When a voice you remember from well-loved, scratched-up CDs you borrowed for too long and felt very cool possessing at a single-digit age says hello to you, it’s tough not to blurt out five questions tangled up in a compliment. When the voice belongs to Steven Page, it comes with a three-decade career and a deep sea of music to dive into – but I was determined to avoid the usual questions about his past work (and even his recent reunion) with Barenaked Ladies for as long as I possibly could. He laughed when I confessed this mission, and we had a blast talking about his career in the present until BNL came up naturally. Page was just about to kick off his string of U.K. tour dates this month (his second tour there in a year) which he was “totally excited about,” and had originally devised with a pretty unconventional test.
“It had been ten years since I last played in the U.K. The last tour I had done there was one of my last tours with BNL. It was 2007 when we were there last together,” Page recalled. “And then, a couple summers ago, I took my family over on vacation and I wondered… I’ve always got people on Twitter saying, ‘Come to the U.K.! When are you coming back?’ and I wanted to kind of test that to see how serious people were,” he laughed. “I put out there on Twitter one day that if I showed up at Regent’s Park at 1 o’clock on Saturday, and someone brought a guitar, would anyone want to come see that? About a hundred people came, and it was really awesome. It was just a great, really warm feeling from the audience; I think they were excited that it was happening, and I was certainly excited to see all of them. Right after that, I went out for dinner with my U.K. agent and said, ‘Okay let’s do this!’ We booked it as soon as we could last fall – and the response was over the top,” he said, somewhat incredulously. “Going back to a lot of the smaller venues that BNL had played in the early days, turns out there were some people who were actually there at those first shows, like in Glasgow. And I remember that first time, in ‘92, hearing a full audience singing along to “What A Good Boy,” and thinking, ‘…these aren’t our friends and family! These aren’t people we know…’ And it was the same kind of thing.”
Steven Page’s next album, Discipline: Heal Thyself, Pt. II, due for release on September 14th, is the eagerly-awaited sequel to 2016’s Heal Thyself, Pt 1: Instinct – and was completed in the studio in July, as confirmed on our call. The first single, “White Noise” came out earlier this month, and another one, “Looking For the Light,” just came out today. “The [album] title comes from the lyrics to ‘There’s A Melody’ from the first record,” Page explained. “When I named the first part ‘Instinct,’ I realized I had to name the second part ‘Discipline.’ Originally, I had imagined them all as one record; it was going to be this one big album with around 30 songs. And I started thinking about it; ‘How do you really release music these days?’ There’s never any guarantee that anybody’s ever going to hear it. You can put a record out and it disappears within a week. You spend all this time and all your heart and soul on it, and then it kind of goes away. The other thing I thought about was, it’s a lot to ask of an audience to invest so much time in so much new material, especially when there’s so much music coming out right now. I thought it’d be better to chop it up into digestible chunks. So that’s initially what my plan was, to put part one out and tour that, and so on. And then when things finally slowed down, and I was able to spend time putting part two together, I had figured it was almost done; a few things I need to tweak here and there, a couple songs I might need to re-sing, and that was it. But when I looked back at it, I realized there were certain songs that I didn’t feel fit anymore, or that I wasn’t so in love with anymore. And I had a bunch of new stuff that I was writing.”
“So this spring, I went back into the studio with the Odds – who I’ve been using as a band for quite some time now – and recorded a bunch of new material, and figured out how to integrate that into the existing stuff. Of course, that stuff always takes me way longer than I ever think it’s going to. I think ‘Oh, this will take me two hours,’ and I look up eight hours later and I’ve just finished doing the task. Part of that is just me doing a lot of it myself; a lot of the arranging and editing, and a lot of the recordings – that takes time. But I love doing it, ‘cause I enjoy the process, and I feel incredibly attached to it and proud of it. But what it meant was, of course, that I didn’t have the record done in time for this U.K. tour,” he said, chiding himself lightheartedly. “But I’ve given my two bandmates the instruction to learn as many of the new songs as we can, and we’ll start to integrate them into the set and see how that goes – they’re amazing! It’s me learning this stuff that’s the problem,” Page added with a charismatic laugh.
With his down-to-earth vibe, and the knack for storytelling fans know well from hearing his lyrics, Page often gave the answer you’d least expect. Even having played for millions all over the globe, he reminisced happily about a total flop when asked about his favorite shows. “I have a lot of really great memories of playing places,” he said, “From legendary venues like Albert Hall or Madison Square Garden; those types of places. But there are also incredibly memorable shows that we did in places where we didn’t expect anybody to show up. And some shows where people didn’t show up. I remember playing in the early days in a Hertz rent-a-car parking lot, and there was literally nobody there. Just somebody selling hot dogs, but we started playing. It was like one of those radio promotion things with a DJ there saying, ‘Come on down, we’ve got Barenaked Ladies playing!’ Nobody comes. They don’t play our songs on the air. The people inside the car rental office come out and close the door so nobody can hear us,” he recalled, snickering. “At the time, it’s not fun. But it makes for some great stories. And you never take it for granted. You always assume that could happen again. It keeps you humble. It keeps you working hard.”
Listening to the fast-growing collection of thoughtful music Page has put out as a solo artist, one might wonder if he’s ever irked by the heavy focus on his past work and former band. Amazingly, he’s not. “One of the things that I’ve had to comes to terms with over the years is, of course you want people to focus on what you’re doing now. ‘Cause it’s where your head’s at; it’s where your heart is,” admitted Page. “But I’ve also learned to understand that, for a lot of people, those moments they shared with me when I was in Barenaked Ladies are incredibly special to them. And that music is the soundtrack to parts of their lives as well. Not many people get that kind of connection with an audience that lasts for so long. So, when people want to talk about that, I realize, I spent twenty years of my life building that, and I’m super proud of what we did together. So I’m far less negative about it than I once was. I’ve watched a lot of artists who’ve left their previous groups, and I think you do that instinctive self-preservation. But I think the fans, at one point, thought they had to choose between me or the other guys, or whatever. And I never thought that was a necessary choice for anybody to make, you know? Choose the music you like, and go see the shows you want to go see, and hopefully I can be part of that mix.”
“But since then,” Page continued in the chill tone of a seasoned interviewee, “being able to do music with such a wide range of other artists, with other bandmates; doing stuff solo, or with duos, or right now I’m doing this trio with Kevin Fox on cello and Craig Northey [of Odds] on guitar…but I also have full rock band settings, and all that kind of stuff…” he said appreciatively, “It just makes me feel excited…to get up on stage, and happy…to go to work. Every time I have to do it. There are so many people who don’t feel that way about what they do for a living. So I’m proud that I’m able to do this thirty years in, and still have people who want to hear what I’m doing now. The other great thing is, people say to me, ‘We actually want to hear your new stuff.’ I think people who are fans…of mine,” he said, sounding characteristically surprised at the notion, “they want to catch up with me and know what’s going on with me now.”
One thing going on with him now that will excite two fan bases: Page continues to stay in close touch and spend time with Stephen Duffy (founding member/vocalist/drummer/bassist for Duran Duran). “I’m such a huge fan of his, since I was fifteen,” said Page, sounding as starstruck as I was. “Then I got to meet him a few years later. I went to Cambridge University for a summer session one year, and was backpacking around the U.K. as well, and he actually – for whatever bizarre, insane reason – asked me if I wanted me to come stay with him while he and his band were rehearsing, which I did. And we’ve been friends ever since. And then after Gordon had come out in ‘92, we bumped into each other in New York, and he came to a show and said, ‘Do you want to write some songs together?’ Which was, of course, my dream come true. He came and stayed at my house. He was supposed to stay for like two weeks. He stayed for like eight.”
“We wrote a lot of what became the next Barenaked Ladies record [Maybe You Should Drive, 1994], and we’ve been super close friends ever since. We keep planning on collaborating more. We’re far away from each other. But we do see each other regularly. I saw him last time I was there and stayed with him for a few days, and I’m looking forward to seeing him again next week.” Page then confirmed the oft-reported origin story; that he had in fact written a fan letter to Duffy, which the icon responded to via snail mail. “I asked him like five years ago, ‘What ever led you to write me back?’ You know, pre-internet days, when it took a real effort to respond to your fans. And I was certainly an overwrought fifteen-year-old boy. Honestly, I probably freaked him out. But he said, ‘I don’t know what it was, but I knew that somewhere, we had a connection.’ And occasionally you have people like that in your life. I respect that. I’m still so flabbergasted that it was me that connected with him. But I felt like that when I met my wife – like, I already know who you are, and you’re a welcome part of my life.” When asked if he’d written fan letters to any other stars, he said, “I think I also wrote a letter to Howard Jones. I’m not sure I got a response,” Page laughed.
To my delight and fascination, we dug deep into his songwriting process as he continued on enthusiastically. “Songs come when they come. And sometimes, you just have to wait for them. But working at stuff, sometimes it’s just [finding] turns of phrase. Stephen Duffy taught me about using turn of phrase; when you hear something like that, you’ve just got to keep it in mind, write it down, collect it; use it later when it has a purpose,” he explained. “I think you have to challenge yourself and push yourself to not just settle for words that might rhyme or fit. They have to really work. So I do work at how lyrics fit in. But otherwise, it’s a just an expression of your own thoughts, and your soul, and your personality. Usually, I have some combination of music and lyrics – like one line, or a chorus, or a phrase, or something like that. Then I’ll map out the shape of the music and the song. Finishing the lyrics is usually the hardest part.”
We eventually got around to discussing his recent reunion with Barenaked Ladies at the Juno Awards (in March 2018), when they were inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. “It felt great,” Page said with satisfaction. “I think we were all a little nervous. None of us had been in the same room in ten years, and it was an opportunity to either succeed or fail in that moment. We had a lot to connect with, and lots of good memories to rely on, and had a really good time doing it. It was a nice honor. You don’t want to spoil that with bad vibes.” Even so, I wondered if there was a bit of anxiety going into the reunion performance. “I think the other guys had it, as well as me,” he said. “I think we all had to feel each other out as soon as we got in there. But the greater good was even more important. We gave each other a hug, had some jokes, and then just went right into playing. Playing together was simple. It was just picking up from where we left off.”
Finally, indulging in one question about the chart-topping Barenaked Ladies hit, “If I Had $1000000,” recorded in 1988, we discussed if he would still spend a million dollars the same way they describe in the lyrics. “I think we nailed it right there! That’s exactly what we would have done. Back then, a million dollars might have actually bought a lot of those things. Now it’s like, if it’s Toronto, ‘I’ll buy you part of a house,’” he laughed, going on to describe how, surprisingly, his life doesn’t feel very different now at all. “I’ve been able to make music for so long, that the life of being a musician is just me in my adult life. The idea of fame is so fleeting, and it takes up such a small percentage of my time. In the grand scheme of things, it has taken up a very small percentage of my life. Most of my life has been about making music, and not about the fame stuff.”
Speaking directly to his fans, Steven Page then described what to expect in his upcoming performances. “I’m really looking forward to this tour. I’ll be touring the U.S. in September. If people are curious as to what the show is going be like, ’cause they’re hearing this Steven Page Trio stuff with cello and guitar, and it sounds very mellow and adult, and so on – don’t let that fool you. It’s got the energy of a good rock show, but just has the intimacy of a good hang as well. We play stuff from the earliest days of BNL all the way to the new stuff.” Right before we said bye, Page answered the ritual P&W whiskey question. “Well, Pancakes & Whiskey, I was just given a bottle of whiskey-infused pancake syrup the other day, from Prince Edward County in Ontario [Kinsip Whisky Barrel Aged Maple Syrup, available here], so that’s pretty cool,” Page said. “I like whiskey, but I’m not a whiskey aficionado. I have a cousin who’s like a scotch and whiskey encyclopedia, so I’m always wanting him to introduce me to different stuff. I like anything where I can learn through someone’s passion, whether it’s music, or wine, or whiskey, or food, or religion, or whatever else. That’s always the best part about it.”
Article: Olivia Isenhart