Steven Page Moves On While Honouring His Past
If there’s one word to describe what Steven Page is feeling these days, it’s freedom.
“Yes,” he agreed. “That’s the thing. I can say ‘yes’ to just about anything. Or, I can say 'no' to stuff.”
Page is winding down a tour at home in Canada (he’s lived in Syracuse, NY for several years) exactly one decade after announcing that he was leaving the band he co-founded, Barenaked Ladies.
He has since released three albums and an EP – the latest is Discipline: Heal Thyself, Pt. II – and has continued performing shows both big and small. He hosted a short-lived food series, The Illegal Eater. He is collaborating with acclaimed playwright Daniel MacIvor on a musical they hope to debut next summer at the Stratford Festival in Ontario. And, he’s booked to do two nights next May backed by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.
“In a band, those are your side projects,” Page said. “They have to be, just as part of the agreement of being in a band. You have to schedule everything else around it and see if it competes with it.”
Relaxing on a sofa before his recent Montreal show, Page told iHeartRadio.ca that “there’s no drama” being on his own.
“There’s a difference between starting a band when you’re 18 and you have no idea how to even be an adult, never mind somebody in a band,” he said. “You become co-dependent. There’s all these kinds of webs that get woven of inter-personal stuff.”
On the cusp of turning 49, Page acknowledged that moving on has probably been easier for him than for many fans.
“In the U.S. there isn’t the same baggage because the ordinary person doesn’t necessarily know who’s in the band,” he explained. “I think Canadians do and they sort of associate my face and my voice with the group, so it’s weird for them.”
It’s for this reason that Page includes more than a half a dozen BNL songs in his shows (where he’s backed by veteran musicians Kevin Fox and Craig Northey).
“I know that those songs and those memories people have of that time and those songs are important to a lot of people in the audience so I honour that,” he said. “I still play those songs and the nice thing is it doesn’t feel like I’m doing covers. It feels like I’m just doing part of my catalogue.”
But, Page added, there is a downside to doing a two-hour show by himself. “In BNL, even though I sang the bulk of the songs, it was still me and Ed [Robertson]. There was still time to break it up or I’m singing harmony on a song,” he recalled. “When you’re carrying it yourself … it’s a lot of work on your voice sometimes.”
Page said there are still people coming to his shows who haven’t seen him perform since BNL.
“They’re not sure what they’re going to get: Is this going to be something that’s really dark and serious? Is he going to be pretentious? Is this going to be over my head? Or is this going to be like a guy covering his old stuff?
“And the nice thing is I think it’s none of those things. It’s an extension of what I’ve always done. People get to hear those songs, the familiarity of that and my voice and so on. For most people it’s like catching up with an old friend, in a way.”
Audiences also get to hear Page’s new songs, including powerful political ones like “White Noise,” which was inspired by the march in Charlottesville. “I wouldn’t have written [that] before because I would have couched it in a lot more metaphor,” he said.
The musically ebullient “Feelgood Summer” (more cowbell!) belies a decidedly dark storyline. “It’s a song about somebody walking in front of a bus," he acknowledged.
Page insisted the tone of the songs he's crafting is not new. "What I used to do is write dark lyrics and have these bright and sunny songs around them,” he explained. “That was the image of the band and it was an energetic show and jokes were a big part of it.
"So a lot of that got overlooked and some of it was me trying to obfuscate some of that stuff as well.”
Page added: “You become more comfortable over time with just saying what you want to say.”
Then there’s the hopeful “Looking for the Light,” which pays homage to soul tracks of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“It would have embarrassed me to no end before to be that earnest and not couch it in irony,” said Page. “And that was an amazing challenge. I wanted to be able to figure out how to write a song that has the same faith and passion that those songs have without having religion because if I sang that way I’d be doing something false.
“How do I keep that sense of spirituality and optimism without pretending that I’m something that I’m not?”
One thing Page doesn’t pretend to be is a big fan of social media.
He has delegated the management of his Facebook page and YouTube channel (“I find YouTube comments and Facebook comments are the worst so I just stay off those two”) and uses Twitter mostly to promote upcoming projects and appearances (“I liked it at first. It was very lighthearted for the most part… and then I just got piled on all the time, for nothing”).
“I do most of the Instagram stuff,” Page said. “That seems to be pretty innocuous and I can kind of have fun with that.”
There’s a simple reason Page limits his use of these platforms. “I don’t want to just spout off on social media because, quite honestly, when it comes to that stuff, I’m not looking for a debate or a conversation,” he explained. “I’m looking to express what I think. You can’t win and my skin is too thin to be piled on all the time.”
It’s where freedom comes back in. “I realized a song is the one place where I can exercise my free speech,” said Page. “That’s the place I have that’s mine to talk about whatever I want to talk about.”
Check out Steven Page’s remaining Canadian tour dates:
May 15 & 16 - Paris, Ont.
May 17 - London, Ont.
May 18 - Highgate, Ont.
May 21 - Winnipeg
May 23 - Saskatoon
May 24 - Calgary
May 28 - Lake Country, BC
May 30 - Victoria, BC
May 31 - Vancouver, BC
June 1 - Parksville, BC