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Music It’s All Been Done: Steven Page after the Barenaked Ladies

Former Barenaked Ladies lead singer and co-founder Steven Page poses for a photo in Toronto on March 14, 2018. Page along the rest of the band are coming together for a one-time only performance at the Juno awards this year.

The Globe and Mail

I am sitting in Allen’s pub on the Danforth in Toronto with Steven Page, who used to live in this neighbourhood back when he used to be a Barenaked Lady. Present-day Page lives in Syracuse, N.Y., but his kids are still in Toronto, and he is here visiting over March break. We have both ordered burgers – medium with cheddar – which arrive as if part of a set-up, prompting Page to make a crack about “Dijon ketchup.”

If you are of a certain age (middle) and of a particular music persuasion (affable alt-rock), the reference needs no explanation. It’s a line from If I Had $1,000,000, a song once so ubiquitous that you couldn’t flick through FM radio without landing on it or one of the other tracks from Gordon, the Barenaked Ladies’ first studio album, which hit No. 1 in Canada in the summer of 1992. Page was 21 at the time.

Today, he is 47, dressed in tortoise shell and tweed, looking more like a university professor than a university student heading home from Pita Pit at 2 a.m., which was his signature aesthetic back in those early days. But that was a long time ago.

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It’s been almost a decade since the unceremonious events that culminated in Page exiting the band that made him famous, or that he made famous, depending on how you look at it. And it took him a while get to the point where he was able to joke about Dijon ketchup or anything else that evokes his history with the band.

When I tell him that all of my favourite BNL songs are Page songs, he takes the compliment, but he no longer needs it. “People have said that to me over the years and my internal response is different now. Nine years ago, I might not have admitted it out loud, but I would have been thinking, ‘Yes! Exactly!’” Back then he wanted to win the breakup. Today, he says, “I’m able to give the other guys the credit that they were due.”

Which meant the timing was good when Page got a call from the Canadian Hall of Fame late last year. They were planning to induct the Barenaked Ladies into the Hall and inquired whether he would consider coming together at the Junos to mark the occasion. Initially, it was unclear what a reunion might look like and even whether the band would be willing to appear together, since they are not really in touch and have not been in the same room since 2009.

“I think they [the Juno people] wanted to feel us out,” Page says of those initial conversations. Turns out, everyone was feeling pretty good. “I think everybody is excited about this thing and happy to do it together,” he says of the Juno appearance, which will include a live performance. “I think there’s a lot of water under the bridge.”

Page jokes that he and Ed Robertson (now BNL’s one and only front man) have even found common ground lately in commiserating via text over the way fans have reacted to the reunion news: “It’s one thing to be excited that we’re doing something together, but it always ends up, ‘You guys are so much better together than apart.’ It’s like, have some manners.”

“But ... ” I begin. And then I stop myself. Because on the one hand, who is he kidding? The original band was better than anything either party has done postbreakup. This is not an opinion, or at least it’s not a controversial one. Almost all of the best BNL songs have Page’s fingerprints, and his improbably beautiful, entirely singular nasally foghorn voice all over them.

And so, of course, I came into our meeting wanting to know what it feels like to be so indelibly linked to something you are no longer a part of. How does it feel to compare your current-day accomplishments against some of the most memorable hits in recent music history. What’s it like to forever be “the Barenaked Lady guy,” even as the Barenaked Ladies still exist and you’re not a part of them? But on the other hand, maybe that’s not how Page sees things.

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A quick refresher here: In 2008, Page was arrested at his girlfriend’s place in Syracuse, in the middle of the night, and charged with cocaine possession. His mug shot made the rounds just as BNL were touring to promote their new album (a children’s album) called Snacktime! Although the charges were dropped several months later, for BNL fans, it was a massive shock and a lot to process. And in the end, we conflated three related, but separate events – Page’s arrest, the end of his 16-year marriage and his exit from BNL (which took place seven months after the arrest) – into a single, regrettable episode. For Page, though, it was more complicated than that.

As for this idea that if only BNL would get back together, they would still be churning out era-defining hits like Brian Wilson or What a Good Boy, maybe we’re the ones who are kidding ourselves. Page points out that One Week, the band’s top-performing single, which hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in the United States, came out in 1998. “I was in the band for another 10 years,” he says. In other words, the BNL glory era was arguably over long before the split. “I had processed that already by the time I started making my own stuff.” When Page left BNL, he didn’t want to look back, he wanted to move on.

Which he did, both personally and professionally. He is now married to Christine Munn (the woman who Page was with on the night of the drug bust). They live in Syracuse, where Page has an in-home recording studio and where his three sons come to visit regularly. His post-BNL career has included five solo albums and frequent festival appearances. He has toured the United States with the Art of Time Ensemble, hosted a travel TV show called The Illegal Eater, delivered a TED Talk about the human voice, performed at Jack Layton’s funeral and written scores for Shakespeare plays at the Stratford Festival. Currently, he is excited about a musical he is working on that he hopes will debut at Stratford next summer. This summer, he will tour Britain with the Steven Page Trio. He still performs his BNL songs live and, of course, the fans love it.

He likes to open his shows with a corny dad joke (“I know, you’re all here for the new stuff.”) But he’s firm in his belief that, “people respond to the new material in a positive way, so I don’t feel like I’m forcing it on them. I don’t feel like it’s a pure nostalgia fest,” he says.

We talk a little bit about nostalgia. I tell him that I was in Grade 9 when Gordon came out and how my girlfriends and I will still break out into BNL sing-alongs after a few glasses of wine. He smiles, because he gets it. Page has his own memories, his own songs that make him hold his heart and remember the good old days through the coziest Instagram filter. It’s just that, for him, those songs aren’t songs he wrote. “My Brian Wilson,” he explains, “isn’t Brian Wilson.”

As a fan, Page says, there are tons of bands that he loves, even though he hasn’t even listened to their last three albums. As an artist, though, “You have to believe that what you’re making now is the best thing you’ve ever done.”

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This might explain why Page isn’t nostalgic about his contributions to the Canadian musical canon and the reason why he can now crack jokes about Dijon ketchup and will be able to perform with his ex-bandmates at Sunday’s Junos without feeling like an old Hollywood star being trotted out at the Oscars. It’s because he’s still working, still creating things that he believes are his greatest achievement. We can have our fan fiction and project our reunion fantasies on BNL and Steven Page the way we project romance scenarios on Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue. Page, meanwhile, is happy living in reality. “I like where I am now. I like my shows. I’m totally cool with all of it.”

All of it includes a woman, mid-40s, who pops by our booth as Page is having his picture taken. I’m standing far enough away that I can’t make out what she’s saying. I assume it’s something about how the Barenaked Ladies were her absolute favourite band back in the day. But maybe I’m projecting. Maybe she wants to know what Page is up to these days. Maybe she has some manners.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect surname for Steven Page’s wife. This version has been corrected.
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