Analogue Music | Steven Page

Steven Page

By Matt Conner

"I believe that we'll be alright / As long as you keep on looking for the light."

The refrain that closes Steven Page's new solo album, Discipline: Heal Thyself, Pt. II, is an expected line. Not that Page has used it before, or that he's overusing the analogy. Rather, his songs, whether as a solo artist or during his long stint as the primary songwriter and front man for Barenaked Ladies, have often retained a hopeful tension—a note (sometimes literal) of optimism despite the song's subject.

Thirty years after he first formed BNL with Ed Robertson and 10 years after leaving the band, Page's pop sensibilities are as sharp as ever. The second Heal Thyself installment might be laced with cultural and political insights—largely about the downward spiral affecting us all—but Page's melodic compositions and lyrical compass maintain control of the mood. The ability to hold the audience and such tension is proof positive of an able veteran craftsman.

We recently spent some time with Page to discuss the role of escapist art, the power of a song to change perspective and why he's always "written with doubt."

Analogue: When you’re interested in writing about the chaos or divisiveness of our times, etc., do you relish the challenge communicating these things in a three- or four-minute vehicle that has to still be melodic and accessible? I wanted to start there, with the act itself.

Steven Page: I don’t think it comes easily to me, but I do relish it. I think there was a point for me around the time I made my first solo record, The Vanity Project, in 2002. It didn’t come out until 2005, but I was at that point writing songs about a post-9/11 world in Canada and the United States. It was about my sense of where the corruption and injustices were, and the double standards and ethical failings and so on. I’ve always written about those same things about myself—about my failings or disappointments in my own self. It was an opportunity to look outward.

When Barenaked Ladies made Everything to Everyone in 2003, the invasion of Iraq happened while we were making that record. We had already written songs on the previous album that addressed the dread that was impending at that point. By 2003, part of you feels helpless and part of you feels like, well, what do you write songs about? You write songs about how you’re feeling or things you observe or the comedy, sometimes, of the chaos or the hidden motives and stuff. That’s what we write about when we write about romantic relationships, too. That becomes like a way to apply some of those things and our own values.

I always have wishes for how I wish the world would be, but I don’t have solutions.

Over the last few years, I’ve kind of felt like it was useless for me to be on Twitter every day, retweeting other activists’ talking points for the day or arguing with people about stuff. That seems too futile, or my skin is too thin for the constant trolling. I got trolled to death just based on not being in the band anymore—whatever people decide they want to get mad at you for.

When it comes to politics, we’re all starting to realize now that there’s no point, or very little point, in trying to change somebody else’s opinion. The best thing you can do is try to distill how you’re feeling in a way that is succinct. You’re putting complex ideas into a very small package. That’s one of the things I love about the pop songwriting format is that it forces you to put a lot of information, and hopefully nuance, into a very small package.

But I think I finally realized this time out that I’m not going to debate anybody over the songs. First of all, I’m not making sweeping, unequivocal statements. I’m mostly making observations from which you could draw your own conclusions, but I’m not going to provide the CliffsNotes beside the songs that tell you what you should glean from it. I want the songs to speak for themselves, and that’s my job—not sitting and yelling at people on Twitter to get off my lawn.

My craft is my place to be able to talk about what I’m mulling over in my mind. Because those things I’m mulling over, I don’t always have answers for them. I always have wishes for how I wish the world would be, but I don’t have solutions.

Analogue: You say in "White Noise" that you’ve had to learn to bite your tongue. Does music allow for an outlet where you don’t have to do that, or do you still feel like that, even in musical form?

Steven: Honestly, I feel like a paranoid fool saying this, but I’m in a weird situation where I’m an immigrant to the United States. I’m not in nearly as precarious position as refugees coming from the Middle East or North Africa or Central Asia. I’m also not coming from the southern border. I’m a person of some means and so on, but I feel like maybe I’m not entitled to a voice, because I’m not a citizen yet. And even though I’m a Canadian citizen, I can’t vote there, either, because they changed the laws.

Steven Page
Steven Page

Analogue: Really?

Steven: If you’ve been away for longer than five years, you’re not allowed to vote. So you kind of think, "Well do I even have the right to say something?" And we’re seeing the beginnings of all these kinds of Draconian immigration issues in the United States, like natural born American citizens who aren’t being given passports and crazy stuff like that. How long is it until I say something in a song that somebody else happens to like or I say something in an interview to you and a border guard googles it and decides arbitrarily, "No, you can’t come back in. Yeah, I know you’ve got a green card." There’s no guarantee anymore. So that stuff does bounce around when I’m feeling particularly paranoid.

Analogue: Earlier you said you used to make these same observations about yourself in your songs. Do you think you're making outward statements because you've had the chance to record and release some inner-focused material? Does your longevity in this business help here?

Steven: Well, yes and no. I mean, yes, because I think even in my later days in Barenaked Ladies, I’d hand in a song where I’m chastising myself for something, and I could tell my bandmates were like, "Ugh, another one of these?" That’s a never-ending well I have there to draw on. [Laughs] I think most of us do.

Right now, in the age of MeToo, as a white, middle-aged male, I have lots of questions like, "Is there a reason for us to be heard?" I mean, I understand fully if our voices disappear for awhile. It makes perfect sense to me. It doesn’t help my bottom line, and of course as an artist, you want to be heard, but I also know that when a revolution happens, a lot of good people go down along with the shitty people. I’m kind of okay with that.

That’s something that can inform your writing. What I don’t like is a lot of finger-pointing. "White Noise" certainly does it, but it does it in a very tart and concise way. It doesn’t keep poking the chest. I’m not a fan of songs that say, "You’re bad and I’m good. You’ve got it wrong, and I’ve got it right." I don’t think an audience gets anything out of it, and I think it only serves the songwriter’s ego.

I try to write without that. I try to write with a sense of doubt to everything I write. I think that makes stuff more interesting to sing. Some of these songs I’ve been able to sing 25 or 30 years, and it gives them some life. Part of you looks back and goes, "Oh my god, I was an idiot when I was 19 when I wrote this." But part of you can also appreciate the journey you’ve been on and find something to dig into when you’re singing it 30 years later. That keeps the songs relevant—not only for the audience. The audience have their own reasons to want to hear them. But it gives you as a performer an opportunity to find new things in them, too.

I like to write songs that have doubt in them, that leave the possibility open that I might be wrong.

Analogue: I’ve done a lot of interviews, and I’ve never heard someone discuss that idea of writing with doubt.

Steven: Yeah, I like to write songs that have doubt in them, that leave the possibility open that I might be wrong.

Analogue: Have you been aware of that for awhile?

Steven: Since I’ve been a solo artist. I was never conscious of it before. Looking back, probably a lot of what I did was self-flagellation sometimes, but I always liked the idea of the unreliable narrator. The king of that is Randy Newman. I don’t think anybody’s emotions are so simplistic that we can sing something and go, "I’m sad, and you did me wrong." I can say instead, "I feel sad and I feel like I’ve been done wrong, but maybe, have some doubt in there, maybe I was responsible for that somehow." I feel like that connects with listeners more.

Take a band like Pet Shop Boys, where Neil Tennant might sing like he is an authority on being part of the club scene and the art scene, but he sings it with a sense of doubt. There’s a sense of outsider-ness. It’s more about what he wishes he was. That’s how I hear it as a listener, and that’s what makes the music fascinating to me.

Analogue: I think you’re right. If you allow that complexity to weave its way in, I think that does draw some people. But at the same time, there’s also escapist art. So how do you know where to draw the line, or is that just impossible to state succinctly?

Steven: It is impossible to state. I think there’s lots to be said for escapist art. We did some of that in Barenaked Ladies, and it was fun to make. Sometimes I think I would love to make a record that just kind of allowed me to run around the stage and dance, because there is nothing like feeling the joy of an audience. But for me, even those songs have some depth to them.

Paul McCartney is my hero in a lot of ways. He’s sometimes a complete cheeseball, and I love that stuff, too. I also love the deeper stuff or the more nuanced or personal stuff that he would write. He tends to be revisionist about what inspired a song or what the process was like. I really sense that he’s an intuitive writer. He’s not thinking a heck of a lot about what the song is about, and when he does, they’re not usually as successful—at least, artistically successful.

A song like "Hey Jude" might have had an idea behind it, but it’s not much of anything, but the feeling of the song is pure magic. I’d give all my songs to have a song like "Hey Jude." I would be writing and rewriting and rewriting the lyrics until they were airtight. Even a song like "Penny Lane," which is a much more perfectly constructed song, still has a bunch of bullshit in it, but it’s honest to who the writer is and to who the band is, and it’s great because of it.