NATHAN WILEY opening for Sarah Slean at the Phoenix (410 Sherbourne), tonight (Thursday, October 10). $15. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
nathan wiley's only been in torontofor two days and he's already rubbed shoulders with a big pimp, a Russian heavy, a card shark, a sailor and a bunch of hookers.It's not what you think. The freckle-faced Prince Edward Island guy hasn't succumbed to the hedonism of the music biz. This seedy cast of characters showed up to shoot his first video, for Bottom Dollar Baby, the lead single off his debut album. Choosing an old-school speakeasy as the setting for his boozy, bluesy, lurching tune was a no-brainer.
But for a 25-year-old who was virtually unknown outside his hometown of Summerside until just recently, it's a lot to handle.
Since releasing the rootsy Bottom Dollar, his first solo record, about a year ago to minimal fanfare, Wiley's been building up a steady stream of successes. He catapulted onto the national stage by winning CBC Radio show Definitely Not The Opera's Big Break competition and snagged a sweet spot in the Atlantic semi-finals of the CBC Great Canadian Music Dream contest. Folks are throwing around names like Tom Waits and Ron Sexsmith to describe his carefully crafted folk-rock tunes, and heavy-hitter Warner's signed on to distribute his disc.
But Wiley's keeping his cool. Sitting in a downtown café, he sips a vanilla milkshake and ponders his life.
"When I was a kid I just wanted to drive a cab. I thought that'd be the best job in the world. I remember getting a cab ride home from the grocery store with my mother and thinking it'd be great to just drive around all day with the window down and the radio on."
It's a life straight out of a Tom Waits song, a threadbare, gritty fantasy that's so basic it's beautiful. But then again, Wiley has a knack for stripping things down. His songs play out like taxicab confessions, with keenly felt emotions, vivid observations and aching nostalgia, articulated in plain language that resonates on a visceral level.
But he's not a seasoned enough celeb to put a sexy spin on things. He cheerfully confesses that Bottom Dollar's not "cool" by mainstream standards and claims he's not bugged by any perceived stodginess that might come along with his CBC exposure.
"I love having no demographic. People my age like the record and bring it home, and their parents like the record. I don't want to play to a bunch of 12-year-old kids."
Wiley insists that he's set on doing things his own way and that he'd still make music even if nobody listened to it. He dismisses my suggestion that his distribution deal with Warner might interfere with that.
"Warner has no involvement with me at all on a level where it could guide my career, which is nice. I only deal with my manager, and we're on the same level. He just wants me to be me. There's nobody stepping in to say I have to wear my hair a certain way or look a certain way or push a certain thing more -- I have free rein to do what I want to do."
Still, you've gotta wonder how much Wiley's being marketed. Take the video shoot for lead single Bottom Dollar Baby, for instance. It's sexy and retro raunchy -- as is the tune -- but not exactly representative of the rest of the album, which tends toward lower-key, folked-up singer-songwriter stuff à la Ron Sexsmith. Is his label trying to steer Wiley away from a Sexsmith-style career trajectory -- that is, perpetually perched on the edge of a big break?
If Wiley's lucky, he'll follow the path of his musical hero instead. He's most animated when talking about Tom Waits, saying he strives for a similarly stellar crossover success. The parallels aren't just musical. He even looks like Waits -- the dirty blond boy across the table from me is a dead ringer for the shadowy figure on the cover of Closing Time.
Wiley says he tries to bring the things he admires about Waits's music -- a grab bag of strange and beautiful sounds, idiosyncratic production and atmosphere -- to his own stuff.
"It's all about the mood and the groove. If it doesn't sit right, then it's all over for me. I'm not into technical brilliance, especially overly elaborate guitar solos. It's kind of like somebody getting up onstage and masturbating for half an hour. You can say more with two or three notes in the right spot than you can with a big wanky guitar solo. The only important thing is the sound -- not what it looks like or how high up on the neck you are or the faces you're making. In the end, it's all coming out of a speaker, and if it sounds like shit, then you haven't done your job."
Of course, Wiley played his share of masturbatory guitar solos while growing up on PEI. He churned out covers of tunes by Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper in a bunch of loud, shitty high school garage bands, teaming up with other like-minded wannabe rock gods to put on shows in rented halls every couple of months.
"I don't think my childhood was much like Anne of Green Gables. It was more like Stand By Me, apart from the dead body and the leeches," he laughs.
Raised in a supportive musical family -- all the relatives on his mother's side are musicians, and his primary performing partner is his Uncle Dale -- Wiley listened to his dad's vinyl collection, cutting his teeth on classic rock, jazz, blues and, he admits, Tom Waits records.
He picked up the guitar at age 15 after his parents quashed his drum-lust.
"I think it was because they didn't want me being loud and obnoxious. They got more liberal later on, though -- a couple of years later my brother wanted drums and he got them. They'd better not have been playing favourites," he grumbles. "I'm not holding a grudge, though."
Fed up with the insular island and needing a change, he decamped for the other coast after high school and holed up in a crappy pad near East Hastings. He loved Vancouver, but came home after a year when he couldn't find enough steady work.
"I think people stay younger longer out there. I met a lot of musicians and other people in their early 30s whom I just felt really at home with. On PEI there's a real push to get out of high school and get married and have kids, and all of a sudden people have a job and it's all over with.
"A lot of people I went to school with, I see them at the mall now with four kids and a wife and no hair, and it's a little sad. I don't feel that old yet. I have a cat right now -- that's about all I can handle."email@example.com