The Halifax Explosion
An indie rocker who never left
Nowhere With You: The East Coast Anthems of Joel Plaskett, The Emergency and Thrush Hermit By Josh O’Kane ECW Press 232 pp; $18.95
Austin in the 1970s. Toronto in the ’80s. Seattle in the ’ 90s. Every city has a moment where local talent, a big audience and an influx of industry cash combine to make a magical music scene. For Halifax, that time was the mid-’ 90s, when the East Coast hub had shed some of its traditional folk music chains and a new generation of kids was making killer rock. Hailed as the next Seattle, the city saw record labels scouring every corner of every dive bar for the next hot act. I’ve heard tales about this scene for ages; my partner paid his dues in Halifax clubs before going on to a major label deal and tour the country. Who opened the door for him and others like him? Four guys who were only a year ahead in school, but already leaders in the local scene: Joel Plaskett and his band, Thrush Hermit.
Josh O’Kane’s book, Nowhere With You: The East Coast Anthems of Joel Plaskett, The Emergency and Thrush Hermit details Plaskett’s singular vision and dedication to maintaining a scene in the city he loved. Unlike my partner and many other Haligonians who had to leave for Toronto, Plaskett was determined to stay — sometimes to his detriment. Nowhere With You is as much about the declining record industry as it is about the long- term economic decline Eastern Canada has faced for generations. In a place where the death rate is eclipsing the birthrate, musicians have a tough time developing — and keeping — an audience.
Fighting against the tide of sentimental folk recordings that emerged from the Celtic boom of the ’90s, Plaskett, his bandmates, and other rockers like Sloan struggled to grab industry attention. But that struggle didn’t last long: deemed the “New Seattle” by Melody Maker’s Everett True, the city was soon inundated by record executives travelling long distances to secure the next promising act. O’Kane’s familiarity with the scene and the general excitement around the East Coast at that time anchors his narrative, but even more enjoyable is his palpable enthusiasm for the music he documents. It’s clear that the Maritimer O’Kane admires Plaskett’s refusal to cave in to pressures to move west in the midst of a promising indie rock career. Though Plaskett made potentially career-damaging decisions — like when Thrush Hermit turned down an offer to include one of their songs on the soundtrack to the hit movie Dumb and Dumber — they served to further endear Plaskett to his colleagues and audience.
As fellow band members drifted away one by one to bigger urban centres, however, Plaskett was forced to reshape his vision multiple times. After forming the Emergency in early 2000 in response to the breakup of Thrush Hermit, Plaskett weaved in and out of solo and band work over the following 15 years. He became a road warrior, touring across Canada and the U.S. and making forays into Europe and Australia. In the end, the industry came to him: Canadian indie label Maple Music, though sometimes baffled by Plaskett’s decisions, signed him and continues to find ways to market the singer- songwriter in markets beyond the country’s borders. The media and club bookers alike cite Plaskett as their dream artist to work with, promoting his work regardless of complexity and breadth. Between multiple records, Plaskett also managed to fit in a rock opera, Ashtray Rock, and a triple album, Three — a dangerous move in the era of online streaming.
O’Kane’s research is thorough: his detailed account of much of Plaskett’s catalogue is amplified by interviews with members of Plaskett’s bands, his family, and Plaskett himself, creating a full picture of a life lived through music. Music is the “thread that’s pulled him all the way through to now,” says Plaskett’s wife Rebecca Kraatz. Not knowing what else he would do, Plaskett remains insistent that not only will he continue to compose and record, he will also always do it at home in Nova Scotia. At present, he sits at the helm of New Scotland Yard, a studio where he has recorded and produced the likes of David Myles and former Great Big Sea member Sean McCann. Ever the Canadian indie darling, Plaskett continues to grace festivals and Canadian mainstays like the Commodore Ballroom and Horseshoe Tavern with his presence, endearing a new generation of fans to his slick pop tunes and East Coast affability.