As one of the two main singer/songwriters in Blue Rodeo, Greg Keelor’s songs and voice are as Canadian as it gets.
An Officer of the Order of Canada, Keelor released a new solo album this year called “Share The Love” which comes on the heels of a nation dealing with COVID-19.
The album is packed with his usual musical melancholy and is a brilliant mix of art and magic all rolled into one.
The version of “Share The Love” that was released to the public is a live off-the-floor recording of an album he spent months making in the studio. We couldn’t resist sitting down with this Canadian icon.
The pandemic affected everyone so differently. But you united with Jim and a bunch of Canadians to make a video for “Lost Together” last year. Did that in some way re-validate the song for you?
Well, it’s funny. There was one before that to the Fleming College in Peterborough and I had asked my friend, Melissa Payne, to put together a song and she chose “Lost Together”. I did it first with a whole pile of Peterborough musicians and when I saw the finished video, I was so blown away by it – I thought it was quite beautiful and emotional. Then Canada Sings did it, and the same thing happened. It’s funny how words in a song take on a certain resonance in a different time.
What was the song originally about because it’s taken on different meanings now, as you’ve mentioned.
It was originally written when we were in some suburb of Detroit on an American tour in the early 90s. There was a lot of frustration and futility in touring America – there’s a gig every 100 clicks, and you could do it for the rest of your life. It doesn’t mean it’s going to help you get ahead in your career at all, it just means that you will be playing in little bars for the rest of your life. So this was a particularly frustrating time. It was just one of those Spinal Tap pathetic sort of gigs where we were on one side of a canal and the audience was over on the other side of the canal, sort of like a park.
So there’s this canal in between us and we’d be playing our set. I guess this would have been the Casino tour, because that’s when we had the big American release. Every so often boats would go by and most of them were little boats, but the bigger boats created a noise and obstruction that emphasized the absurdity of doing things like this. I got back to my little hotel room and just started writing the song. It was partially a love song to my girlfriend at the time and then partially a frustration with the powers that be, but in the end love is the only answer.
Your new album “Share The Love” is out. What inspired such a positive title for the album? I know there’s a song as well, but what inspired that?
Well, in many of my songs there’s that sorrow, melancholy. The song starts with “There’s a darkness in the soul. You got to close and it took its toll, don’t leave me now or I’ll lose control. There’s a darkness in the soul”. And so I’d gone through a break-up and the death of a friend. They happened around the same time. I was feeling pretty low. I have a penchant towards melancholy just to start off with, so I find it almost a pleasant place to hang out and invite her in and ask her if she’d like a cup of tea or hang out for a while; have a chat.
So I was in one of those sort of heartbroken spots and we went up to a gig up on James Bay, on a reserve. It really felt like the end of the world. I was in this little hotel room and I had this verse for the song. Sometimes when I’m in that sort of deep melancholy, this sort of parallel universe uncovers and I can feel like the monsters that generate this sorrow can become the opposite and lead me to a positive place.
I was walking around this reserve up north and there was this beautiful folk art piece that was on the wall of a building and it just said, “Share the Love”. It just sort of lifted me out of my blues. I just thought it was such a beautiful phrase and it just shot a beautiful light in my heart. So it became the chorus of a song.
I heard you recorded this entire album live off the floor, that’s pretty daring, with all the technology that’s out nowadays.
This record has a funny story for sure. You know, a lot of this record came out of heartbreak and a lot of this record came out of meeting a new love and the infatuation that comes with that.
We would just sit around, smoke some hash and sing and sing and sing. Then we decided to do a record folk/country covers. We started doing that and as we were doing that I had some original songs hanging around, so we would do them if we finished early. By the time we finished the country record, we had finished, five or six of my songs. Then I realized that was not too far off from putting together a whole record together. So I recorded a few more songs and had the original studio version of “Sharing The Love” done to the point where we got acetates back – it was ready to go.
These days, you want to have a lot of visual information for the release of your record. So we went over to this little community hall over on Gores Landing over on Rice Lake, about a half hour East of here. I live in a little town, about an hour outside of Toronto, and it’s like a totally different world, a lovely little valley. So we went over to Gores Landing, we set it up and we filmed the whole thing.
We recorded the whole thing and when we got it back, everybody liked it better than the record. The records great, but there was just something about a band playing these songs live in a room that had an energy that we couldn’t resist.
We sent that to Steve Kane, the head of Warner Music in Canada, with a little suggestion that we like the live thing better than the actual record, and he agreed.
So now that the record is from the live performance from Gores Landing, every song was filmed and they did a fantastic job too. It’s a nice problem to have. They’re talking about releasing the original recording from the studio, on National Record Store Day, so there’ll be two versions.
When you listen to the album, there’s a real deep gut reaction, it feels real. That’s probably because it was done live. There’s something about it, when you’re listening to it, it just hits you in a different way. Do you credit that to the live performance or maybe because you guys were isolated a little bit?
I would go with that. I’ve played a lot of music during COVID with these people. Jimmy Bowskill has a studio in Cobourg, and it’s nice that we can spread out and still play music, just singing old country songs, old folk songs or pop songs, we just sit around with guitars and play music.
We all love guitars and songs so much that, given the chance, I had a batch of songs, it attracted a great group of people. I think everybody just really enjoyed being able to play in that way, that it was being recorded, and filmed.
Everybody was comfortable and relaxed with the material. You can plan these things and it never works out. There’s no guarantee when you do this stuff. That was a nice surprise. I thought I was just doing some promo videos for the record, but it ended up being the record and that doesn’t happen too often.
The pandemic has caused a lot of us to kind of get physically, mentally and emotionally lost. What brought you out of that pandemic funk enough so that you brought these guys together to make the recordings?
Well, for me not being on the road was really good for my head. My ears are very sensitive and then they can get blown out. When I start a tour, with each gig, my ears and head just get a little worse, and I don’t play electric guitar anymore. There’s no amps on stage. It’s still the travel, the volume, the consistency of playing every night.
We’ve chopped it down immensely, but it still wears me down mentally and physically – my head gets really sore and tired and confused, and it can get a little neurotic and paranoid as it gets more fatigued. It was nice for me to have a little break from all of that. Then it was nice to be able to spend time with songs and just not having to go through getting unbalanced again by going on the road first stretch.
All the musicians that I love to play with weren’t out on the road either, so we gravitated heavily to these little musical get togethers at Jimmy’s, and out of that came the two versions of this record.
I want to know what makes an album like “Share The Love” a Greg Keelor album rather than a Blue Rodeo album. What’s the separation that happens?
It was a group of songs that came together at a certain time inspired and motivated by the same circumstances. Blue Rodeo wasn’t scheduled to make any record or do any recording. Blue Rodeo has a harder time during COVID because we’re all in different places. I have this lovely little creative bubble out here in Cobourg and Peterborough area. Peterborough has had bad COVID incidents, but where I live Northumberland, it’s been minimal and the same with Cobourg.
But then I had no desire to go into the city anyway, and because I’m a 66 year old diabetic, I’m in that high risk. If I get the regular flu, I end up in the hospital because of the diabetes.
When it first started, I had friends shopping for me, I didn’t even go out – I was that freaked out. I thought it was going to be way worse than it is. I thought it was going to be the hazmat army patrolling the streets and picking people up and taking them away, I got total Spielberg about it. It was nice to have this group of people around, and to be around these inspiring musicians, so we just kept on recording.
“Wonder” came out a little while ago. Tell me about that song.
That’s the song about a very dear old friend of mine who died. Around the same time, a relationship ended and that would have been the beginning of the summer ‘19, ‘18. I was totally devastated. It’s a funny thing, my life, these devastations on a cycle or a pattern, and I really had to examine why this kept on happening to me. So it was a tough summer.
I was writing all these heartbroken songs and then at the end of the summer, we had a gig out in Vancouver at the Skookum Festival. It was so great. So many of my friends were there hanging out. Whitehorse was there, Sarah McLachlan was there, Buffy Sainte-Marie was there, Barney Bentall and Dustin Bentall was there and it was just a great scene. I was still feeling low and when I get low, it takes its toll. And I started dragging my heart around.
After the show, Dustin Bentall brought a friend of his backstage to meet me. Her name was Kaylee and it was a little bit of love at first sight. We went to the Rickshaw, which is a bar in Vancouver, where there was an after party going on. After the festival, Whitehorse was playing, Jim was playing, Dustin Bentall was playing, a lot of people at the Rickshaw were playing. The song says “We were hanging out at the Rickshaw listening to the band through the wall, your eyes and smiles sparkle like the sound of that steel guitar”. It’s a song about infatuation, and describing the moment that I met Kaylee and hung out. It’s a nice little snapshot of that moment.
I found it interesting you chose “White Dove” to kick the album off. I’m a bit of a rocker. So personally, I probably would have chose “Feather Witch”. Why did you choose that as the opening song?
That song was written by Susan Gentile, my manager and friend. She called me up to tell me that when Massey Hall was closing, they were thinking of doing a show where we (Blue Rodeo) would open up for Gordon Lightfoot. Gordon Lightfoot and Blue Rodeo have played Massey Hall more than anybody. Gordon’s played 150 times, and we’ve played it 37 times.
We’re in second place to Gordon’s Gretzky record, never to be broken. It never came about. But after she called me, I was just dumbfounded with the luck and success that I had had as a singer, songwriter and guitar player.
I just thought back to the first guitar that I ever picked up. I worked in Lake Louise for a couple of years, from ‘74 to ‘76. It was the first winter that the Chateau Lake Louise was ever opened. Jim had a Mann guitar and I had a little white dove on the headstock and doves on the pickgard of mine.
I would sit in the room that we shared in Lake Louise and he had two song books. He had The Everly Brothers and Gordon Lightfoot and I would learn the chords from those two books, singing those songs over and over. I just thought those moments where if you could just go back and tell that guy, you’re gonna play Massey Hall the most times, second Gordon Lightfoot, it’s just something that I would never believe. So that song is just a reflection on my younger self, and how much I love guitars.
I love the culture of guitar. I love the people that play guitars. I love the songs that come from people and guitars. A lot of my friends are similar to me in that they don’t always have the easiest time negotiating the waters of the culture that surrounds us and society – the societal fiction that surrounds us. When I was writing that song, I was thinking about Dallas and Travis Good or Matt Nathanson or Adam Baldwin and Jimmy Bowskill, all of these people that I love their guitar playing, so it’s a little homage to just the glory of guitar.
For somebody who is passionate about guitars, tell me a bit about your guitar collection, there has to be a collection.
I’m not a big collector, in that sense. I need a few different guitars for the sounds that they provide, like this guitar here – a 1958 D-18 guitar is about as perfect a guitar for songwriting as you can imagine. It’s intimate, the tone is gorgeous.
I like to get high when I’m playing guitar, there’s no doubt about that. I have a few Gretsches, I’ve got a few Martins. I just love what guitars do.
How we can share music together, join voices together, it’s like a drug.
Speaking of drugs, I was going to say, you’ve mentioned it a couple times, of how you like to partake. It must be really nice having Canada open – we can talk about it, we can do it. It’s just a lot freer now.
Yes, it’s very nice that I don’t have to worry. I never worried too much about it anyway. I’ve been out on this farm for 30 years. All my heroes smoked hash – they played, smoked and wrote. Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, John Lennon, Bob Dylan – they all talk about how they like hash and the songwriting.
What’s your best hash song? What’s the one that’s inspired the most?
Well, I think I have a song. “Tired of Pretending” is a little love song to a piece of hash burning in the ashtray.
Stay in-touch with what Greg Keelor is doing go to gregkeelor.com