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book review

Nowhere With You is an extensively researched book on the artistic trajectory of Joel Plaskett.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Should I stay or should I go?

When Mick Jones captured this desperate question for one of his biggest hits in the Clash's catalogue, it was ostensibly about whether or not to maintain a romantic relationship.

But for so many of us entering adulthood or preparing to leave our parents' house or the city we were raised in, it's the ultimate philosophical and existential conundrum. Who am I? Where is my home?

Joel Plaskett loves the Clash. Or at least he did when he was in a Halifax band called Thrush Hermit and name-checked the open-minded British quartet on the title track of the Hermit's 1995 EP, The Great Pacific Ocean.

More than 20 years later, Plaskett is a well-known rock and folk music icon in Canada and stubbornly, but mostly very proudly, still calls Nova Scotia home. Beyond that even, he sings about the place and the people who live there a lot, endearing him to fellow Maritimers while possibly shutting himself off from people who just can't relate.

One man who totally gets where Plaskett is coming from is writer Josh O'Kane, a New Brunswick ex-pat who lives in Toronto (and works as a staff reporter at The Globe and Mail). O'Kane is the author behind this well-paced, comprehensive and extensively researched study of what makes Plaskett tick.

His take on his subject is quite personal. O'Kane is a fan of Plaskett's music but he's as sensitive about having left New Brunswick as Plaskett is about making sure others know it's possible to stay in Nova Scotia and live a viable life.

Within O'Kane's book, we experience the complete range of Plaskett's artistic trajectory – from early emotional outbursts, formative cool detachment, jaded, snarky irony, rebellious individualism, earnest optimism and a blend of all of the above, which currently informs a kind of wistful, vaguely nostalgic stance that permeates Plaskett's expression. It's a revelatory glimpse at a guy some, O'Kane included, might have only really known via his songs.

One of the most striking aspects of O'Kane's prose is the sense of discovery evident on every page. Clearly a fan of Plaskett's music but perhaps a bit young to have experienced him in his earliest public life, O'Kane digs in deep here, rounding up a long list of interview subjects who represent anyone who's anyone in Plaskett's working life.

His writing is compelling and probing, tracking some of

Plaskett's impulsively ambitious projects, such as the trek he took to Arizona to record 2005's La De Da with a fan/total stranger, with the air of both a detail-oriented investigator and an armchair psychologist. With palpable enthusiasm for the story before him, O'Kane crafts his fodder into an intimate portrait of an artist who's simultaneously grounded and restless.

As a writer, Plaskett is somewhat obsessed with departures. The final song on the final album by Thrush Hermit, 1999's Clayton Park, is called Before You Leave. His second stellar album, 2003's Truthfully, Truthfully, with his backing band the Emergency, contains a latter-day Clash-inspired song called Work Out Fine, with the somewhat infamous lyric, "All my friends, where did they go?/To Montreal, Toronto/… They all split town and they left me …"

By 2005's Love this Town, from the aforementioned solo excursion La De Da, Plaskett almost came to terms with the transience that pervades the relative remoteness of Halifax. "I saw your band in the early days/We all understand why you moved away/But we'll hold a grudge anyway [because it's fun]."

At the risk of putting too fine a point on their impact, Sloan loomed large in Plaskett's psyche. As O'Kane outlines, the band really did put "nowhere" Halifax on the map in terms of cool, underground art-rock and were the first band to gain external approval, signing an American record deal with the David Geffen Company in the early nineties.

Sloan's Chris Murphy and Jay Ferguson in particular embraced their role as figures in a big brother band that influenced the sound and aesthetic of the younger men in the Hermit, among many others. They even spearheaded their own label, Murderecords, and primarily worked with artists in town.

"For so long, bands had been ignored in Halifax," Ferguson tells O'Kane. "It was the right time to make sure everything was documented."

But Sloan eventually moved to Toronto and that initial burst of energy dissipated; Thrush Hermit broke up and members Rob Benvie and Ian McGettigan also headed to western provinces. But Plaskett was undaunted and O'Kane frames this moment as crucial to understanding where Plaskett's priorities lie.

Plaskett likely should have left for a bigger city, too, but instead he hunkered down, building a new band with local players and even enlisting his own father, musician Bill Plaskett, to collaborate on his new songs. O'Kane writes of the infrastructure Plaskett, like Sloan before him, developed with a Halifax management team that eventually led him to build his own studio and label, under the brand New Scotland Yard.

More than a biographical account, Nowhere With You is a meditation on roots and community. It's unlikely that a guy who has garnered a loyal worldwide audience by touring the planet as much as Joel Plaskett has might be called a homebody but, in a righteous way, that's who he is. Within O'Kane's rendering of his motivations, we discover that Plaskett's familial, "act local" impulses root him to a place that sustains him, informing one of the finest, relatable regional songwriters of our time.

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