The latest book from best-selling author Michael Barclay (The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip and Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985–95, co-authored with Jason Schneider and Ian Jack) is manna for music nerds like me. Like Barclay, I was hyper-focused on Canadian music during the six-year period he covers in the book. Unlike me, though, Barclay had a front-row seat to much of what was happening across the country’s music venues and scenes as a music journalist. Hearts on Fire assembles more than two decades’ worth of documenting the scene (through writing assignments, personal diaries, and over a hundred interviews) into an authoritative first-hand account of how the unlikeliest of Canadian musicians put the music world on notice at the start of the century.
A lot can happen in six years; as Hearts on Fire easily proves, a lot did. For an outsider like me, the task of pulling all these threads into context and tying them together seems monumental. Impossible even. One thought that kept occurring to me as I devoured back-to-back chapters on Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Hawksley Workman, the Weakerthans, Sarah Harmer, Joel Plaskett, and Danko Jones: “How in God’s name did Barclay ever put all these puzzle pieces together?” When I had the opportunity to connect with him I asked for some insight into the book’s genesis, and if there was any specific moment or incident when he knew he had to write the book. “I knew it was special while it was happening, which is why I took notes and saved clippings independent of work I was actually being paid to do at the time,” he says. “But when Arcade Fire won the Grammy [on Valentine’s Day 2011 for their 2010 album, The Suburbs], it really felt like the scene from which they emerged was a viable narrative in itself. Around the same time that happened, the Wavelength live music series in Toronto celebrated its tenth anniversary, which felt like a milestone. Then I waited for ten years for someone else to realize…what a great idea this would be for a book. No one did, so I wrote it.”
Though Arcade Fire’s Grammy win falls outside the book’s timeline, it is the fulcrum for Barclay’s thesis. “This book is primarily about those who broke through borders,” he writes in the introduction. “In another era, that would just mean the superstars — you know who they are. This time period, however, was when weirdos and innovators were more likely to break internationally than anyone aiming for commercial radio.” He points to the fact that Arcade Fire themselves “frequently made a point of shouting out the Constantines, the Unicorns, Wolf Parade, Hidden Cameras, Royal City and others when accepting a big award” as further proof he was witnessing a cultural shift wider beyond the “music [he] loved made by friends and friends of friends.”
One of the biggest takeaways from Hearts on Fire for me was the sheer number of bonds and relationships between the artists that Barclay profiles. Beyond the obvious and oft-discussed degrees of separation around Broken Social Scene and friends, Barclay documents a number of unexpected associations that span different scenes and musical styles.
“I can’t say I was honestly surprised by much,” he says when I ask if any of these connections surprised him as much as they did me, “I covered this scene extensively as it happened. There was some stuff I’d forgotten about, absolutely, like the fact that Buck 65 is Leslie Feist’s dance partner in the ‘One Evening’ video. Or that Metric opened for Billy Talent on their first big Canadian tour. Or that the Dears and Sam Roberts were such close friends and came out of the same scene.” His zeal for his subjects and their interconnected storylines is evident not only in the pages of Hearts on Fire but in his enthusiasm when discussing the book as well. “I relish the fact that people didn’t know Owen Pallett got his first big break from Stuart McLean, or that early Tegan and Sara records were made by Hawksley Workman and the New Pornographers….I did learn that Sarah Harmer got a call from Kevin Drew asking her to take part in the very early days of Broken Social Scene.”
Not unexpectedly, Barclay has a hard time settling on any one anecdote or story from the book as his favourite: “It’s a big book!” But the storylines he does hone in on are key to the book’s overarching theme of success against the odds and expectations. “I particularly love the overall narratives of the Be Good Tanyas, the Unicorns, Caribou, Gonzales, Fucked Up and Wolf Parade — largely because their paths to success were so improbable and impossible to predict, going against all norms.” Barclay’s extensive notes and personal diaries from the time give him a unique first-person perspective, but the beating heart of Hearts on Fire is Barclay’s interview subjects, all of whom he says have “great quotes and juicy stories” to tell about their experiences. Whether you’re more familiar with Kardinal Official, k-os, and Swollen Members, or Corb Lund, Kathleen Edwards, and the Sadies, you’ll find their accounts of the era insightful and enlightening. “Which I hope makes it easy for people to enjoy the whole book,” says Barclay, “not just the parts about artists they already know and love. The greatest compliments I get are when people say, ‘I totally missed Artist X at the time and after reading your book I’m now a huge fan.’ That’s been happening a lot.”
In an effort to further fuel reader curiosity, the author has once again turned music curator. As with Have Not Been the Same, Barclay has compiled chapter-by-chapter playlists for Hearts on Fire available through Tidal, Apple Music, and Spotify. If that all feels a bit overwhelming, he’s also pulled together a more concise compendium featuring forty “greatest hits” from the book’s featured artists.
Even with his comprehensive research and first-hand knowledge, Barclay couldn’t possibly have been everywhere all at once over the half-decade he documents. He says there are “not a lot of missed opportunities or regrets” when it comes to performances or artists he may not have had the opportunity to see at the time. Still, I asked him if — technology permitting — there was a show he’d travel back in time to attend that he missed out on or revisit one of the gigs he had the good fortune of attending. “Well, of course, I regret missing my very first opportunity to see Arcade Fire, in December 2002,” he acknowledges. “I showed up late to the Sala Rossa show they were playing with Broken Social Scene—which was headlined by Royal City if you can believe that now. But I did see many other early shows by [Arcade Fire],” as well as most of the artists he profiles. “I do regret not seeing more than one early Peaches show,” he admits, “Especially her performance at Will Munro’s Vazaleen, descriptions of which are more than a little wild, and frankly incredulous.” As well, Barclay “would have loved to have seen the Circle, the Toronto hip-hop collective with Kardinal, Saukrates, Choclair and others—that sounds like it was quite a choreographed variety show of Toronto’s top hip-hop talent at the time.”
Unsurprisingly, the time-travel-for-a-missed-gig question prompts Barclay to share another anecdote on one of the bands who feature prominently in the book. “I also missed the Be Good Tanyas when they played Jimmy Jazz, a tiny bar in Guelph. I must have had my own gig out of town or something because I loved the record and had interviewed them for the local paper. [Be Good Tanyas member] Sam Parton called me back after their gig and asked me — a total stranger who’d interviewed her once — if she could borrow my driver’s licence so they could rent a car. She doesn’t remember that but she admits that it’s in character.”
Our conversation ends back at where my interest and obsession with many of Hearts On Fire’s featured musicians started: online via the music blogs that inspired me to start my own in 2006. As he points out in the book, Pitchfork, Stereogum, and a suite of independently run blogs in the early 00s served as “tastemakers” for many music fans and helped expedite music discovery in a way that print media never could. “Nothing will ever beat word-of-mouth,” Barclay maintains. “A friend insisting you listen to something is still the strongest recommendation possible, online or in real life, with or without social media.”
He contends that though the medium looks different in 2022 than it did in 2002, musicians and music fans are still finding their way to each other. “To state the obvious: algorithms are the new discovery engines. I won’t lie, I’ve discovered things that way, too.” Barclay’s parting thoughts leave me — a stubbornly independent music blogger whose musical heart was set on fire in the first few years of the century — feeling like I’m in good company: “I’m in an extreme minority in that I rarely listen to playlists and still listen to full albums (using Tidal on my BlackBerry!), so I’m not sure I’m the best person to comment on what everyone else does. As a guy who just wrote a book about the early 2000s, I don’t want to say I’m stuck in that decade, but my own site is still hosted on Blogger, so…”
Times may change, I guess, but it’s nice to know that some things stay the same.
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