JOEL PLASKETT

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Being an actress and a trained vocalist has shaped this young woman into a force to be reckoned within the music industry

TVM: When you were grow- ing up in Austria, was music a big part of your family? Were you encouraged to pursue it as a kid?

Dalah: My family loved art. You know, my mom is a painter- she’s in the Shake- speare Theatre. One of my ancestors actually wrote the lyrics for Franz Schubert, who was a very famous com- poser. I don’t know, I always loved music. When I was four, I asked my mom if I could play the violin. – She said, “Why don’t you start with the flute?” I said no (laughs), but I started playing the vio- lin in the end..

TVM: Did the violin come easy?
Dalah: Yes, funny enough. I think if you start learning any instrument that young it’ll come easier. I loved the violin, it’s still one of my fa- vourites! I also love the viola and the cello…the piano too, of course, I still use it as my main instrument to write. In my upcoming songs, there will be a lot of orchestral ele- ments. I played in an orches- tra for a long time and it’s something I miss a lot..the playing in the orchestra and everyone tuning together before the performance…it’s really nice.

Over his 20+ year career, Joel Plaskett has been one of Canada’s most recognizable indie rock stars. A member of bands such as Thrush Hermit, Neuseiland, The Joel Plaskett Emergency, he has also done various solo work. He talked to us about the physical demands of singing and his desire to connect with an audience.

TVM: How would you describe your voice?

JP: It’s changed a lot over the years. I’ve always been a singer so that I could express my tunes, and I try to get better as a singer so that I can deliver what I write. But the actual timbre of my voice, I’ve wrestled with it over the years. I’ve learned a few things with workarounds; my range has improved in strength but as far as the timbre, I’d have to leave that up to somebody else to describe.

TVM: How would you describe your music?

JP: I think there’s a degree of eclecticism to it, but the thread through it stylistically is the lyrics. I always think of it as lyrical rock and roll with hints of folk and indie rock and all the stuff I came up with, or re- ally grew up with, such as the 90s. It’s informed by the era I lived in as a young man.

TVM: At what age would you say you discovered your passion?
JP: Pretty young I’d say; at 14 or 15 years old, that’s when it really took hold. I played guitar at 13 or 14 and that was go-time.

TVM: What moves you to write songs?

JP: I think it’s the desire to communicate with people in a way that would feel lasting; in the sense that it’s more than just a conversation, that it’s some- thing that people might go back to. So not as much a conversation as it is a moment, but it still feels like an outlet for me to not feel so alone in the world [laughs].

TVM: Tell me about the challenges as a solo vocal- ist.
JP: For me it’s endurance, because not only do I sing and my songs are very lyrical, but there’s not a ton of guitar solos. There’s a bit, but for the most part I’m at the mic 90% of the night. And usually when I’m not singing, I’m dancing; I’m moving a lot. I’m not a big exerciser so when you start hitting these shows, it takes me a while to build up my endurance and I’ll find myself an hour into a set and I’m huffing and sweating. You’ll be in the middle of a song that has a s—tload of words and I’ll be like “oh my god, I need to find some air”.

TVM: Who influences you vocally?

JP: There are a lot of singers that I really admire that I feel in no way I have anything on. A lot of what I’ve gleamed from vocalists is a sort of feeling. Irma Thomas, a soul singer from New Orleans has been a big influence on me; I can’t sing anything like her but I just love her voice. Nina Simone I love, I really like Nick Lowe’s voice and delivery, George Jones, Lefty Frizzell. And then there are people who are a little more conversational; J.J. Cale, I like his laid-back ap- proach. And then Bob Mold and David Shouse from The Grifters.

TVM: What is your overall vocal regime?

JP: To not think about it until it’s time to. On show days I try not to spend too much time talking. De- pending on my schedule, I try to limit my interviews pre-show to the bare minimum and often I drink lots of water. I do warming up if I can find a place; just with an acoustic guitar and sometimes a few exercis- es that I’ve learned. Part of what I do is that I tend to pace my set based on knowing which songs exhaust

me and which ones are more taxing; I sort of ease into the show, really that’s a big part of my regime. It’s because I’m a pretty skinny guy, not in the best of shape; at certain shows I’m huffing for air [laughs]. The other thing I try not to do is stress stuff. One lesson I learned years ago was when I had a show at The Marquee Club; it was on New Year’s Eve and it was sold-out. We had played an all-ages show the night before, and I had felt a cold coming on, and I had really rocked my voice into oblivion. A couple of days later I found that I had bronchitis. But I was warming up downstairs at The Marquee, with a thou- sand people waiting upstairs to play, and I couldn’t sing, and I was like “oh no, my voice is gone”. But we got up on stage, and adrenaline kicked in, I could sing a little bit but I couldn’t do half of what I nor-

TVM: So when would you say that you are vocally at your best?
JP: Three shows into a tour, after I’ve grounded off the rust and gotten through it, but also not two weeks in when I’ve gotten really tired [laughs]. Five shows into a tour is when I think my voice hits this kind of robustness; it gets into a comfortable place where even if I may not have the uppermost range because my voice is tired, but there’s a strength in the center, which is what I need for the live show. As for time of day, it would be the afternoon. When in the course of touring, it’s different. By evening when the show comes around I can’t do much to sound- check because my voice is tired from the night be- fore, so it really depends on the cycle of touring. If I’m at home in the afternoon or evening I’m fine and in the morning I’m not much of a singer. But when I’m on tour it takes me until the evening to get my voice back.

TVM: What is your aim when you perform? What do you want to do for your fans?
JP: Just communicate, have a sense of a shared ex- perience; to have some fun. But as you know, some nights are better than others; some are quieter or louder than others, so what you have to do is your voice changes. And I play solo shows, and those tend to be easier on my voice, it’s a little more ex- posed but at the same time the nuance can be a little bit greater; things get to be quieter at times, I don’t have to sing as loud, I can explore different tonali- ties. Live it’s kind of like I have to get up and over the band. When I’m playing gigs I just want to make that communication, so if I can’t hit certain notes, I bend the melody somewhere else or I talk more [laughs]. It’s really just about enjoying myself up on stage and trying to have a shared experience with the audience.

TVM: On a more practical note, what is a typical rehearsal like for you?
JP: With the band it’s not usually longer than two hours, and I’d say half of that we’re playing music, and often we won’t even rehearse, being that we’re usually only up on stage for an hour or hour and a half. I do it a few times before a tour or important show, but for the most part we kind of just remem- ber our tunes and hit them cold; grind off a little bit of rust just by playing for a bit. Solo I barely rehearse at all; sometimes I’ll try and practice a few songs during the day just to remind myself that I can do it, that I haven’t forgotten the lyrics.

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TVM: When you perform what message do you want people to get from you?
JP: I think that’s different for everybody; people take from the songs different things. I’m just trying to bring my personality and showman- ship; entertainment on the stage, I think people believe in that. Some people want the party tunes that will make them dance, for others it’s a more solitary thing; they respond to the lyrics or the quieter material. It changes from night to night, show to show, crowd to crowd and my own sense of where I’m at, which changes day to day.

TVM: Do you find what you eat affects your voice?

JP: Yes, a bit. I find that it’s really important to eat a couple hours be- fore show-time, because eating really warms up my voice; it makes my throat not feel as dry, I just feel more involved from the act of eating. I’m conscious of not too much dairy, not that that really does a lot but ice cream and foods like that, cold stuff I stay away from. I don’t eat spicy food pre-show, and I don’t drink coffee late in the day.

TVM: When you record and when you perform live what are the vocal differences and demands?
JP: Live I need to get up and over the band, when I’m recording I can control a level; you don’t have to strain as much, but you’re also in the studio so there isn’t that adrenaline, so it can be harder to hit the notes than it does in the live show. Live it’s about being able to hit the notes, but also about being able to bring the energy to one show and get up and do it again the next night. I have to be a little conscious, particu- larly at the beginning of tours, but I don’t push it too, too far because I run the risk of blowing it and paying the price for the next couple of shows.

TVM: Which one do you prefer?

JP: I think I probably prefer singing live, but I love
recording. I do like singing because it brings me to the end of a tune and closer to completion, but I like the energy of it live; there’s a loose- ness that I sometimes chase in the recording studio but is a little bit harder to capture, because there isn’t an audience and there isn’t that adrenaline. I also like to sing at home a capella; I make up songs with just lines in mind, just singing low in my register. Often I sing low or write high in falsetto but when I do it with the band I realize I can hit it with a full voice and it becomes a little bit shoutier, hence why my songs are pitched high.

TVM: Is your practice environment important to you? Why?

JP: It’s important; there shouldn’t be dust and if a room is too reflec- tive it makes it harder to rehearse, because you can’t hear your voice. I think it’s really important to be able to hear yourself when you’re rehearsing, but also not so awesome that it doesn’t prepare you for the stage when things get different. So I like a practice space that has enough life that it doesn’t feel like an iso-chamber. It can be hard to find that medium in which it feels as much like a balanced stage as possible.

TVM: How regularly do you workout vocally?

JP: Not regularly, weeks will go by and I’ll be like “okay, tonight let’s rehearse”. Before the show I’ll do some warming up, but it’s very much task-driven. If I have gigs or I’m recording I’ll do some warming up, but even then I’ll often hit recordings kind of cold and warm up as I go.

TVM: Describe a typical vocal workout session?

JP: Again it’s just kind of singing songs on the guitar, going “what notes do I hit the most in the set?” I’m just checking to see if I can hit the marks and if I can get 20 minutes of singing in before a show with a guitar; some of that might just be doing a few scales and even just stretching my jaw or shaking out my arms. One thing that my drummer, in fact the whole band does, is we toss a bottle of water around, and that loosens up my limbs. I find being really relaxed physically, and just being kind of stretched out in your arms and shoulders, can affect my voice as much as anything else, because it’s about posture and not carrying a ton of tension.

TVM: Describe one challenge you constantly face in your practices?
JP: I think one of the hardest things to do live and even just in general, is that I can hit the notes up in my high regis- ter, but they require pushing a lot of air and creating a lot of volume. So the flipside of that is trying to project and get the right tone for the lower notes in my register that need to be there in the set. Sometimes one of the things I wrestle with in the live setting is when I go for the full band thing where I’m singing pretty high and I try to sing a few songs that are lower in the register and pretty nuanced, and I have a hard time going to those notes after being all high. So I’m always trying to figure out how to calm myself down and back into my lower register. I think it’s just trying to get evenness across my vocal range.

TVM: In today’s competitive music industry what does it take to pursue singing as a career?
JP: That’s something I don’t feel qualified to answer, be- cause I’ve never considered my career as being based on my singing. I recognize that that’s what people are hearing when they listen to my songs, but I’ve always felt that the point I was trying to get with my voice was to communi- cate. At least musically, my sentiments are as a songwriter, so the voice was a means to an end, and to improve it was a way to make my songs more effective. So I don’t really know what I would do if I were just going to be a vocalist, but for those singing others material I think that require discipline and learning how to interpret things with your own voice. I found my own voice through being a writer.

TVM: For those who want to be singers and are starting out, what kind of advice would you give them?
JP: Listen to yourself and recordings, try to sing a lot and find the musical place in your voice; sometimes that in- volves asking people what they like and don’t like, but also not being afraid to just go for it; I think that people respond to emotion. For example, some people love Dylan’s voice, other don’t, but obviously he’s doing something right. And Neil Young is another case, what some people might see as a weakness, others will see strength orwhat they view as character.

(Photos by Christine Han for Cup of Jo. Interview by Megan Cahn.)

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