At times, Canadian country-rock outfit Blue Rodeo can feel like two bands sharing a stage. Boasting a pair of the most distinctive songwriters and vocalists in the game, Blue Rodeo records don't just have two discrete authors; they often seem to have two separate, and maybe even competing, sounds.
On the one hand, you have Greg Keelor, grizzled troubadour in the Neil Young mode, all bloodshot eyes and ragged glory, a man born to rock a late-night barroom with unbeatable story songs and delicious, earwormy melodies. Then on the other hand you have Jim Cuddy, a tight, professional writer and performer, a stunning vocalist capable of an acrobatic range, the apparent straight man to Keelor's bendiness, whose best compositions rank among the very finest songs I can name.
So, yes, there's a Lennon/McCartney thing happening here. Always has been, ever since Blue Rodeo emerged on the scene with 1987's "Outskirts," a classic early shot in what would soon be dubbed the "alt-country" genre. Tangling Beatles-esque jangle with elements of punk, folk, and traditional country, Blue Rodeo was an immediate success, and they've remained hugely popular in their home country ever since.
Now, 26 years and 11 records later, they have returned with a warm, engaging, but ultimately troubled record. Overflowing with images of dimming lights, of glowing embers drifting off into an ineffable sky, this is Blue Rodeo at its most contemplative, at its most introspective. Despite the sometimes divergent flightpaths these two artists have followed with their writing, with their crafts, they have landed in similar places here, on their first record after celebrating a quarter century in rock’n’roll.
HuffPost Canada Music’s Stuart Henderson sat down with Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor at The Rivoli, a venerable Toronto haunt, for a cup of coffee and a long talk about "mortality and the waning light of the journey."
The new record is called "In Our Nature". On the one hand, we could be talking about human nature, which usually means our flaws. But Blue Rodeo is often associated with the "nature" we see outside our windows.
Greg: I think we were aware of both of those interpretations and we avoided trying to decide. I guess it is a little play on words. But you know, we made the record at my place [in rural Ontario]. And it is a beautiful little valley. There's something inspiring about just, you know, hanging out. And you know… someone told us it's our 13th studio record.
Jim: You're stuck on 13. Seems like it's more.
Greg: Yeah, I don't think that's including live and greatest hits and that sort of thing. And so, it's funny: after all these years, this is just what we do, you know?
Jim: I think also there's a certain history in rock'n'roll of this self-reflection. "In Our Nature" appealed to me for that reason. That essentially all songs, all art, is some kind of investigation of nature. Because that's all you can reflect on.
But it was a little problematic, too, because [the song we titled the album after] has lyrics written by Damian Rogers, a wonderful, beautiful poet. And I struggled a little bit with that. Should we be naming the record somebody else's words? How can you call it "In Our Nature" if it's somebody else's words? Those little conundrums are also part of it. So, we put it out there to see how it resonated with everybody else in the band. It was the one that everybody was drawn to.
There's this tendency among even your most devoted fans to see Blue Rodeo as a feel-good band, a good times band. And yet, throughout your career one of the most persistent themes in both of your lyrics has been darkness. Trying to find some light in the gloom. Still, I was struck by how much that word "darkness" appears on this new album.
Jim: It's death.
Jim: Mortality is certainly a big part of it. But I think that if anybody were to examine their own experience, they would recognize that as sunny as the veneer can be, what’s most interesting is that there are shafts of darkness that just peak through. I’m not interested in writing things that are gloomy, but after a while it’s hard to avoid the things that we hide. That’s what you try to reveal in songs. And usually those are the things that you’re not comfortable sharing.
Interesting. That idea comes up again and again [in your work], I mean all the way back to 1990's "Til I Am Myself Again." That idea of there being both this happy public face, and this private darkness. Your first lyric on ["In Our Nature"] addresses this head-on. ["Maybe now we could be lovers? Share all the darkness in our souls?"]
Jim: Well, I think that's about love as a way of allowing yourself to share that darkness. The couple in that song is actually fighting. But once you recognize a kindred spirit, somebody who can share some of the darker or fearful parts of your personality, you don’t want to lose that connection.
Speaking of connection: The first half of this record alternates between songs written by Greg and songs written by Jim. But then on the second half of the record, Greg has a few more songs than Jim. When you sequence your records, are you thinking consciously about who's singing this song, about balance, or is it more about the song itself?
Greg: It's both. We try to keep it as a balanced thing. I ended up with a couple more songs on this record [than Jim]. I had a lot of songs when we were going in to record this record. And because the last record was so long, a double record, we went: "Let's keep this one short, you know? Let's keep it down to 12 songs." And everyone was agreed on that and we were all working towards that.
But when we got to the end of the record, [we had] "In the Darkness" and "Tara's Blues" [left over]. We had recorded the tracks, but we never went back to them. There was talk about iTunes, and doing some bonus tracks for downloads. But [instead] we went back and finished them. We liked them so much, we just put them on. It's very self indulgent, 14 songs. It's almost an hour of music on the CD. And you know, there're some people in the band who really don’t like long CDs. They want them to be over in 45 minutes, 40 minutes.
Even within the band?
Greg: Oh yeah! And I being one of them. Bazil [Donovan, bassist] was really adamant about it. But you hear the songs – you know, it's our first record in three or four years – and you just think: These are really good recordings. What's the point in leaving them off?
I think the people that like Blue Rodeo, the people that want to buy the record, they're not going to complain about having two more songs on the record. It's just us in the band who want to have twelve songs on it. So I ended up with a couple of extras.
Q&A Continues After Blue Rodeo Video Gallery
I think in the age of digital music the length of records… I don't know how much people care anymore. I'm a short album kind of guy, but when I say that to people they're always like: What's the difference? What do you care? Just download the songs you want. And so I wonder whether those kinds of arguments have become kind of academic.
Jim: I don't really care. Like when I buy a record, I only want a short record if I don't like the band, and then usually I dump it anyway. If I like the band, I don't even care if I don't get through the whole record. With an hour-long record, there's no way I can absorb all that at the same time, anyway.
No, I’m probably going to listen to 40 minutes, 45 minutes and then I’m going to go back, and gradually, I’m going to get to know those songs as the end of the record. And I like that. I mean when I like a record I spend a lot of time with it. So you know, I like to make a joke about how Greg bullied his way into doing so many songs on this record, but...
I also recognize that once you record songs, if you like them, to not use them on the record, to use them as specialty disc or whatever, they’re gone. They’re gone. They can’t be used again and that’s it: limited listenership, you know? Put them on the record. People don’t like it, they can stop listening after 45 minutes. Whatever.
And again, that is the thing about the iTunes generation, right? Now we can just uncheck a song, and then it doesn't come up anymore.
Greg: But the LP itself has become such a nice boutique item. A lot of young bands think so much about the vinyl and what the vinyl's going to sound like. And if you pile up a lot of minutes on vinyl, you’re going to lose sound quality.
Jim: Our vinyl [for "In Our Nature"] only has twelve songs.
Oh yeah? So which are the two songs that got left off?
Greg: "In Our Nature" and "Out of the Blue."
That's funny, you cut the title track.
Greg: Because it was so long! And "Out of the Blue" was so long.
The two of you have distinct voices in Blue Rodeo, and yet you also both make solo records. When you’re sitting down to write a Blue Rodeo song, are you wearing a different hat than when you’re writing, say, a Jim Cuddy song?
Jim: I think that every record is very event specific. That I could say. [A record comes from] a time and a place, when people are in certain moods, and people are in certain times of their lives. And so you don’t have to work very hard to make it different than what came before and what will come after. […]
But I think Greg will agree that [what’s different about] solo records is writing without having to consider the band. Blue Rodeo is a very imprintable band, like you know, they’re going to be a voice in your song. That’s different than when you’re writing for yourself. I’m a bit more of a clear voice in my band. And so when I’m writing Blue Rodeo stuff, I imagine that Greg will sing on it, I imagine what everybody would do, and so things end up being guided in a different way.
But, you know, more specifically it’s about how you make the record, what time of year it is, what state everybody’s in. I think that’s what defined this record, you know? Being out at Greg’s and being in the nice weather.
That’s where it was recorded. But, wasn’t a lot of this album written on the road?
Greg: For me, it was.
Jim: Not for me.
Greg: I think of times in my life when the band has been playing a lot, and for whatever reason, the band’s playing well. They’ve been singing, you know, 80 nights in a row type of thing. And your voice is in good shape. You know how to reach an audience with your voice. You know what’s working. I don’t always write on the road. But on this record, I wrote “Tara’s Blues” and “Wondering” on the road.
And it’s also really nice to bring a song into the band when it has that vibe, like I had the road in me. You know, I just had the energy of the road in me. And the band had the energy of being on stage every night. And there’s a certain confidence, relaxed confidence with it because you sort of know what’s working.
Can we step back for a second to what you said about your state heading into the record, Greg? “Never Too Late” has a kind of “Positively 4th Street” vibe to it. But there’s a sneaking suspicion I have as I listen to it that you’re talking to yourself.
Greg: Yeah. It’s one where… I have a few songs like that. “Like Palace of Gold”  where I’m just sort of like: “Careful, you’re going a little too far.” And “Never Too Late” is me just sort of licking my wounds a bit.
Is there a catharsis to that, being able to get it down on paper? To sing about it?
Greg: You know, I think one of the greatest catharses in life is just singing. It's something; I can really notice it if I don't. I like to sing every day. And the great thing about writing songs is that you are singing every day. You're singing a long time every day. And you're really focused, and it’s a great thing. If I go a few days without singing, I can feel sort of a general drop, a lethargy. Your brain gets a little thick.
Singing is, um, in your nature?
Greg: [We all groan.] That’s right, yeah, for sure.
On "Paradise," there's this great lyric, something about how paradise is found in the light from these embers drifting up, only to go out. All through the record you both play with these images of light and dark, of being in the dark, looking for lights, lights disappearing on us. What is it about this emphasis on contrast, 26 years and 13 records in?
Jim: Yeah. Well, we’re closer to the extinguishing of the light than we were when we started.
Greg: I think that makes a big difference.
Jim: You know, mortality and the waning light of the journey is a lot more present than it ever was. It’s hard to be completely analytical about your own song writing, but I mean I certainly notice it. In the last five or six years, that’s a lot more of what comes out. There’s a lot more sense of fragility in the band. You know, it’s not a physically robust bunch of people anymore! It’s certainly not invulnerable, you know. We’re, like, very vulnerable.
So I think that's bound to make its way into it. But, it's also what we've done, and what we've seen, and what we've experienced together; all those things are reflected in those contrasts. I think that maybe those contrasts were more… the balance was more towards the light before. And I think now it’s more towards darkness. But not, I don't mean gloom. I mean, you know, the dusk.
Greg: Yet to me, those sparks rising up were very positive.
Jim: But it's an interesting song. I found it interesting. I heard it and I thought, this is about realizing that at some point, you will forfeit this paradise on Earth, not like you’re thinking, oh yeah, soon I’m going to have the paradise with the vestal virgins. This is like: This is an awesome thing and I don’t want this to end.
This is what I mean! There's nothing more fleeting, image-wise, than an ember that's gorgeous for a second but it's soon going to be gone. And it doesn't come back once it's gone.
Greg: No! To me they were things of beauty, almost like souls being released into the universe. So they're not extinguished. Actually, it's a transformation into something better.
Jim: Good Catholic boy. Good Catholic boy.
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