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Interview: A Conversation With Raine Maida

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Singer/songwriter Raine Maida is probably best known as the lead singer of the Canadian rock band Our Lady Peace. He co-founded the group in 1992 and with them has released eight albums (including a live album and a greatest hits compilation), with a ninth album scheduled to be released in early 2009. This year he released his first solo album The Hunter’s Lullaby.

In addition to being a musician, Maida is a dedicated community and social activist. On October 2nd of this year he took part in Busking For Change, a fundraiser to benefit War Child Canada. The event was actually inspired by Maida, who spent twelve hours in October of 2007 busking on the streets of Toronto to raise money for War Child. Footage of this can be seen in his video for "Yellow Brick Road." His efforts raised $22,000 – enough to build the Abala school in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Recently Maida chatted with me about his music, his activism, and his plans for the future.

I was introduced to you and your band Our Lady Peace through David Cook on American Idol. Have you noticed any extra attention because of that?

I don't know, to be honest. I'm in my own little world here. I've actually been writing with David Cook on his first record.

Were you surprised to have somebody perform one of your songs on American Idol?

I guess, in a way. I don't really watch the show, so I wasn't really familiar with that. The day before [the show] I got a call from David, or the management, to get permission. That was a little interesting. [David Cook] is probably a very good advocate for that show, because he's a real artist.

I know you worked with other artists as well, such as Avril Lavigne and Kelly Clarkson. Do you approach songwriting differently when you're writing for someone, as opposed to writing for yourself?

I prefer to work with artists that can start something on their own. Then it's a lot easier. I can get involved in helping shape the song or just changing the melody and stuff. Then ultimately for me – to just write a song for someone – I can't really do that. That's where you want a collaborative thing, which I didn't really used to respect. It wasn't until I [attended] a conference with Brian Eno and listened to him speak for a few hours. It's really a cool thing. The whole lecture was about collaboration, whether it’s writing, or the arts, or whatever. Collaboration is the key to revelation. It gave me a different perspective on it.

What is your approach to songwriting? Do you work on the music first, or do you come up with lyrics?

It really depends. There's so many different ways to approach it now compared to the typical [way]: sit down with a little tape recorder and acoustic guitar. That's how I've written all my songs for the past ten years. I love to start with a beat, or start with a lyric. It really just depends on what I was feeling like doing that day. I like that I have the ability now to start on all these different levels. I was confined to the way I used to write songs.

I've been listening to your solo album The Hunter's Lullaby. Your album has a more classic '60s structure – a 30-40 minute album with 3-4 minute songs.

This record is so different from my band. I wanted to be very lyric-oriented. I don't consider myself to be a spoken word poet, but definitely I was inspired by Kerouac and all those guys back in the '50s. The whole beat generation, it was a big deal for me. And then to get into guys like Saul Williams, Sage Francis, all these heavy spoken word/music guys today. I just wanted it to exist somewhere in there. And then take Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and all the artists I grew up with from Canada, [it’s] somewhere in between there. It was definitely about the stories, whereas Our Lady Peace is more about the whole thing, more “the wall of sound.” I never get to be as intimate as this record is. So it ended up that only 3 minutes or so was enough to tell the story, because there's no guitar solos. The music part of it is very much a backdrop for the poetry and the words.

Had you come up with most of the lyrics before you put the music behind them?

I did. I had a bunch of pages around the studio, all these pieces of poetry or streams of conscious thoughts written down. I would grab one of those and actually try to figure out the flow of the words and put a beat to it. So it pretty much sounded like a straight up hip-hop record – just beats and words, maybe a little bit of guitar. It wasn't until I started to lay in some cello and real drums that I felt like, ‘Okay this is my thing.’ I'm not trying to be hip-hop.

Were you always planning for these poems to be set to music on an album?

It took me a while to figure out the right backdrop for the words. The first three songs that I'd written, I felt like I got into this groove where I didn't want it to be anything close to Our Lady Peace. It felt like I had to always keep the lyrics front and center. I didn't want anything to ever take away from that. It's just a bunch of interesting little textures, but really the words are always upfront. They never get drowned out.

When you're writing for Our Lady Peace, how is that different in your approach to songwriting? Is the writing a collaboration with other members of the band?

Yeah, I think we try for that, even if I bring in an idea. I don't usually demo stuff too much. I would just play it on acoustic and we would all get in the studio and jam it up and tape stuff. And kind of piece it together that way. So it's much more collaborative, everyone gets to have their say and put their stamp on it, which is important. After 12 years of doing this as a band – that's what makes it a band. Otherwise, I don't think we'd still be together if it was just, 'Oh guys, play it like this.' It's gotta be somewhat democratic. That way everyone feels like they're getting their creative side out.

You produced the last Our Lady Peace album.

Yeah, I think we kind of followed the [route] I did with my solo record. I own my facility and it was really liberating. That feels like kind of a cliché, but that’s the way it was. The way I made my solo record, I think we just kind of applied that to how we did our OLP record. Where it's just us in a studio, we tried to record it really quickly. We had an idea and tried to record it that day and not be too precious about stuff. When you’re in with big producers in big studios and budgets, you tend to get really precious. The stakes are so high. It's obviously very important, but I think with the creative thing, you have to let the cycle happen.

Sometimes over the course of this record we had like three great days, where we recorded three or four songs, and a couple days where it just wasn’t working. It's fine when it's at my place, it's not a big deal. Working in my studio, if it's not happening [we say] 'let’s get out of here', you know. When you're paying 1500 bucks a day in a studio with a producer, you don’t want to do that. You stay in there and you grind it out, and I think creatively it's just not healthy.

It seems like Hunter's Lullaby has a structure to it. Do you feel like today's market is more of a singles market, like the album is going away – commercially speaking?

Maybe for the masses the album doesn't mean that much anymore. I don't know if it really ever did. I mean, everyone used to bitch in the '90s, me included – you buy a record and there's really only a couple good songs you listen to. So almost 90% of records are like that. If you're buying records now, people don't buy the album – they just buy the single. I think for music lovers that appreciate a body of work across a record, whether it's like ten or twelve songs, I think they still dig it that way. I saw it at the shows, the last tour I did for my solo record, I was really surprised people knew all the songs. I think that's just a testament to a lot of music lovers, or anyone who likes art or film or whatever, they'll really dig in and give the time to people they like.

Do you have any particular albums that really influenced you, past or present?

I'm a huge Neil Young fan. From the classic bands, I'm a huge [fan of] The Band. I did something with Garth Hudson, of The Band, a few weeks ago. I think as a group of musicians, The Band were so incredible. There's a version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” from The Last Waltz, the Scorsese film, that is one of the best live versions of any song ever recorded. I get a chill whenever I watch that film and hear that song. To work with Garth was just a pleasure. I just feel like all the classic music – there's a reason why it's classic and still gets played today. That's the unfortunate thing with a lot of new music, I don't know if it will stand the test of time.

Can you talk a little bit about the songs on Hunter’s Lullaby?

The record is much more personal than I've ever done, obviously because I only had to answer to me. So I felt like I could take that liberty with this one. There's songs like "Careful What You Wish For," that's really like a documentary of me moving from Toronto to L.A., and the drive and the expectations you have of things. "China Doll" is inspired directly by that Al Gore film [An Inconvenient Truth]. Not that I'm a huge Al Gore fan, but I think what that documentary spawned has been pretty overwhelming. It's almost become a cliché, but the whole greenhouse effect – it's amazing how fast it took hold. It's awful.

"Earthless" is one of those songs I kind of hide behind. It's like a painting to me. "The Less I Know" is pretty much how I feel everyday. Jared Paul, who's a friend of mine and a really heavy activist, just got out of jail actually. He was in Minneapolis, for the GOP convention, and was unrightfully thrown in jail for four days. He's going through that whole thing. It's guys like that that humble you, make you feel like, 'Wow, get involved.' "Rat Race" is the same kind of thing.

There's actually a song that didn't make the record that I've been playing live a lot. It’s called "Victim Of A Small Town" which is me talking about producing an unsigned band out of Devine, Texas, which is just about an hour out of San Antonio. There's an incredible artist named John [Campsey], in a band called Sleepway. He's just a true artist, like Merle Haggard meets Radiohead. He was an incredible artist, and he lived in a small town. Unfortunately drugs got the better of him. The song "Victim of a Small Town" is documenting the whole experience I had with him. I like that I was able to take really personal events in my life and write about them.

Is "Yellow Brick Road" a nostalgic look at growing up?

Yeah. There's something to be said when you're 17 or 18 years old, and you have this 'fuck you' attitude that's really powerful. Sometimes a little misplaced, but regardless, you're not going to die and you think you can change the world. As you get older and you get responsibilities – whether it's a mortgage, or kids, or whatever – once those things start taking place, affecting your life, you're stuck. That attitude starts to dwindle, because you become responsible coming into adulthood.

I think the key to life – what I'm finding – is hanging onto that attitude, even though you have these responsibilities. It's a really important thing to access. If you become complacent and part of the status quo, it’s like, ‘Forget about change.’ Any evolution kind of stops for me that way. You're more worried about whether you can afford that flatscreen at Best Buy instead of anything worthwhile in our culture.

Can you tell me a little more about "One Second Chance?"

It's political. It's definitely a frustrating time in politics right now. Since I wrote that song it's gotten even worse, not that I had any foresight or saw it coming. You can just feel the culture of politics. Who do you trust? Anyone will say anything to get elected. Change is such a cliché at this point, and nothing is going to change. Forget about health care, forget about any real programs taking effect and changing the course of history. It's just one of those things, where you look at a guy like Cat Stevens or [Noam] Chomsky or any of these people who really get it and understand it.

And it's interesting, because as I read their books – a lot of times you're just fooling yourself and you get suckered into the same old shit time and time again. But saying all that, I am optimistic. And "One Second Chance" is about that. I felt like that with Obama for a minute. If there could be some sort of progress, maybe it's possible with him. But with the last debate, I kind of lost a little hope in that.

You've been involved with a lot of charitable events. Was it being in the music business that got you into that?

Well yeah, I work closely with War Child. The whole thing is basically saving kids in war zones. So I've been to Iraq, and I've been to Darfur. We’ve built some schools in the Congo. I mean, they’re just a great organization because it's youth oriented and music is a big part of it. There's a synergy there, and it's a no-brainer. I think what it did for me, it gets you out of your bubble. For me that was a tour bus for awhile. For everything that's so great, you [have to] basically compare yourself to third world countries that have war or conflict zones.

It gives you a different perspective. It’s one of the things that makes you appreciate what you have. Just realizing that with technology, and as we evolve that way, the planet is getting smaller. You know, we have access to every bit of information out there. We know so much that before would never have gotten to the masses. Now everybody knows there's genocide going on in Darfur. Why we haven't done anything? Who knows? That's the big debate.

I went to Iraq in 2001. It's pretty life-changing. It's the kind of thing that really gets into your pores. You get home and you can't really wash it off. It stays with you and lingers. I always wish more people could travel. Fortunately I had the opportunity because of being a musician. For people who work a regular job and are trying to support their families it's much more difficult to be active or get involved. Hopefully at some point if everyone tries – even if it's just working in a soup kitchen – just seeing the other side is so vital to becoming one [world].

What are your career plans for the future? Will you keep working with Our Lady Peace?

Yeah, actually they are coming into town [to work on the new album]. We're going to take two weeks and finish our record. I'm really excited about that – like I said before, about the way we recorded it. Musically, I think we've really settled in to what we are. We're doing it without a label this time. That helps a lot, without the pressure of A&R people getting on you.

Do you think about commercial success when you are writing?

I've really come to the point where I think – when you're writing and a great song comes out, it's a great song and it's a special piece. What makes a hit these days is a very different animal. To try to play that game is ridiculous because for everyone that says, 'I know what a hit is,' there's an example of that person not signing a band who had a hit. It's like no one really knows. All people who really love music know, 'Oh wow – that's a great song.' So potentially that great song could be hit. In the right climate or the right whatever – with money behind it – there's so many other factors to make a hit. We're just trying to make great songs and leave the other shit to the powers that be.

Do you see yourself doing another solo album in the future?

I do. You know the cool thing about what's going on now? Anytime I have an idea – when I'm writing – that doesn't feel like Our Lady Peace, it can be more geared for my solo record. I can just record it whenever I want. It's not like I have to take two months to be by myself while I'm making a solo record. Part of me just really likes that idea of, 'You know what? I feel like just writing for myself today.' I can say, ‘A poem I wrote last night – I'm gong to put to music, and record it in four hours.’ At some point I'll have another record done and just put it out.

Learn more about Raine Maida at his official website.

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About Sherry Lipp

Sherry Lipp is an entertainment and food writer who specializes in film and television reviews. She has published the gluten and grain-free cookbook Don't Skip Dessert.