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Anyone who’s into music in Canada not only knows about Joel Plaskett, they are likely huge fans of the man and his music, including his time in indie band Thrush Hermit in the 90s, solo work, plus albums released under The Joel Plaskett Emergency. After twenty years of what his own website bio calls “music-making mischief”, Plaskett has grown into a nationally-adored icon and a beloved figure in Nova Scotia. From local shows to symphony-backed concerts, his oft-sold out gigs are always joyful, raucous and meaningful affairs.

Based in Dartmouth with his family, Plaskett’s allegiance to the area and the arts community are well-known; a glance at one of his guitars is enough to witness the pride he feels. He also founded and partners on the multi-faceted New Scotland Yard Emporium, including a record shop (Taz Records), a coffee shop (Honey & Butter), and even a barber shop (Elk’s Haircutting), all the while maintaining a regular touring schedule. 

A long-time supporter of the Khyber Centre for the Arts (his 2001 album was notably titled Down at the Khyber), the singer-songwriter, producer and entrepreneur-about-town shows no sign of slowing down. Last weekend he was awarded the ECMA’s Producer of the Year award in Sydney last weekend, and is the subject of a just-released biography, Nowhere with You: the East Coast Anthems of Joel Plaskett by Josh O’ Kane, who recently shared that, in addition to its focus on Plaskett, the book is “about the notion of creating art in the Maritimes”. 

The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia had an opportunity to chat with Joel about all things art, what inspires him, and why revisiting art over time is a fascinating- and important -process.
What do the visual arts mean to you, and how do they fit into what you do? 

For me, visual art is not something I’ve ever practiced in my own life. My wife [Rebecca Kraatz] is a visual artist; a lot of what I’ve discovered has been through her, and I’ve really gleaned an appreciation through what she’s discovering. It’s funny; sometimes when I’m out with my wife, I’ll bring up things that we were talking about, and she’ll be bringing up things that were visual, like the details in a room: “Did you notice the way that looked?”—and I didn’t notice any of it (laughs)! So, my wife’s art has shown up on a few of my album covers.

I guess that’s definitely one of the other things that has turned me onto art: album artwork. That’s one of the reasons I love records! One of the things that’s really cool about vinyl is its limitations. I mean, everything in the same size on the album artwork, so that’s really interesting how you have to conform to those dimensions.

Album artwork for "In Need of Medical Attention" by Rebecca Kraatz
Album artwork for Plaskett’s In Need of Medical Attention (2003) by Rebecca Kraatz.

The other thing that applies to Rebecca is that she is mostly self-taught. She has a Bachelors in Fine Art, but she didn’t go into a Masters program. Her art isn’t exactly folk art, but it holds some of those aspects. In general, I like what you might call outsider art and folk art—anything that’s not particularly studied, and where you’re working with what you’ve got.

I also went to the Arctic recently and the Inuit art there was unbelievable. The materials they used… it’s really just inspiring. The art is so connected to the sense of place. I would imagine some carving by such and such, which the artist learned to make through his brother or father. There’s something to be said about being influenced by a smaller community that can be really cool. That’s what I keep coming back to.

And this may sound strange but… Carpets! I like Persian carpets. To me, the amount of time and craft that goes into something that decorates the home, that’s pretty mind-blowing. It’s about the idea that something like a chair can be artistic. I believe that you can see art in tools, in guitars, in all kinds of things–that craftsmanship is a form of art and that they are joined at the hip.

Photo: Jeff Harper, Metro News.
Photo: Jeff Harper, Metro News.

What, or who, inspires you?

To be honest, I’m influenced by people I know or people around me, and my wife is the biggest source of inspiration in that regard. And people in my community are creating art that is influential.

Rick White [from 90s band Eric’s Trip] makes all his album artwork and it’s pretty psychedelic. I remember once we stayed at Rick’s place, and he’d stayed up all night. At some point, someone says, “Why don’t you show Joel & Rebecca your slides?” He takes out a slide projector, and on the wall he projects these kinds of solar systems on the wall—like these bright stars exploding. He explained the process where he took acetate paper, threw paint on it, dropped a bunch of salt around it, and all the fissures came out from the salt—and then he took apart the slides. It was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. These solar systems were so simple, but it was just so cool that I had never seen anything like it… You know, there’s nothing wrong with going to school for art– but this process is fascinating. The idea of not replicating; the idea of anyone who is trailblazing like that.

So I think in a weird way it’s an extension of folk art or outsider art. And just stumbling across things, psychedelic things. My wife has a magazine subscription to Raw Vision too which I like.

Album cover for Park Avenue Sobriety Test (2015). Courtesy Joel Plaskett.

Which artists are you into? 

We went to New York City once and saw a Eugene Von Bruenchenhein show. He had sculptures out of chicken bones, and psychedelic 50s & 60s paintings, über-colourful explosions that are really a sight to behold. I had seen books of his works, so we went to see his stuff in New York when we were there.

But I also love photography. Timmy [Tim Brennan, past bassist for Joel Plaskett & the Emergency, and an artist with three works in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia’s Permanent Collection] is a great photographer.

Somebody Timmy knows is [American photographer and filmmaker] Robert Frank in Cape Breton, who did The Americans series. He also filmed that bootleg Stones documentary [Cocksucker, 1972]. I love The Americans and the way people were captured. Black and white photography tends to be more interesting than colour.

My wife has a few comic books… And [cartoonist] Jim Woodring also has done some really cool stuff; I like his comics a lot!

And we saw a Peter Doig exhibition in Montreal, he has some really inspiring work.

Why should people make time to visit an art gallery?

The reasons we need to keep visiting a Gallery are important. Maybe something that wasn’t interesting yesterday, will be valid or show you a scene with a different kind of meaning today. It’s like viewing a landscape that Frieda painted and thinking, “it feels like this,” and later, “now it feels like that.”

When you’re young, you’re really defining parameters. I’m interested in understanding and getting deeper into why I fell in love with things when I was young, through a different dusty lens—like vaseline on the lens (laughs). It’s interesting to think about the initial attraction, to then refining what you’re getting from it when you’re getting older.

There’s a lot of power in young people doing things, in that initial explosion of ideas. But there are also amazing things about people getting older and redefining.

Joel Plaskett. Photo: Ingram Barss
Photo: Ingram Barss. Courtesy Joel Plaskett. 

There seems to be a special artistic vibe coming out of the community here; why do you think that is?

The sense of security and community here has been, for me, part of what’s allowed me to be creative; it has to do with stability and what you return to. My livelihood is on a stage somewhere, but when I get back I’m in my own space, in my own town. I can workshop ideas and make something that represents who I am and where I’m from. Some people might feed on changing cities and having that bustle; some people maybe grew up in a more transient lifestyle, maybe they grew up in a small town and had problems and wanted to get the f— out of dodge… But for me, I’ve been lucky enough to have fairly liberal, artistic parents and not from a marginalized community. So I like the return to themes, and to explore those themes over time.

There’s also a pride here [Nova Scotia] in knowing that we have a longstanding history of good art and music. We’re an isolated province, but it’s not like we don’t know what’s going on elsewhere. In the music scene, bands had to learn to entertain each other; this could probably could be applied to the visual arts as well. Because you’re not constantly being exposed to new things all the time, the exchange becomes a local exchange. The currency becomes art.

The challenge of making a living doing whatever you like, artistically or generally, is that you need to continue to create things to keep the machine rolling properly. If you just stop for too long, it becomes this pressure. So much of what you have to do [in the music industry] is a game– like music videos–it’s  not really about the music. You have to keep generating a surplus of things to keep the ball in the air.

Joel Plaskett at the New Scotland Yard Emporium
The singer-songwriter and producer on location at the New Scotland Yard Emporium. (Courtesy Joel Plaskett)

How does art figure in your daily life here?

I’m finding it interesting having the barber shop, coffee shop and record shop next to the studio. As a result of all of this– a space that I’ve curated—I’ve gotten to know much more of my neighbourhood. I’ve gotten a sense of the street, the business community, people down the road. You come to realize that creativity exists in restaurants, the shoe repair shop… I believe trades and shops, there’s art there. The record shop and the cafe may as well be an art gallery!

Joel Plaskett is performing in the Maritimes and Ontario until August 2016.

Follow Joel
Twitter: @joelplaskett

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