The Hidden Cameras’ Joel Gibb Is a Little Bit Country, a Little Bit "Gay Folk Church Music"
We talk to the Toronto band about their new album 'Home on Native Land' and premiere a new video from it.
Since 2001, the Hidden Cameras have been the world's foremost "gay folk church music" act. Okay, so they might be the only recognized band to play "gay folk church music" ever, but for 15 years that term has stuck as the best way to encapsulate the Toronto band's vibrantly melodic tunes. Lead Camera Joel Gibb has never made the same record twice, tackling different concepts with a different ensemble of musicians on each recording, but on the band's sixth album, Home On Native Land, he's made his first real foray into one identifiable genre: country music.
The press release calls Home On Native Land the beginning of a new chapter, which is funny, considering it took Gibb a decade to finish the album. But in turning over a new leaf, he is also marking a return home to Canada, after spending a number of years abroad in Europe. The term "country" then is as much a nod to the land he is from as it is to the lap steel twang that plays throughout the album, which includes a spirited cover of the classic folk song "The Log Driver's Waltz." It's an immersive, celebratory experience underscored by a tremendous guest list of fellow Canadians like Bahamas, Leslie Feist, Mary Margaret O'Hara, Ron Sexsmith, and Rufus Wainwright, not to mention one Brit: Neil Tennant (Pet Shop Boys).
Noisey has the premiere of the video for Home On Native Land's "Twilight Of The Season" below, as well as a discussion with Gibb, where we talked about his foray into country music, why it took him ten years to make this record, how he came to appreciate being Canadian, and his status as one of Canada's pioneering LGBT musicians.
Noisey: What can you tell us about the video and the song itself?
Joel Gibb: Well the whole idea was the director's, Sean Michael Turrell, who I had never worked with before. He's a seasoned video director and it was great to just let him direct. His idea tapped into the song in a great way. The song itself is a meditation on death, a humble but also funny take on mortality. Each line is a euphemism or statement or take on death culminating in a climax of goodbyes. It seemed fitting that the video be funny as well as dark.
So why did you end up making a country album?
It's a new record. It's a different sound. I guess I wrote a lot of chapters when I began writing music and this was just one of them. I know that's not how most people write but that's how I planned it all out. In my imagination I playfully wrote "You and Me Again," I used some rhyming conventions, whereas before I was destroying rhyming conventions. So I'm being more traditional with the lyrics and music. It's old fashioned and I'm trying to make that more interesting or cool.
Do you listen to much country music?
I don't know. I don't usually listen to country music. I listen mostly to techno and house on my own time.
Why haven't you tried making techno or house music?
Oh, I will. I have. Theoretically I am currently working on a house album. In my imagination. I am really, but I'm not talking about it. My last record was completely different I feel. I think all of my records are different, but they have a sound. I would be bored if I was making the same music all of the time. Wouldn't that be so boring? I actually don't listen to country and I'm not that educated in the music. It's more my [gestures to heart]. I mean, I like it and I have my favourites I've discovered, but I'm not interested in contemporary country. And it's not just country. There are a lot of influences, which I'm more interested in hearing critics feel and think because I can't really tell you.
Were there any country records you wanted the album to sound like?
Nancy & Lee, Gram Parsons, Johnny Cash – those are what I think of as great country records.
What made you revisit the song "He Is The Boss Of Me" on this album?
It's not that I revisited it, it's that I recorded it in a proper studio, which is something I've been doing with all of the songs from Ecce Homo. That's not the first album, it was just a recording of four-track demos. People always say that's our first record, but it's not. It's just something we threw together for the shows we were playing. This song is my most Nancy & Lee song.
You also cover the Canadiana classic, "The Log Driver's Waltz." What inspired you to record a version of that one?
"Log Driver's Waltz" has been in my consciousness since I was a child growing up with it on CBC. My good friend asked the Hidden Cameras to play the song at her wedding years ago and when I was compiling songs for this record it seemed very obvious and appropriate to include it.
I'm guessing then that "Drunk Dancer's Waltz" is somehow tied to that song?
Yes, "Drunk Dancer's Waltz" is, of course, a companion.
There are so many big names on the album. Did you have specific parts for each of the vocalists or did it all happen naturally?
With Ron [Sexsmith], he is good friends with Don [Kerr], who recorded this album. Don is Ron's drummer. So he just came one day, laid down some piano and sang. Neil [Tennant] got me to sing on one of his songs a few years ago [2012's "In His Imagination"], so I thought of him for that song. That was a big deal.
You've been working on this album for ten years?
It didn't take a decade to make, I was just working on three records in that time. It's kind of a historical document at this point. It wasn't hard or anything, just time consuming. I just recorded a bunch of songs while I was making Awoo on Toronto Island and they didn't fit the record. So I wanted to push them and didn't want them to conform to what Awoo was. I like that they had a roots-y, throwback thing, and at the time I conceived the record. I didn't know what it would turn into. I decided that I wanted to do covers because that's another old-fashioned idea that I really like. Back in the day everyone was covering "Mr. Tambourine Man." And I just slowly asked people to sing, because I wanted other people to sing.
What made you release albums like Origin:Orphan and Age , when you'd already started this one?
Good question. That's just how it went. But I think it works as a narrative if you look at all of the records. After the darkness there must be light. That's how I think of the last two records. I started all of them while I made Awoo in 2005.
That's a pretty unique approach to songwriting.
Yeah, I know. I don't write a record, tour for two years, and then write again. I don't even try to write. I try not to write but I do end up writing because that's how it works out. The feeling slowly evolves over years, but part of me is still trying to record all of the songs I wrote in my 20s. It's exhausting! How am I going to process my 30s?!
What's the difference between the songs in your 20s and the songs in your 30s?
I don't know! I haven't gotten a chance to finish the songs in my 30s. I haven't written many new songs because I still have all of these other ones I'm trying to record. And then I want to write spontaneous dance music that isn't so lyric-heavy.
Is writing lyrics harder now than it was in your 20s?
Yeah. Of course. Because you've used the words you like to sing and rhyme. Once you've done a ton of rhyming and lyric writing, how do you continue to make it interesting? It's not impossible but it's so easy when you first start writing songs. It's fun. You don't have the catalogue of your work to compare it to.
The title Our Home On Native Land sounds like this album pays tribute to Canada.
I changed the national anthem. I'm just correcting it a little bit. It's already in the culture a little. I don't know much about it, I just thought it was more accurate. I hope people think of it as Canadian, but it's also just a title. There is a bit of self-reflecting, but the album isn't political. I was trying to go through my lyrics and find something "of the land" and there is a little bit, but it's also my own feelings, my own songwriting. It's very personal.
This album sounds Canadian to me.
I hope it sounds and feels like what I would think of a good Canadian album. Because there have been a lot of bad ones. The '80s was not a good decade for Canadian music – be it the traditional or the pop kind.
You lived in Europe for a number of years. Did that influence making this record?
It definitely made me appreciate Canada more. It used to be that I couldn't wait to leave Canada and go to Europe, and now it's kind of the opposite – I can't wait to get out of Europe. It feels like a sinking ship, whereas Canada feels really safe and sane right now. A little saner than a lot of places. So that's something to be proud of. I really like Toronto! I think you need to leave your home to sort of understand your home.
What is your take on the progress LGBT music has made? Do you think it lives up to what you were trying to do early on with the Hidden Cameras? I mean, by comparison, someone like Sam Smith is so bland and boring.
How is that good? How is it good to be an out LGBT person making bland music? That was why I wrote "Ban Marriage." What so LGBT can be as boring, bland and conventional as straight people? It's sort of one of the ideas. At the time, that is when marriage equality was getting a voice. I mean I still believe in marriage equality, but that's a question to be asked. But I really feel that it was freer for artists in the late '90s and early 2000s. It's been pushed back somehow. I guess there are a lot more radical art galleries and there is still cool, interesting stuff being made, but there's been a real reaction to the progress. Hopefully there is another push.
Do you think "Ban Marriage" is still relevant?
I don't think about that song. I never play it. There are just too many lyrics. I never get a breath when I sing it. I'm analyzing my first records, and I sing constantly. There are never any breaks. It's all just singing, singing, singing. A zillion words, and then the chorus might just be "Ban Marriage," but then I have to go "aaaahhh-oh-waahhhoohh." And then I finish every song with a long note.
So you won't be performing that song any time soon?
No. I don't want to sing "Ban Marriage." Too many words! Or "Lollipop," which was way too fast. Those two songs are really hard to sing. I just want to sing easier songs. Before I never thought about whether a song would be easy to sing when I wrote something. But now I want to write songs where I get a break, and it's in a good place where it's easy to sing if you lose your voice.
Does that mean you won't be playing many older songs live anymore?
I play almost all new music now. Out with the old. I'm finally playing new songs. It's so fun! It really does get boring rehearsing and playing old songs. I know that when you see a band play you wanna hear your favourite song from 15 years ago but it's better if the musicians are into what they're playing.
Photo by Alp Klanten.
Cam Lindsay is a writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.