If you don’t live above the 49th parallel, or within reasonable distance of a Canadian radio transmitter, Blue Rodeo’s name might not sound familiar. If that’s the case, please accept this article as my personal encouragement to find your favorite streaming service or retailer and begin exploring their outstanding catalog.
If you do live above the 49th parallel, or within reasonable distance of a Canadian radio transmitter, Blue Rodeo’s name probably doesn’t need further explanation. If that’s the case, please accept this article as an expatriate’s loving tribute to one of our country’s greatest musical legacies.
This particular interview carries a lot of personal significance, because Blue Rodeo was the very first band I saw in concert when they made a tour stop in my hometown of Winnipeg to support their 1992 album, Lost Together. I was sixteen years old, and I’d won tickets during a morning radio show contest from our local Top 40 station, Q94FM.
The catch? I had to cluck like a chicken, in tune, on the air to the band’s signature single “Try” —a quintessential Canadian pop classic. Thankfully, my comically horrendous version vanished into the stratosphere that fall morning, while Blue Rodeo’s has rightfully remained the definitive reading. But the temporary discomposure proved to be worth it when my high school friend Jeff and I soon found ourselves sitting just a few rows back from the stage and our beloved band.
It was then and there that I fell helplessly in love with live music.
After an appropriate amount of prairie fanboy effusion, I shared my story with Blue Rodeo founder and lead vocalist Jim Cuddy during a phone conversation we had a couple of weeks ago. He laughed graciously. “Ha ha! That’s great! Was that at the Walker Theatre?,” he inquired.
Indeed. The turn-of-the-century downtown landmark had been freshly restored just a year earlier as a performing arts stage after it had served as an Odeon cinema for nearly five decades. Cuddy’s magnificent tenor bounced vivaciously off its high plaster curves. I tell him, without exaggeration, that it’s still one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
He counters with probably the most humbly Canadian response possible. “Oh, that’s nice. Thank you!”
The Toronto-based roots-rock stalwarts formed in 1984, a few years after Monarch Park Secondary School friends Cuddy and Greg Keelor began playing locally as the Hi-Fis. After bouncing between Toronto and New York in search of a record deal, they would eventually sign with Warner Music in 1986, the label with which they’ve remained ever since. Their debut album Outskirts arrived in March 1987 and connected with a nationwide audience almost immediately.
In their thirty-three years together, Blue Rodeo have become one of the most prolific and commercially successful Canadian music outfits in history, releasing fifteen studio albums and collecting eleven JUNO award (Canada’s Grammy equivalent) wins out of an astonishing thirty-one nominations.
In 2012, the band was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, joining the ranks of icons Leonard Cohen, The Band, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young. Two years later, they were awarded the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award, the country’s highest honor bestowed upon the industry. Cuddy and Keelor have both been made Officers of the Order of Canada for their musical and charitable contributions.
While Blue Rodeo’s legacy provides necessary and meaningful context for this entry, Cuddy and I were actually united in conference call to discuss his fourth solo album Constellation, which dropped on January 26th. Two weeks later, the album debuted at number 3 on Billboard’s Canadian Albums chart—a career best.
Constellation is a beautifully constructed record that contends with perennial themes of life, love, and loss, but Cuddy’s earnest expression as a writer and vocalist gives them a distinctive gravity.
It’s been a remarkably tough couple of years for Canadian music, which suffered the loss of Gord Downie, frontman of legendary alt-rockers The Tragically Hip, to brain cancer in late 2017, and the retirement of Vancouver’s folk-rock veterans Spirit of the West in 2016 after lead singer John Mann was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Both shared a close personal relationship and a generous amount of time on stage with Cuddy over the course of their careers—Downie’s last public performance was during the finale of a Blue Rodeo concert at Toronto’s Massey Hall in February 2017. Some of that sadness echoes across Constellation’s eleven tracks, perhaps more wistful in tone than outwardly forlorn.
As always, Cuddy demonstrates why he’s one of the greatest pop singers of his generation, his rich, honeyed voice having stayed marvelously unchanged over three decades. Melodically, he doesn’t stray too far away from the strummed, big-chorused song structures that have been the concrete of Blue Rodeo’s foundation. But Cuddy’s work on Constellation feels more starkly intimate. Current single “You Be the Leaver” is heartbreakingly gorgeous, and will be an obvious highlight of the series of live shows he has planned across the country over the next six months.
Grant Walters: I know your solo projects are just a diversion from the work you’re doing with Blue Rodeo and you don’t have an interest in being a solo artist full-time. So, what compels you to record an album on your own every few years? Is it an accumulation of writing that doesn’t fit with what Blue Rodeo’s doing at the time, or is it more feeling moved at a certain point to just get some of your collected creative stuff out there?
Jim Cuddy: I think, unfortunately, it’s neither of those. You know, I think what happens is that Blue Rodeo plays a lot, and then all of a sudden Blue Rodeo kind of maxes out. We get to the point where we need a break. And the breaks have been sort of worked around my solo records, so, it’s been five years. I keep my solo band active all the time. I like having both and I like the structure of Blue Rodeo, and I like doing my own solo stuff. I think the structure of Blue Rodeo is a little bit more pressurized, because it’s on a bigger level. My stuff’s a little bit more casual and I appreciate that, because I can just go out and do things that Blue Rodeo couldn’t do because of the size.
And as for the songs, I just write specifically for the record, and that ends up being a very cathartic experience because I have to write a whole record as opposed to half a record with Blue Rodeo, and it ends up being this deep mining of all the things I’ve been thinking about in the previous year. And it’s been a pretty heavy year, you know, with what’s happened in my professional life with John Mann and Gord Downie, and personal things and personal losses. So it was a good year to write about, and I must admit that when I started writing, I thought ‘I don’t know, maybe I’m too emotionally overcharged to be writing.’ But it actually worked out very well, and I’m glad to have these songs that tell the story of things I’ve been thinking about.
GW: I was exploring the press kit before our interview, and there was a quote from you that said something to the effect that your songwriting is wrapped around your fascination with small details of human behavior. What are some of those things you’ve observed and how have they manifested in your work? What’s been the most intriguing to you?
JC: [Laughs] That’s a big question, Grant.
GW: It definitely is.
JC: I mean, that’s the question we all are fascinated by. It can be something very small, you know? I think that people that are involved in the arts create stories around incidents. You look at somebody standing at a corner, and let’s say that person is standing at a corner waiting for a [traffic] light, but they don’t go when the light turns green. And all of a sudden, your mind’s just…’whoop! What’s going on? Are they too absorbed by something? Are they depressed?’ And then you come up with an answer and you walk away thinking ‘oh, I saw a guy standing on a corner and he was so absorbed by his phone’ or whatever.
And I think for me, it was that this year was more about my interaction with people. Constellation is specifically about a friend I lost last year and a trip we took up to my farm with a couple of his friends. We had this very significant drunken night, we’re laughing and having a good time, but what we’re trying to absorb is that we’re going to lose our friend. And the whole idea of Constellation is we go out and decide to name a star after him, and we’re out on the lawn and we’re going to make it easy by naming one of the stars in the handle of the Big Dipper. But we’re so drunk and staggering around on the lawn that we can’t find the Big Dipper.
So, it’s just putting that in a song, putting that moment of complete comedic despair where we’re all laughing and crying and thinking how funny life is. And also how horrible it is. It was horrible when we lost our friend in December. Those are the things that are kind of mystifying, and it’s almost as if you petrify them and put them in a song, you’ll think about them forever. And it doesn’t mean you gain polarity—I don’t understand loss any better. But it does mean you can hold it up and look at it and think, ‘that was my friend, that was our night.’
Those are the kinds of things that when you’re writing a song, you try to build it around a specific picture you have in your mind that somehow tells the story. And I think that works its way into observing human behavior. And it’s a little more difficult to observe [that] when you’re a recognizable figure, because when you stare at somebody, they stare back and go ‘hey!’ And then your staring is over. So, I have to do it very surreptitiously now.
GW: This record is clearly an emotional body of work. I’m curious, this far into your career, where do you find yourself getting creatively stuck or challenged as you write and record? And is this different for you now than when you first began?
JC: Well, this record sort of came together step by step. When I first thought about it and the conditions under which I was making it, it was a little overwhelming. It’s just step by step. I mean, I’ve always cautioned myself when I’ve started writing that this is not high art. This is just a conversation you’re going to have with yourself, and then with other people. I try not to take myself too seriously. And then you just have to keep weaving yourself deeper and deeper into the story. It’s just sort of something I’ve done very naturally for my whole life, and I have never really ex…I’m going to curse myself, Grant, if I say this…but I’ve never really experienced writer’s block. Not terrible writer’s block.
GW: Oh, wow. Really?
JC: [Ruefully] Yeah…ugh, maybe I shouldn’t have said that. I shouldn’t have said that. But I’ve always felt like when I’ve sat in the studio with my guitar that I was not a member of Blue Rodeo or writing for a record that I hope my public would like to hear. I was just the same teenager trying to find something I liked on the guitar. And then I’d go over to the piano and play something else there. It’s all kind of play. And it’s not that I don’t recognize the serious intent. I recognize I’m there to write a good song. But I can’t approach it like that, and I have to approach it like it’s simple and it could be nothing.”
GW: Since you mentioned young Jim messing around on his guitar, what are some things you’d like to be able to go back in time and tell him? If you could say “hey, you know what? This thing in thirty years isn’t going to matter” or “that? It’s all going to work out, so stop obsessing over it,” what wisdom would you impart to your younger self?
JC: [Laughs] That’s really funny, because I look back and I think that all that worry was really valuable! Especially when I sort of got to the point where I started to have a family and Blue Rodeo was happening and I was working at doing props for TV commercials, I worked so hard because I was so terrified of being poverty-stricken and not being able to advance in life. You know, I could go back to that character—that sort of mid-twenties character—and say, “I’m sorry you’re going to have to go through this, but you really are going to have to go through this. And it’s going to be very valuable.” And I must admit, I know my wife sort of accuses me of a bit of a Protestant work ethic, but every time I see it in my kids and see them working beyond exhaustion, I’m not sympathetic—I’m proud! [Laughs]
I don’t know, somehow that’s just in me. And I don’t think I could say anything to that teenager, because that teenager wouldn’t know what I was talking about. Because I had no illusions that I was going to have a music career. I just loved music, and I only started playing in a band with Greg because I wanted to devote a whole year of my life to music, just because I loved it. You know, I was fully intending to go to law school. I took the LSATs and did my admissions, and then just couldn’t do it. In the end, I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t give up music.
GW: You know, one of the things I love about you and Blue Rodeo—and I don’t know if you love this about you and Blue Rodeo—is that you’ve remained a uniquely Canadian treasure we’ve been able to claim as definitively ours. And you certainly have American fans who love your music and follow you, but do you at all feel frustrated that you didn’t break into the United States significantly, or are you content in what you’ve built at home?
JC: Yeah, it never frustrated me. I mean, it’s always nice to embrace success, and in any place we went in the States and did well, I thought ‘well, that was fun.’ But it never made me think ‘oh, you know what? We should move to the States and just concentrate!’ I love what we’ve done in Canada. And I also came to the realization—not right away, but in time—that we were a particular Canadian product. We weren’t just universal, people got us up here, really easily. You know, the two different singers, the mish-mash of different styles of music…nobody ever questioned that up here. And in the States, there was always a little bit more trouble understanding where we were coming from and ‘who’s the main singer? What did you do?’
It was just nice to be, and obviously I’ve thought about this a lot, and asked about it a lot, and given speeches on it. And I don’t mean I’m fatigued with it. I mean the other way in that to some degree, I think we participated in this coming-of-age of Canadian arts. And it’s not like the Canadian arts weren’t going along, it was that people in the country got that we were different. We are a different country, and we are as different from the United States as Norway is from England. We are different. And we started to embrace that difference.
Look at our love for Gord Downie. You could line ten Americans up and go “look at this guy!” And they’d go “I don’t get it. What the fuck’s he doing?” And we’d think ‘you’ve gotta be kidding me! This guy’s awesome! This guy’s kind of ironic. And is he putting it on? Is he not?’ We love that. And you know, I think that was a great coming of age for us, and I’m really pleased that we were part of it and part of the groundbreaking part.
GW: The fact that you’ve flown under the American radar always perplexed me on your behalf. The other day I was watching a video of “Trust Yourself” on Late Night with David Letterman, which was your US television debut. And it was incredible. Like, a masterclass performance. I thought, ‘how did nobody in America just eat that up?! They should’ve loved the hell out of that!’ But you’re right, there is a common Canadian thread, especially in the arts, that’s tough to articulate to someone who hasn’t lived that experience. I try to explain it to my American friends and family, and the best I can do is just say “you know, there’s a difference and it’s unique and special. I can’t tell you exactly what it is, but it exists.”
JC: Yeah. Well I think one of the reasons is that there’s less at stake. There’s more reason to be unique. When there’s more at stake, you just change a little bit. I mean, not to be critical, but look at the state of American country music. That is the ultimate sort of poll-driven music. Like ‘what will work? All these things. Guaranteed.’ But I think when there’s less at stake, people are more unique and I think that works great.”
GW: Since Albumism is dedicated to our affection for the album format, I’m going to ask you what might be impossible for you to answer in the minute or so we have left here, but what are your five favorite albums of all time?
JC: I would pick…uh…okay…Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky, The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., Wilco’s A Ghost Is Born, Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs, and…uh…something by Charles Mingus. I’d say Mingus at Antibes.”
SEE Jim Cuddy on tour | Dates