A Plaskett family affair
On the new album Solidarity, Joel Plaskett leans into his folk roots while his dad Bill brings out the songwriter's political side
Loitering in the back room of vintage music-gear purveyor Paul's Boutique, Bill Plaskett gets a compliment from its namesake owner: "You know, you look like Roger Waters."
Bill looks back in silence for just a second. Rock trivia is not his forte. His son, Joel Plaskett, jumps to the rescue. "You know him? Pink Floyd."
"Oh, Pink Floyd, yeah," Bill says, smiling slyly. These days, the British folk-revival maven is learning a lot from his rock-aficionado son. Three decades after Bill taught Joel the guitar, helping launch him into the Cancon canon, they're releasing an album together. And as much as it's a chance to repay Bill for a life of lessons learned, Joel's still learning, too.
Out Feb. 17, Solidarity is Joel's ninth proper album since the 1999 breakup of his alt-rock band Thrush Hermit. It's also the most explicit folk foray of the Halifax musician's career – built in his co-headlining father's image, soaked in traditional sounds from both shores of the Atlantic.
Joel's long toyed with singer-songwriter styles, but this is different. Fiddles, whistles and banjos pop up as Bill finger-picks and Joel strums six-string and tenor guitars. The pair stickhandle traditionals: Bill plays Jim Jones bare-bones, while they trade verses and harmonies on We Have Fed You All for a Thousand Years. Joel, meanwhile, dolls up new songs with trad flourishes. Blank Cheque rollicks like a kitchen-party jam, and the Yellowknife ballad The New California gets a phalanx of whistles.
And then there are Bill's songs, stretching back decades.
The longer Joel's career stretches on, the more his music returns to his childhood. Sitting on a bench across the street from the Toronto music shop, Bill and Joel discuss recording the album's final song, On Down the River – a song that had been brewing in Bill for decades. It's a simple, quick, stripped-down take with just one microphone, a would-be demo done in the lobby of Joel's Dartmouth studio.
The approach was deliberate. "I tried to make it sound like the cassette of all his songs that I heard when I was a kid," Joel says.
Joel's journey from nineties alternative impressionist to burgeoning folk scholar begins with his father. Bill, now 72, grew up working-class in east London, and fell quickly into finger-picking as traditional jazz and skiffle took him headfirst into the British folk revival.
He obsessively followed the careers of revival leaders such as Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Davey Graham as he travelled to northern England, then Canada, settling in the mid-seventies near Lunenburg, N.S., with Sharon MacDonald, Joel's mother.
Sharon, a dancer, flooded the home with experimental, jazz and pop music. But Bill's folk obsession grew after they settled on Nova Scotia's South Shore. Within a decade of Joel's birth in 1975, Bill established a coffee house, started his own trad bands and helped found the Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival, leading to many late-night after-parties at the Plaskett-MacDonald home.
The young Joel, though – his path meandered. Obsessions with Chuck Berry and Billy Joel turned to eighties skate music and, eventually, Led Zeppelin. Bill tried in vain to teach Joel guitar; he tried drums and saxophone instead. It was only when the family moved to Halifax in 1987, and Joel met the friends that would form Thrush Hermit, that he accepted guitar lessons.
As much as Joel's early joke-fuelled jams with friends spurred his career ambitions, Bill had a hand in his development – one of Joel's first public performances was a duet of Jansch's Angie with his dad at a Folk Harbour Society showcase in Halifax. But as a teenager, Joel was more likely to hide under headphones listening to classic rock than to join his father studying folk-leaning songwriters.
Their careers diverged – Joel as a musician, Bill as a municipal planner – but here they are today, a pair of grown men sipping tea and coffee in Toronto and talking about what they've learned from each other.
A stranger wouldn't guess they're related. Joel's all arms and legs, with a long mop of brown hair and a trace of East Coast in his voice, while his more moderately sized dad's short-cropped grey shag and London accent might get him mistaken for a tourist.
Since Joel built his first studio nine years ago, his music has increasingly seized the sounds and talents of his home turf. This includes his father, who had played banjo on Joel's recordings as early as 2001's Down at the Khyber, but became a full-fledged supporting player on 2009's Three.
That was an album that simultaneously saw Joel, the erstwhile rockist, slip fiddles and other traditional British and Celtic references into his work. It left him thinking about doing a full-length album with his father, though other projects and family matters – he adopted a son, Xianing – delayed him. Last year, armed with new acoustic songs, he decided it was time.
"I don't mean this in a weird way, but Dad's still –"
"I'm not getting any younger," Bill interjects with a chuckle.
"And if I go into another album cycle –"
"You never know what's going to happen," the septuagenarian says.
From this sprung Solidarity, produced by Joel and recorded last October. It's the sound of Joel and Bill leaning on each other, their experiences converging.
Thanks to his son, Bill's original songs will be properly produced and widely distributed. And with the help of his dad, Joel's songwriting is evolving: It's becoming more overtly political, mixing his own progressive pieces – notably Blank Cheque – among protest traditionals.
Progressive politics have seeped into Joel's work recently, particularly on the 2015 song Captains of Industry, inspired in part by author and activist Naomi Klein. But recording an album on the eve of the U.S. election has drawn an urge out of him to want to bring people together. In, it could be said, solidarity.
It helps that the co-pilot of his forward-focused folk album was Bill, who as a heritage planner has made a career out of preserving the past for a better future. For all Bill learns from Joel these days, Joel's still learning, too.
"We're seeing this divisiveness crop up," Joel says. "We don't know what the future holds; it's really weird. But the idea of trying to learn from the past … It's helpful when things are happening around you that you think are destructive or bad, to go, 'Maybe somebody's been through this before.'"
Josh O'Kane is a Globe and Mail reporter and author of Nowhere With You, a 2016 book about Joel Plaskett.
A FEW FAMOUS FATHER-CHILD PAIRINGS
Eddie and Wolfgang Van Halen: And the cradle did rock after all: After the departure of long-time bassist Michael Anthony, Eddie Van Halen made Van Halen even more Van Halen, inviting his son Wolfgang to join the band.
Frank and Moon Unit Zappa: Three years before Frank Zappa testified at a U.S. Senate hearing that a proposal for parental-advisory labels on albums was "an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children," he released the song Valley Girl with his own child, daughter Moon Unit.
Jeff and Spencer Tweedy: Not all of Jeff Tweedy's family-member-named bands have ended well: Uncle Tupelo might not have been named after a real relative, but the band's breakup came with burned friendships. His band Tweedy, however, features son Spencer on drums, and has had a smoother existence.
Ice Cube and O'Shea Jackson Jr.: When casting decisions were finalized for the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton, it was a good day for rapper Ice Cube. His likeness in the film was accurately replicated: His son, O'Shea Jackson Jr., took the role.