8 Canadian songwriters who could be the next Gord Downie
by Ivan Raczycki
March 4, 2014
Randall Vasquez, AUX TV
Gord Downie: erudite everyman, barstool beatnik, and the frontman for our nation’s premier rock ‘n’ roll institution the Tragically Hip (apologies to Burton Cummings). His songs sit comfortably between Neil Young and Chilliwack on a Moosejaw beer tour tape. He can casually collaborate with Sarah Harmer or Atom Egoyan in one breath and the Trailer Park Boys in the next. Hell, he smoked a joint with Pacey from Dawson’s Creek in that motorcycle movie and no one screamed “Trudeau!” However you feel about Gord, you feel something: he’s an unshakeable, unbreakable force in this malleable morass we call Canadiana culture.
But looking ahead, who is the heir apparent—he or she with the potent mix of poetic flair, alt-rock glory, and unabashed patriotism—to Downie’s throne? Cross-sectioning a cadre of Canada’s biggest rock and rollers, we’ll suss out our nation’s Tragically Hippest—the disciples of Downie.
John K. Samson (The Weakerthans)
Manitoba’s golden son (apologies again to Burton Cummings) John K. Samson has been gently pushing his Pulitzer-deserving rock poems with the Weakerthans for over 15 years. He recently released Provincial, his first official solo offering, alongside the written anthology Lyrics and Poems, 1997-2012. You know who else released a collection of lyrics and poetry on the event of their debut solo release? Gord Downie, that’s who. And though dust is settling on the thousands of copies of Coke Machine Glow idle on Indigo bookshelves across the country, no one can dispute that what separates Downie from the litany of would-be CanCon superstars is his way with words, which makes him kindred spirits with Samson, the poet laureate of Canadian rock.
Montrealer Sam Roberts and his titular band came into Canada’s collective consciousness with a novel-for-its-time roots-based approach to radio rock. At the turn of the 21st century, guitar music was again in vogue, which led not only to national success for Roberts, but to flirtations with the music world outside our borders, including early press from tastemakers Pitchfork. In recent years, he’s been unfairly lumped in with a fortuitous but sometimes bland era of Canadian rock—like the Trews and Matt Mays’ of the world. But like Downie, Roberts always possessed more depth than the bar-band sash slung around his shoulders; his songs were edgy bouts of existential angst and vague societal outrage, but made palatable for the FM crowd. Gord should be proud.
There’s something about Kathleen Edwards’ songs and sounds that conjure up the unique loneliness of the Canadian experience. She can hazily stick a hockey metaphor in a song about an emotionally abusive relationship, or take the country to task over racial and social injustice in her version of “Oh, Canada,” all while sonically echoing the emptiness of a horizonless Saskatchewan prairie. It’s those tones and textures that immediately call to mind the Hip, but where Downie dandily dances around his heady ideas, Edwards cuts and reveals in the open, no hiding behind barroom bravado. It’s this emotional intensity that’s made her distinctly Canadian sound an international success, something Downie could stand tapping into.
Max Kerman (Arkells)
The transition of Hamilton, ON’s Arkells from blue-collar Constantines-worshippers to hook-ridden power-poppers was surprisingly natural, which is no doubt thanks to the hit-writing ability and natural affability of frontman Max Kerman. What puts him in direct lineage of Downie’s crown is his potent mix of populism and patriotism; Kerman is an unabashed citizen of Canada and celebrator of camp. Nowhere is this more evident than in “Kiss Cam” from 2011’s Michigan Left, where he sings “This campfire won’t last forever / The Hip have only wrote so many songs.” So when Arkells sneak a straight-faced Hall & Oates cover into their set, it’s the same trick Downie plays with his mystic dad-rock dance moves—corny as all hell, but, you know, a very Canadian corny.
Bry Webb (Constantines)
The aforementioned (and recently-reunited) Constantines are remembered and revered for their textured, tender cuts of highly-emotional art-punk. As co-songwriter and de facto frontman, Bry Webb littered his raucous, knotty music with names and images from his Southwestern Ontario raising, dropping neighbourhood names and curling references with “Bobcaygeon”-like grace. Though on opposite ends of the critical spectrum, it’s not hard to draw the line from Fully Completely to Shine a Light in our nation’s musical ancestry. See how a track like “I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song” from the Cons’ 2008 swan song, Kensington Heights, swims in the same stream as “We Want to Be It,” a highlight from the Hip’s latest Now For Plan A (which, it should be noted, was celebrated via a series of free shows in Toronto’s Kensington Market). Though Webb will ultimately be remembered as more artful, tasteful, and just plain cooler, he’s still very (maybe even tragically) capital H-Hip.
The self-described Queen of Vancouver Island, Carolyn Mark has been serving up suds-soaked slabs of alternative Canadian country for the past decade and a half. While once-half of the Corn Sisters with fellow country songstress and honorary Canadian Neko Case, Mark hit her stride as a solo artist, turning pithy turns of phrase into boozy barroom bangers and earning Juno noms along the way, and hey, that’s basically Downie’s modus operandi. So Downie, take your time with the Sadies and Country of Miracles but follow NQ Arbuckle’s lead. A Carolyn and Gord album would light this frosty landmass aflame.
Dallas Green (City and Colour/Alexisonfire)
I admit I’m reluctant to lump the honey-voiced Dallas Green into this list: Alexisonfire operated in another artistic arena than Kingston’s biggest exports, while Green’s work as City and Colour can be pleasant at its best, derivative, middling, and shallow at its worst. But, hey, I can’t argue with King Gord himself, who symbolically passed the torch when the two joined forces on the track “Sleeping Sickness,” a song that bears the distinction of not only being the best C&C have offered thus far but one of Downie’s all-time great performances. Anyone spreading the gospel of Canadian music is doing the grand work Gord’s been hacking away at for several decades, as Stompin’ Tom did before him. And besides, it’s pretty darn Canadian to opt out of a Junos performance in favour of letting another budding Canuck have their snapshot at national glory.
The folk-pop stylings of Sarah Harmer may not immediately conjure up images of sold-out Calgary Saddledomes, but make no bones about it, Harmer is dyed-in-the-wool daughter and disciple of Downie’s teachings. Harmer grew up attending Hip shows with her sister and those early lessons stuck, so much so she even attended school in Kingston, Ontario—the Hip’s stomping ground. Her Juno-and-Polaris-nominated career has seen her collaborate with national stalwarts like Blue Rodeo, Great Big Sea, Great Lake Swimmers, and the Hip themselves, and her efforts as an activist—most recently as part of the National Parks Project along with other contenders on this list—show she’s about preserving this great country in more ways than just radio plays. She stands on guard for us.
Tags: Music, Cancon, Lists, News, Alexisonfire, Arkells, Bry Webb, City and Colour, Constantines, country, Dallas Green, folk, Gord Downie, Gord Downie & the Sadies, Gord Downie and the Country of Miracles, john k samson, Kathleen Edwards, Sam Roberts, Sam Roberts Band, The Weakerthans, Tragically Hip, Weakerthans