as are drummer Dave Marsh's parents. "All my friends are in one place—I can see them both from here," Marsh quips from the stage.

Bill joins his son on stage for two numbers, "Absentminded Melody" and "Love This Town." Bill played guitar in a Cliff Richards and the Shadows cover band in England before immigrating to Canada in the 1960s. In the late '70s he rediscovered his love of playing through British folk and, in the mid-'80s, helped found the Lunenburg Folk Festival.

Though this isn't the first time Bill has joined Joel onstage, he's flattered and honoured each time he's asked. "What can I say?" he says. "It enables me the privilege and surreal opportunity to observe the following he has."

Plaskett physically resembles his father—he's tall, lanky and "a loper" according to Sharon. Both father and son apologize for their circumnavigational answers during their interviews.

"For me," says Joel, "when I want to aspire to play something in genre, actually having him on board irons out my idiosyncrasies a little because I'm a lot more flighty as a guitar player."

Plaskett's upbringing was similar to the party he's created onstage. There were always kids around the house. "I don't think he was all that great on his own when he was little," says Sharon. Plaskett was the kind of kid who loved to answer the phone when it rang.

"You might be surprised to know that he was quite a chubby baby," says Sharon. "Joel at six months was the same weight he was at a year and a half. He just stretched out." She says that before his sister Anna's birth, she and Joel had what she calls "a very intense relationship." When Plaskett was two-and-a-half years old, a friend of hers came to visit from Vancouver. "I think he was quite taken aback," she says, "by my drawing my attention away from him."

Plaskett's music always comes across as very personal, and Ashtray Rock feels like his most personal record. But in interviews, Plaskett has made it clear that the record is not a literal translation of his adolescence. "I write autobiographically, but life is not cut-and-dried," he says. "You can write something at a certain point and feel entirely different about it the next day. I want to present the actual real-life balance to the listener by putting it in a story."

photo Scott Munn | October 16, 2003
Sharon takes it a step further. "Ashtray Rock—he never drank in high school," she says, laughing. "Joel was a pretty clean-cut kid in most respects." His mother says that as a child, Plaskett was obsessed with rhyming and nursery rhymes. "I listen to his lyrics," she says, "and I see his playing around with words as coming from way back then."

Plaskett's wife Rebecca Kraatz also finds her way to the stage this night. Wearing a yellow-and-orange rain jacket, she stands next to the sound board at stage right and watches the band rip through "Instrumental," waiting for her spoken monologue.

A graphic artist, Kraatz is responsible for the covers of Plaskett's In Need of Medical Attention, La De Da and Ashtray Rock. Although the two only married last August, they first met on the set of Thrush Hermit's "French Inhale" video shoot in 1994.

"I think she got a kick out of me and I was just really smitten with her," he says. They struck up a long-distance friendship and eventually began a courtship that would last more than a decade. "She's an amazing artist and really, really, funny, beautiful, idiosyncratic person," says Plaskett.

"I think they complement each other in different ways," says Sharon. "I'm very fond of her. She's one of a kind." Plaskett says his wife is "not a socialite."

It's apparent when Kraatz takes the mike. She remains in the wings, her back turned to the audience as she reads over the music. When she finishes, Plaskett touches his hand to his lips and then, extending his long arms, blows her a kiss from centre stage.

"They're quite devoted to each other," says Sharon, "and I like that."

In the city where he has lived on one side of the harbour or the other for 20 years, Plaskett's profile has been on an upward trajectory since he began playing Led Zepplin covers in his friend Rob Benvie's garage with their pal Ian McGettigan in junior high school. Originally called Nabisco Fonzie, by 1992 they were gigging around town as Thrush Hermit.

photo Michael Tompkins | February 17, 2005Now, things are starting to break through to the masses. It's not to say that fame is eclipsing Plaskett's music or that he has screaming girls chasing him down the street. But things started to change after last year's Juno Awards ceremony, held in Halifax.

"We played that outdoor Parade Square show and I had the Juno nomination and there was lots of press and stuff," he says, "and it just seemed like all of a sudden that many more people knew who I was."

Plaskett says that at last month's White Stripes gig at the Cunard Centre, he was only able to watch half the show because people kept coming up to him, touching him, putting their arms around him and wanting photos.

As a music fan, Plaskett understands the desire to speak with someone whose work has connected with you, but at the same time, it's difficult to deal with, especially when he's with friends and family. He hopes that by talking about his growing celebrity that he can deconstruct it to the point where it's no longer an issue.

"I'm trying to embrace that and demystify it as much as possible because I want to live here," he says. "I don't want to retreat but I kind of hope to demystify it a little bit or go, "Look, it's not that big a deal, you're going to see me again.'" But he's also realistic about the situation. "It's a small town," he says. "You do anything long enough and everyone knows who you are."

Peter Elkas met Plaskett at a Sloan gig at Concordia University in Montreal. Thrush Hermit was the opener. Elkas, 17 at the time, and his bandmates in the Local Rabbits were impressed with the young Haligonians and connected with what they were doing.

"They were four guys from the suburbs of Halifax and we were four guys from the suburbs of Montreal," he says from his Dartmouth motel room. "They were so much like us. It was like looking into a bizarro mirror."

Last year Plaskett had mentioned to Elkas that it was getting harder for him to walk down the street in Halifax. "You're full of shit," Elkas thought. But when Elkas played Keith's Fest last October with the Emergency, he couldn't believe the reception the local hero got. "He's like Springsteen," says Elkas.

He says that on the east coast there is a higher reverence for local talent, whereas in Montreal, his hometown, it's the complete opposite, since "it wouldn't be cool." As for Toronto, everyone there is from somewhere else. "Sometimes I wish I was from here," he says.

The Alderney show is a smashing success for the Emergency. Teenage girls rush to the stage during the power ballad "Tears Roll Down." The crowd is filled with families. (One kid turns to his accompanying adult during "Nothing Left to Say" and reports, "He just said "fuck.'") There are as many spiky-haired heads hiding behind popped collars as there are moppy-haired indie kids. But everyone is focused on the stage where Plaskett holds court.

The show ends with two encores. In the second, the band rips through the high school ode "Come on Teacher," from 2003's Truthfully Truthfully, one of the many Plaskett tunes which blend heartfelt nostalgia with idiosyncratic silliness. Just as they reach the bridge where Plaskett says "make it heavy metal now," the band breaks into Big Sugar's "Diggin' a Hole," which in turn morphs into Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher."

Like most things in Plaskett's music, the song straddles the line between joke and homage.

"A lot of people who like my music like the superficial elements of it and some people really like the heartfelt elements," he says. "I kind of want to embrace both."

Joel Plaskett w/Beyond Ash, Sleep to Dream, Steven Bowers, Downchild Blues Band and Alert the Medic, August 3 at the New Glasgow Jubilee, Glasgow Square Amphitheatre, New Glasgow, 7pm, $15 ($40 weekend pass), 752-6972,

Ian Gormely is a freelance writer currently interning at Halifax magazine.

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