Story by Amy Sellors, Photo by JD Scarcliff
These days, it seems, there is a lot of discord in the world. “We don’t have to agree on everything, but music is a place where we can all meet,” says Steven Page. “For memories, nostalgia, to be in the moment, to laugh, or to cry—that’s what music is there for.
Speaking with the musician and Barenaked Ladies co-founder about his upcoming concert with the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra, it’s apparent his music has been bringing people together in the past two years. In March, Page held his 85th Live at Home concert on Zoom. Throughout the pandemic he has been performing from his home studio. The audience leaves their cameras on so they can see each other, and connect through the chat. “They’re friends. It’s a community,” says Page. Now, those same audience members are attending his in-person concerts. “It’s emotional.”
Like many musicians, Page just started touring again. The trio does their best to stay safe, and they have to be disciplined. “It’s weird to go to New York and not go out to a restaurant or anything. But you have to do that because if someone got sick in the U.S. they have to stay there to quarantine. That gets annoying and expensive.” Page’s trio performed recently with the Vancouver Symphony, and it was powerful. “The feeling of doing live shows in front of an audience who haven’t been together like that, where they haven’t been totally separated from each other—it was intense,” he says. “You could feel the audience’s sense of trepidation at first, but as soon as someone made a joke, as soon as someone started to laugh, you could feel the pressure lifting. It was pretty joyful.”
Page approaches his symphony concerts a bit differently than other musicians. “Sometimes in rock or pop concerts, there’s not a lot for the orchestra to do because the songs are fully orchestrated by the band. All the parts have been assigned, so the orchestra doubles what is already being played. That’s boring for the players,” he says. “They may feel like they’re decoration or just legitimizing the pop person or making their music fancy. That’s no fun. We try to make it so in our arrangements, the orchestra carries that song… it’s a result of mixing two complete ensembles together.” This concert with the TBSO promises to be something special. Symphony concerts “give us the opportunity to step outside the original recorded version of the song and do something different with it,” he adds.
Page’s trio consists of Craig Northey (guitar), Kevin Fox (cello), and himself. “We have been playing together long enough that we have a good sense of ESP playing together. One of the weird things about being a soloist in front of an orchestra is you’re the only one who can’t see the conductor. You can’t see the musicians, the conductor, they’re all behind you,” he says. “If you start ploughing ahead or they start dragging behind, it can be a train wreck. I rely on Kevin to see what the conductor is doing. It’s an intense way of your gears turning that pays off in such amazing riches.”
With a little help from their very talented colleagues, including Page’s eldest son, Isaac, the trio has written their own orchestrations of the songs. The orchestrations were developed for three different sizes of orchestras, allowing them to play anywhere with just about any ensemble. In Thunder Bay, it will be the mid-sized orchestrations. This is a different way of working for Page, who works mostly in an ear-based way rather than creating sheet music for every song. “There’s nothing scarier than handing your charts to a classical musician and having them say: ‘This isn’t really how it works here,’” he says. “But I’ve done my research. I’ve learned that you can make what’s on the page exactly what you want to hear. I can be as specific as I want to be, and the more specific I am, the easier it is for the players.”
If you have a ticket for this concert you can expect to hear a mix of classic Barenaked Ladies songs, Page’s solo work written over the last 13 years, and songs from his new musical that almost made it to the stage for the Stratford Festival of Canada’s 2020 season before the pandemic closed their doors. It’s a great mix of old and new songs that shows the heart of Steven Page. About 20 years ago, Page realized that, just like the Barenaked Ladies album title, you can’t be Everything to Everyone. “In order to be an artist, you have to be clear about who you are. It doesn’t mean you have to give your opinion about everything that’s happening in the world, but if you are honest, authentic, and genuine, you can make art with a clear head and conscience.”
Steven Page’s trio performs with the TBSO at the Thunder Bay Community Auditorium on April 30 at 7:30 pm. Visit tbca.com for ticket info.