Steven Page project takes political turn with new album
When Steven Page released an album a little over two years ago, the United States felt like a very different place. Barack Obama was president and many thought Donald Trump would never land in the Oval Office.
The former Barenaked Ladies co-founder was shaping a two-album project titled Heal Thyself that ruminated on the significance of being an artist. It was largely an insular project, but as the political world shifted, Page’s priorities did too.
As a Canadian citizen living with his American wife and family in New York state, Page says he was unable to vote in either country. He was unsettled by what was happening around him, but also worried that being too outspoken might affect his permanent residency status.
“There’s an element of fear ... (that) I have to bite my tongue or they’ll send me back home,” Page says during a recent visit to Toronto.
“But after Charlottesville happened last summer I thought, ‘To hell with it, I have to be myself.’ ”
It was around this time Page says he reconsidered how the second part of Heal Thyself would take shape. The divisiveness around him was inspiring new thoughts and ideas.
Discipline: Heal Thyself, Pt. II, released earlier this month, marks a conceptual detour in many ways, giving more space to songs that reflect the singer’s rediscovered political urgency.
“White Noise,” the lead single, doesn’t mince words on where Page stands. He comes out swinging at a perspective that seems particularly Trumpian, but arguably could represent a much larger mindset.
“Apparently, to fix your nation/ You’ve got to run it like a corporation/ The kind you don’t mind burning to the ground,” he sings.
“Throw away the Bill of Rights/ For anyone who isn’t white,” he adds later.
On “Where Do you Stand?,” a rousing mid-tempo call to action, Page illustrates the question he was asking himself as the album came together.
“If you’re not honest with your audience ... on fundamental issues of your values and world view, then how can they believe any of the art you make?” he says.
Several of the political songs on Discipline: Heal Thyself, Pt. II were recorded shortly after Page regrouped with his former Barenaked Ladies band mates at the Juno Awards last March.
They were being inducted into the hall of fame as symbols of Generation X — a once-inseparable group of buddies who penned funny songs with a great pop hook.
Many questions hovered over whether the soured relationship between Page and the band could ever be repaired, even for a Junos appearance. He hadn’t spoken with most of them since they severed ties nearly a decade ago when he faced drug possession charges.
For weeks the Barenaked Ladies and Page left fans hanging as they discussed how a Junos performance would play out. Eventually, the pieces fell into place ahead of the ceremony.
“All I knew was that I owed it to myself — and to them — to just exude positivity,” he says of the brief reunion.
“There was no room for anything negative or anything weird. Maybe it’s something I wasn’t always able to do.”
Page is distancing himself from an image he fostered in the wake of the Barenaked Ladies split. He says for a while he embodied “the more tortured artist” as a solo performer. He’d like to do away with some of those perceptions.
“It’s not who I am,” he insists. “It’s just part of how I related to who I was.”
Over the past year, he’s been working on a play with the Stratford Festival that explores the turbulent friendship between two musicians whose career paths diverge. Whether the two sides reconcile in the final act remains to be seen.
And while Page isn’t one to shy away from speaking his mind, he says he’s drawn the line at expressing his views through social media, particularly the political ones.
Over the past few years he says he’s watched other musicians jump on Facebook or Twitter with hot takes on the controversy of the day.
After getting dragged into a number of online debates, he’s decided to stick with expressing his opinions through song, rather than “firing off some pithy thought or retweeting something angry.”
“If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it in my art, and that’s where I can expose myself,” he says.
“And I don’t have to answer to anybody for it, I don’t have to explain it if I don’t want to, and I don’t have to argue it. I can just write it and perform it.”
Whether his new album is “helping the cause” Page says he’s undecided but hopeful.
“Maybe I am, maybe I’m not,” he says. “But I feel like there’s a possibility.”