Laying it bare

Barenaked Ladies may have bid farewell to their chief songwriter, but founding member Ed Robertson insists they’re delighted at the prospect of carrying on regardless

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Published: Sat 17 Jul 2010, 6:59 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:39 PM

When singer/guitarist Ed Robertson refers to “a lot of tumultuous times” experienced by Barenaked Ladies in recent years, it’s an understatement.

In July 2008 co-founder Steven Page was arrested for cocaine possession in New York and was later sentenced to six months’ probation. The following month Robertson survived a float-plane crash during the taping of a television reality show, and in December 2008 he lost his mother Wilma to cancer.

Then, in early 2009, Barenaked Ladies announced that Page was leaving, only the second personnel change in the Canadian outfit’s 22-year history – and a profound one given his role as the band’s chief songwriter and lead singer.

Nevertheless Robertson, multi-instrumentalist Kevin Hearn, bassist Jim Creeggan and drummer Tyler Stewart opted to continue as a quartet and released a new album, All in Good Time, in March.

“We made a real commitment to each other,” says the 39-year-old Robertson, the voice of Barenaked Ladies hits such as Pinch Me (2000), Falling for the First Time (2000), Easy (2006) and the rapped portions of the chart-topping One Week (1998).

“I think we shed a lot of negativity – and I don’t point that just at Steve,” he says. “I just think there was a lot of dysfunction in the band that’s not there anymore.”

There were signs that Page was looking beyond the band: in 2005 he released a solo album, The Vanity Project, and he had also written incidental music for a Stratford Festival production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

“It was years of dragging Steve to the table and trying to get him involved,” Robertson says, “and he just wasn’t into it for a long, long time. It was a decision none of us took flippantly.

“Certainly it was the end of an era,” he adds, “but things change out of necessity, and the creative process is always changing. I think people were fixated on how we would perform without Steve. To us, that’s just a fun part of the challenge.”

‘Steve still has our support’

Robertson and Page started making music together as teenagers. They attended the same public school in Scarborough, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto, and were counsellors together at a local music camp. They began performing and writing songs as a duo, later adding their friends Stewart, Creeggan and the latter’s brother Andy on keyboards, to be replaced by Hearn in 1995.

Barenaked Ladies built a cult fan base in Canada with independently distributed tapes and cheeky singles such as Be My Yoko Ono (1989) and If I Had $1000000 (1993). Their first album, Gordon (1992), topped the Canadian charts, and a slowly-building U.S. following made a mainstream smash of the quadruple-platinum Stunt (1998).

Along the way the band survived Hearn’s late-90s battle with leukemia and eventually parted ways with Warner Bros. to start their own label, now called Raisin’ Records. The group also released a Christmas album, Barenaked for the Holidays (2004), and a children’s project, Snacktime! (2008), and recorded a 2005 album of Page’s As You Like It music as well.

“I’m really proud of everything Steve and I did together,” Robertson says. “I had 20 years in a band with the guy, and 13 years of going to school with him before that. Steve still has our support, and always will have it. But it was time to start a new chapter.”

Barenaked Ladies were already working on new songs when the split with Page was announced, and played their first show as a quartet in March 2009 in Florida. Robertson concedes, however, that settling down to work on the album in earnest was “daunting”.

“We did a lot of talking about what it was going to be like and how to approach it,” the singer/guitarist says, “until we actually hit the studio. And then we just felt totally liberated. It was a huge energy shift and we really responded to it.”

Working with producer Michael Phillip Wojewoda, who also helmed Gordon, Barenaked Ladies came into Toronto’s Canterbury Studios in May 2009 with 28 songs ready, 14 of which made the final album. The first song Robertson completed was You Run Away, the album’s opening track and also its first single.

“That song kind of played itself,” he recalls. “Usually, when something gets talked about as a single, it totally ramps up the pressure and you’re just pulling your hair out. But this one was just the opposite.

“And what was nice about it was that we were then just able to go and make the rest of the record,” he adds. “Everybody was so excited about You Run Away, it took the pressure off the rest of the songs.”

‘Change is good’

Fans immediately started slicing and dicing You Ran Away, eyeing lines such as “I tried to be your brother/You cried and ran for cover/I did my best but it wasn’t enough” and wondering if the song – and others on All in Good Time – are about Page.

Robertson understands the impulse, but says that the situation isn’t that cut and dried.

“Yes, I drew a lot of emotion from my long relationship with Steve,” Robertson says, “and it’s peppered throughout the album. But it’s not a record to him or for him or about him. It’s a far more complex relationship than can be summed up by a couple of lines in a pop song.”

All in Good Time also continues the democratisation of Barenaked Ladies that started with Everything to Everyone (2003). Though Robertson is the primary writer, penning and singing lead on nine of the 14 tracks, Hearn handles three and Creeggan contributes a pair.

That blossoming helped the remaining four members decide to remain a four-piece unit, making no attempt to replace Page either in the studio or in concert.

“I think it was always difficult in their position as third and fourth fiddles,” Robertson says. “Steve and I were always so dominant. This record is a lot more like a band, in that those guys’ contribution was every bit as valid as mine, and I think we got some amazing songs out of it.

“The bottom line is that change is good,” he says, “especially in the creative process. We’re really grateful we get to be doing this still, and there’s a lot to draw on going forward.”

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