NOW NXNE showcase featuring I Can Put My Arm Back On You Can't (9 pm), Kate Maki (10 pm), Nathan Lawr and the Minotaurs (11 pm), Feist (midnight) and Despistado (1 am), Friday (June 11) at the Reverb (651 Queen West). $10, free to NXNE wristband and pass holders. www.nxne.com
It's NXNE 2003 and we're in the middle of Spadina, staring up at the El Mo, smokin' butts and chuggin' beers. It's around midnight, and we're having the ultimate rock star moment, lounging in a giant hot tub perched on top of a flatbed truck. There's East Coaster Matt Mays, in hysterics after soaking the cheque he won as this year's rising star. The White Cowbell boys are splashing folks who walk by.
In the middle of the boys' club fracas, grinning in the gross murky water, is a ballsy Ottawa teacher who's just made her solo singer/songwriter debut in front of a packed Oasis.
"I totally thought I'd arrived," laughs Kate Maki a year later over tofu at the Green Room. "Goodbye, teaching!"
Until last year's fest, the Sudbury-bred country-rock tunesmith had never performed her own material live. Sure, she'd cut her teeth performing at open stages in Halifax, and she'd dabbled at writing during a brief stint with Ottawa's John Henrys.
Maki was instructing troubled kids in an Ottawa alternative school, keeping her working-musician dreams under wraps, when she got the call.
"I didn't really know about NXNE," she admits. "I was excited and scared shitless, cuz I'd just been playing the tunes in my bedroom for myself."
It's hard to believe the disarmingly honest singer was that freaked. Her songs are carefully wrought gems that sound raw and weathered in the best alt-country way. Her debut Confusion Unlimited disc, which won raves on both sides of the Atlantic (Brit rag Uncut recently touted the album), is simply great, highlighted by no-nonsense writing, pedal steel arrangements and Maki's elegantly weary vocals.
Onstage, though, Maki kills those wispy troubadour stereotypes altogether. She's goofy and dynamic, spinning anecdotes that make you love her. Like the one about her mom's Stompin' Tom obsession (the Sudbury stomper's famed board holds up their Christmas tree) or the self-deprecating stories about quitting smoking.
She adopted the "fuck it" philosophy that characterizes her onstage bravado after one of her best friends died in an accident two years ago. Her first love, he'd taught her how to play guitar and pushed her to perform.
"You put a lot of stuff in perspective when you lose someone like that," she explains. "I had nothing to lose cuz I'd lost one of my greatest true-love friends ever. If people hate the music and throw stuff at me, who cares?"
In the past year, she's followed the motto to a T, quitting her job to put out a record and tour the country. Her stubborn independence (she's wary of signing with a label or a manager, although there's been interest) means Maki refuses to take the easy route (she teamed up with former Guthrie Ruth Minnikin for their "Doing It Together Alone" Tour), but it's paid off. They pulled off the implausible feat of crossing Canada in the middle of January - and making a profit.
It's easy to assume the girl who grew up blasting Led Zeppelin II while reading Nancy Drew books and took French guitar lessons for extra credit was born to be a musician, but Maki's not sure how long it'll last.
She entertains fantasies of becoming an actor or starting her own alternative school, where she can challenge the twisted practice of drugging kids with behavioural problems.
"Music is therapeutic, whether you're listening to it or playing your own songs. Singing in the shower is therapeutic, for chrissakes! Why wouldn't it be for kids? Children today are screwed cuz the education system is backwards, with money going to the wrong places and aging teachers.
"You just have to find out what makes kids tick. And every kid loves music, whether it's classical or playing electric guitar, or whatever."
Leslie Feist is juggling my phone call and a pot on the stove. She's in Paris, where the word "contraband" has taken on a new meaning. In France, Claritin allergy medication (or as I like to call it, over-the-counter speed) is illegal. Fellow Canuck expat Jason "Chilly Gonzales" Beck, who co-produced Feist's stunning new Let It Die disc, got his mom to smuggle in an industrial-size carton during a recent trip. And you can't get Kraft Dinner, which Feist's stirring on the stove, having previously stocked up in T.O.
"It's something the French haven't figured out yet," she cheerfully gripes.
Not quite the romantic Parisian fantasy - all smoky clubs by candlelight and hushed taxis in the rain - that the Calgary-born belter evokes on Let It Die (Arts & Crafts). Spattered with murmured lyrics en français, sparse arrangements and sultry torch songs, the album is a monumental leap from Feist's breezy indie singer/songwriter tunes on 99's Monarch.
The new record is a distant relative at best to earlier, rougher recordings dubbed The Red Demos that appeared on Feist's Web site, barely there jazzy folk versions that whispered Toronto, down to the Queen West streetcar clanking in the background. Who wouldn't assume the disc could only have been made à Paris?
"I should probably just go with it and say, 'Yes, isn't it romantic?'" she laughs. "But we'd just come here in between tours to use the studio. So this record was equally made in trains and planes and waiting rooms and hotel lobbies. It sounds homeless to me, cuz I was in limbo for 16 months, couch-surfing between tours."
Geographical dislocation has been good to Feist, who started out playing girl-punk in Calgary garage outfit Placebo, morphed into an indie rock siren with By Divine Right and Broken Social Scene after relocating to Toronto, and played electro-trash straight woman to Gonzales across Europe.
When they got bored playing hangman and tic-tac-toe on the road, Feist and Gonzales tossed their performative tics and developed their own stringent system of collaboration. He would play Burt Bacharach to her Dusty Springfield (The Look Of Love inspired their aesthetic), while she'd ditch the "Church of Me" confessional diary-entry autonomy of her solo debut for songs that resonated on a more timeless, universal level.
Not knowing anyone else helped.
"Anonymity gives you guts, and it was only Gonzo and me who knew each other, so it was a real collaboration - between us and the location. The studio is this airproof box. It's like when you go to a movie, you don't know whether you're in Texas or in Greece. It depends on what happens when you leave.
"And once we left, we still only had each other to look at."
How a superbly snarly canuck punk 'n' roll band like Regina's Despistado became the first non-U.S. act signed to powerhouse emo label Jade Tree has confounded music hacks on both sides of the border. Obviously, someone at the Delware-based indie was able to look past Despistado's decidedly un-American name - Chilean slang for "loopy" - and rambunctious nature to recognize the group's raw musical talent when it slapped 'em upside the head.
That's more than can be said for the Canadian major label music reps who have let yet another hugely promising domestic artist slip through their fingers.
The members of Despistado couldn't care less. Their deal with Jade Tree has already resulted in a righteous remastering, repackaging and re-release of their kick-ass debut EP, The Emergency Response, as well as the recording of their hotly anticipated follow-up, The People Of and Their Verses, due this fall.
It's Despistado's tribute to their Saskatchewan roots, and it's going to make The Emergency Response sound like a demo. We'll all get our first taste at their NXNE showcase.
"A lot of our best songs have just happened at the rehearsal space," explains bassist Joel Passmore. "We'll be hanging out talking and then somebody will come up with a guitar line or drum beat and we'll all jump in. After jamming on it for, like, five minutes - boom, we've got a song. That's how the first EP was done. It all came together really quickly."
Passmore goes on to explain that getting to know each other better as friends and developing together as musicians has helped the band convert that sort of spontaneous inspiration into real songs.
"Our biggest concern in making the album was not straying too far from what we do onstage. So our live energy is there.
"You'll feel it."
Like former bandmates Royal City and the FemBots, for whom he held down steady backbeats from time to time, Nathan Lawr has found his niche forging links between roots music's old-fogeyish turf and the more hipster-friendly world of indie pop. Last year's lovely The Heart Beats A Waltz disc showcased that strange brew - a Creole waltz here, a Tin Pan Alley rag there - adding sharp arrangements, a dark lyrical spin and, predictably, great rhythmic backbone.
Lawr's also managed to keep the material fresh in a live context. For a Music Gallery gig last March, he recruited roommate Paul Aucoin to draft orchestral arrangements, and called on an armada of musician pals to pull off a stunning performance.
For Friday's set, he won't have the same sprawling ensemble, but local scene stars (Aucoin, John Obercian, Will Kidman and Jeremy Strachan) fill in the blanks as his Minotaurs.
I Can Put My Arm Back On, You Can't
Despite their elongated handle, I Can Put My Arm Back On,You Can't are one of the more practical bands in Toronto, musically and aesthetically. After a short period of time playing shows, parties and a few out-of-town dates, they're known as a trustworthily tight band in the Ontarian herky-jerky, trebly, shouted afterpunk style.
I Can... have an approach that's both unique and utilitarian. Their side business, the Complaint Dept., does "artistic printing," a phrase they prefer over "design," which they shun.
The former phrase suits them, since they use painstaking processes to make impressive and sparse posters, album art and more, putting them on a par with Montreal's Seripop.
Their work has been seen subtly throughout Toronto on the sides of buildings and the like.