Tall Poppy Interview: Raine Maida
Things you may not know about Raine Maida: his mom was Conrad Black’s long-time executive assistant. He’s written and produced songs for Kelly Clarkson. He went to U of T for Criminology. He’s about to help rebuild a school in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
He is also launching his first solo album on November 13—a disc that comes wrought with anger and dejection, but also an earnest solemnity. More than a year in the making, The Hunter’s Lullaby is an unexpected collection of 60s-style coffee house beat poetry reflecting Maida’s love-hate relationships with politics, religion, and the type of world his two young sons will inherit.
It’s a big shift for the Our Lady Peace frontman, and one he hopes much of his existing fanbase will understand. Woven between the spoken-word and acoustic instrumentation are the distinct vocals of his wife, singer Chantal Kreviazuk, and activist/poet/social worker Jared Paul spits vitriol about complacency on the track “The Less I Know.” Maida freely admits his insecurity about whether or not this album fits in today’s musical climate, but he’s excited nonetheless. “For the first time in my musical journey, I own the music,” he says, “fully and completely.”
Torontoist: Did you always plan on releasing a solo project?
Raine Maida: Terry McBride came to me from Nettwerk and said, “Chantal tells me you’re working on a bunch of stuff on your own. Why don’t you put out a solo album and why don’t you own it?” So, as soon as that happened, it gave it an amazing kind of clarity and freedom. What I was already doing was the same, but it made me go ahead and finish it. Everyone expected me to make a singer-songwriter, Our Lady Peace-light record, but that’s so boring that I would have killed myself. It was done really organically—there are no electric instruments; it’s all natural wooden instruments.
You made this without being under the thumb of a label, but a lot of what you still do with writing and producing for other people involves dealing with the music companies. What’s it like to be an artist in today’s music business climate?
I like both aspects. With the writing and producing, I’m developing a bunch of indie bands, I’m working with rock bands on major labels, with some pop people—what it really allows me to do is get that side out, so when I go do my own thing, it’s much more pure. This time, I’m not trying to get on the radio; it was really just about making a record that I can go out and play. This stuff is meant to be played in smaller venues with people engaged in what I’m saying, and that kind of connection is what I’m looking for.
I was surprised that there is so much spoken word on the album, and sometimes it’s pretty aggressive. Was that a conscious choice?
Over the last four years, the spoken word thing has been the new music for me. It’s like the first time I heard Nirvana, the first time I began digging into The Unforgettable Fire, The Pixies—the kind of music that blows your mind and stops you dead in your tracks. This movement, with all of these incredible spoken word poets like Saul Williams, Anis Mojgani, Jared Paul and Sage Francis—all these guys are incredible. When these guys speak, it just floors me. It feels like they’re actually saying shit, and there’s not a lot of music these days that feels like it’s saying something.
Obviously, it hearkens back to the beat poets that I’ve always been a huge fan of, like Ginsberg and Burroughs. It was so raw back then, and these guys [from the new movement] are just as raw and relevant now. Politically, culturally, socially.
With the limited choices in the media and on mainstream radio, do you find that it’s difficult for people to discover this type of music?
It’s kind of like the old days of building a band through word of mouth. The kind of people that listen to Amy Goodman and Democracy Now! are really passionate, so they do spread the word. This also causes a lasting effect, as The Next Big Thing is usually just a fad that goes away. This kind of music has never been a fad.
You’ve mentioned that releasing this album comes with insecurities. Is that whether or not you’ll be able to sell albums, or that you’ll be misunderstood?
Even though I’ve been a fan of poetry since, like, third grade creative writing, I’m not a spoken word guy. I’ve been attending slams and watching DVDs of old footage the same way that someone will consume old Bob Dylan footage. You know when you hear something that is so great and it makes you nervous because it’s almost beyond you? That’s where my insecurities lie. I think, wow, this is so fresh and new for me that I sometimes feel I may be in a little over my head. But that’s the way I wanted to feel for this record. I needed to feel different.
Would you have done it the same way if you hadn’t owned the entire project?
I don’t know. I probably would not have has the same kind of passion for it. At this point of my career, when a major label gets involved, all the bullshit that goes along with making a record really takes away from the art itself.
With Trent Reznor now free of his label and Radiohead selling their latest album as a pay-what-you-can digital product, is this self-determination a new wave for artists?
It’s not for everyone. It’s easy for Radiohead to do it because they have a huge fan base and they’re going to sell so many records regardless. But I do think back to the old days when all the Blues guys just gave it all away—there’s just something different when you own it, and whether you want to admit it or not, you treat it differently. Financially, who knows? That’s yet to be seen. On a major label, for me, I couldn’t have been free to try something out for so long—basically eighteen months experimenting like this.
You have very strong political convictions, and you seem to be in a constant state of frustration over world politics. On this album, there seems to be not only a call to activism, but there’s an anger over being duped and sold-out by our leaders.
This record is about misinformation, whether it’s religion or politics or what your mom and dad taught you. The irony is that at first it’s funny, and now it’s fucking terrifying. We have all this access to information, but we still turn on the TV and trust CNN. The mainstream media is the lowest form of information. We count on these people to deliver the truth, and it’s always tainted, and not just by Conservatives; it’s from either side.
A lot of people slam musicians and actors as being pretentious when they make political statements, as if it’s only the territory of pundits and political intellectuals. Do you feel like you’re the target of that view when voicing your opinion?
Yeah, definitely, but I’ll take those punches because I think doing something is better than doing nothing. At the same time, why should you trust your politicians who have deals to go on networks and say what they want them [the networks] to say. I’d probably trust George Clooney over Pat Buchanan.
You wrote an extensive article in 2003 for ChartAttack on the war in Iraq, and what struck me was that we seem to be in the exact same place as we were four years ago, and frustration with politics seems to come through a lot on this album.
Most of us understand that the whole Bush presidency is an illusion, and the fact that Canada is kind of following in those footsteps is disappointing—Harper’s decision so send actual ground troops into Afghanistan—but at the same time, I was proud of Chrétien for not joining the quote-unquote “coalition” for war in Iraq.
Your work with War Child Canada has put you on the ground in Darfur and Iraq. How is it to see with your own eyes compared to what we see in our armchairs in front of our televisions?
You know, honestly, I consider myself a Monday morning activist as well. I don’t get up ever day and go and try to save lives. People at War Child, Save The Children, UNICEF, the U.N.—those people are the real deal and live it every day. Even someone like Jared Paul, who’s on my record: he’s a social worker, he actively marches in rallies and protests. At the same time, I’m fortunate enough to be able to use the voice I have to bring people to the places I’ve seen. Man, it gets in your pores and you can’t wash it off. It changes the way you look at everything.
“China Doll” has a strong environmental message. How did that song come about?
I wrote that after seeing An Inconvenient Truth. I’m not a cynic, but Gore is a very ambitious man, and would I trust him as a politician? Probably not. But has he brought something good to the awareness of global warming? Yeah. He used the power he had to bring it forward, and it worked—it got me. Regardless of Al Gore the politician and Al Gore the media whore, this is still a great film because it opened the topic up to everybody. I found it inspiring, and wrote the song about it.
What about the global warming deniers who have created a backlash because of his politics? Are they ignoring Gore’s message because the political temperature is so crazy?
Anyone who utters the words, “I want to be President,” or “I want to be Prime Minister” is already selfish and ambitious and with an ego that is beyond repair at that point. So, when you do have one of them try and do something good, people are going to still have a bitter taste in their mouth and be cynical. Even if a lot of people didn’t care about that movie, it’s got more people talking about the issue. History will tell us if it’s as serious as he says, but you gotta give him props for getting people engaged.
Do you fear for the world your children are growing up in?
You think of the world differently when you have offspring who will live beyond you. I work pretty much in the early morning hours and I have this huge video screen in my studio on the main floor of our house linked to a camera in their rooms to make sure they’re not jumping out of the windows at three in the morning. I look up at the screen and think that at some point, these kids are going to listen to this record and get to know me in a different way, so there was this really cool responsibility added to the music when I was making it. It was a really unique experience.
How is working in a home studio and surrounded by your family different than working in a regular studio?
There are three pianos in the house and guitars in every room—it’s music all the time. If our kids want to hear a song, they sing it with us. We don’t just put on CDs and listen, but we all sit around and play music together. Music is always in the air, and that’s a really healthy thing. It’s kind of like living in an art gallery, I guess.
As an artist, I think that’s what you ideally want. If I write a song, I’m able to record it and finish it in half a day. I can imagine that with guys like Van Gogh, when they had an idea to paint something, they just went and did it. They didn’t do a demo of it. I feel like I’m getting more in tune with that process and just doing it instead of being so precious about it.
You’re developing bands like Neuromance and you and Chantal have written and produced hits for Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne and Hilary Duff. Is it easy for you to switch into those different modes when not writing for yourself or Our Lady Peace?
That’s a whole different side of my brain, almost. It doesn’t have my heart and soul in it, but with the songwriting-for-hire thing, we try to write with people who come in with some sort of idea. I’m really not about just writing a song for the sake of selling it to someone. The Hilary song [“Outside Of You”] was actually something we wrote with Pink but it didn’t get up on her record. Hilary loved the song and did it, so we didn’t really write with her, but Pink is an amazing writer and I have such a respect for her. That side of the business is interesting. We do it as something to work that side of the brain.
Even though it’s not your primary focus, do you find that you still actually get some great moments out of those situations?
When we take a meeting with someone, I want to know that they have something to say. I don’t want to work with someone who wants you to say it for them. If they can’t tap into their own emotions and psyche and want to put it to paper and sing about something, we usually turn those people away.
How does the creative compatibility between you and Chantal work? You’re spending every hour of the day with each other.
It’s totally insane [laughs]. We yell at each other and fight for ideas, but at the end of the day, there’s always a respect between us, so it never gets too out of hand. But I’ve definitely seen some artists sit in the room when Chantal and I are going at it, and be like, get me out of here. For us, it’s fine—we’re both very strong personalities—but people aren’t used to it at first. We’re quite different musicians, even in the way we approach music and hear it. We both have to push and pull to get our ideas heard.
I know that you take your OLP fans deadly seriously. For a project so different and personal, will your OLP fans understand it or follow you to it?
So far, the reaction has been pretty positive. There are a few different levels of OLP fans—people who have been there from the beginning, singing every song in the show. There’s a big part of those OLP songs that are in this new body of work in terms of the care I try to take with the lyrics, and that’s what attracted some people to the band. I think those people are gonna get it. If others are looking for obvious radio songs like OLP’s had over the past ten years, they might be disappointed. I like music for both those reasons, so that’s fine.
The Hunter’s Lullaby arrives in stores this Tuesday, November 13. Raine Maida is playing at The Mod Club on November 12 (722 College Street). Bottom image courtesy of Rudsak.