Interview: Jim Cuddy
by Michael Bell
(2009) Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy has earned his place in the list of Canada’s musical elite. With one of the genre’s most recognizable voices and song writing styles, he’s been drawing in new listeners while keeping the old for some 20 years. In 1999 he released his first solo album “All In Time” and followed it up in 2006 with “The Light That Guides You Home”. I’ve had a chance to speak with Jim a number of times over the years, from the earliest days when “Try” took off, to the more edgier ones to follow. Always a gentleman and pleasure to interview, I spoke with Jim from his home on snow winter day…
JC: You guys getting all this snow?
Mb: Yes, we got snow? You get snow?
JC: We’re still getting lots.
Mb: You in Toronto?
JC: Ya, downtown. It’s quite something.
Mb: Well I guess, 3 or 4 in a season isn’t such a big deal.
JC: No it’s great! It’s good to have winter.
Mb: So you like it?
JC: I do! Living in Toronto you get a lot of half way weather. You get sort of winter and then it melts and it’s ugly and it’s sort of cold. It’s nice when it sort of defines itself that “Yes, this is winter… deal with it”. It’s good.
Mb: And you get out there with the shovel and…
JC: I get out there with the shovel. I don’t have a huge walk-way or drive way, so it’s not so bad. And we get out of the city. We have a little farm north of the city. It’s in the snow belt, so it’s going to be good.
Mb: So you’re back in Peterborough next month. You must enjoy playing up here you’ve played it so many times and tend to sell it out every time!
JC: It’s a good place for us to play. It’s close enough to Toronto that you can go there and back in the same night, and that’s nice. We’re very familiar with the area. Greg lives up around there. We see people we know and it’s a good area. I’m just trying to get a couple of gigs… I play Massey Hall on the Saturday night… I just wanted to have a little week’s run of gigs. It’s nice if I’m going to get my band together to have a few things to do, because sometimes it’s frustrating just having the one thing. So, we’re going to do Peterborough, we’re going to do Ottawa and then come back and do Toronto.
Mb: So why go solo? Is it just to break off from the everyday?
JC: Just to augment the experience of being in a band. I mean, it’s great to be in Blue Rodeo and that’s obviously my main focus, but I play with a whole other group of people. I mean, Basil’s in the band as well but the other people I’ve played with, Anne Lindsay and Colin Cripps, I’ve played with them now for 10 years. So it’s just like playing with other friends and I don’t have to rely on my band to make my living or career, I can do it for fun and I can take things that Blue Rodeo probably wouldn’t take. It just provides me with an outlet that’s relaxing. I like to play music and I also feel like… you’ve got a set number of years to do this and I want to take advantage of it.
Mb: And when you say “Take things Blue Rodeo wouldn’t take”, you mean gigs?
JC: Ya. I mean, I opened for Sheryl Crow this summer. I don’t think Blue Rodeo would have taken that gig, because we’re playing all the same places she plays. So those are the kind of things that are a bit more for a ‘wash and wear” band and Blue Rodeo is more of a “tuxedo”.
Mb: So tell me about the Sheryl Crow tour.
JC: It was great. We went across Canada, Montreal to Victoria. I did it the summer before with John Fogerty, so I got used to the 45 minute slot. When we play mostly in Canada I know most of the people in the building so it’s like old home week. Everyone sees each other again. She was great. She was really good to us. Got to know them all, It was a very friendly tour. It’s great cause it’s not like working. I don’t want to keep coming back to this recreational part of it but, you play 45 minutes and you’re done by 8 o’clock and to me that’s not like working. Normally I wouldn’t even have started work by then. It’s just relaxing. It’s good for the voice. It’s good for the band. Everyone has fun and makes their new friends. Good for morale.
Mb: Pressure is off too…
JC: Totally. I mean not entirely, because you have to do well. A 45 minute slot takes some re-engineering. You have to really go fast.. your dynamic has to be very steep. I’m used to a 2 hour set where you get to places more slowly, so in 45 minutes it’s a whole different energy.
Mb: I suppose in 45 you get to pull out all the hits, and the whole set is going to be strong.
JC: Everything’s a hit Michael! (laughs)
Mb: Speaking out hits. I’m sure you’ve been asked so many times but, what’s your favourite Blue Rodeo hit. What’s the one that will live, in your mind, forever.
JC: (laughs) I guess we probably wouldn’t have had a career if it wasn’t for “Try”. That was the one. When all that happened we were so naive that we didn’t realize it was happening. We didn’t realize that if you had a top 5 hit on all the AM stations, it was changing your life. We just thought it was kind of a joke. Like, what were we doing on CFTR. That didn’t seem right. So I guess just in terms of its influence on my life, “Try” would be the one. I still think audiences feel like it’s a challenge for me to sing. I think they feel like I’m too old to sing that. So now when I sing it, I recognize they’re holding their breathe to see if I can get up to those high notes. (laughs) And I’m always glad to deliver.
Mb: So I guess it’s easy for audiences to accept you as a solo artist. The sound is very reminiscent of the Blue Rodeo sound. You didn’t really step out and become a heavy metal band or… you stayed the genre.
JC: I don’t find myself restricted in Blue Rodeo. The parameters of Blue Rodeo are pretty broad. We can do rock and roll, we can do jazzy stuff, we can do country, so those parameters are naturally what I write in. I don’t have any hidden desires that can’t be satisfied in Blue Rodeo. So really, I write like I write. I think the differences are more subtle. It’s a little bit more personal in my band and certainly the instrumentation is different… with the violin, different kind of guitar playing and certainly different sound of the voices… and I am the central feature in every song which is very different than Blue Rodeo where there’s a tandem and different styles from the two writers. So I agree, it was never part of my intention to do something I was finally getting a chance to do. I just couldn’t do Blue Rodeo and that’s just the way it was. I’m sure to some people it’s a relief and to some people a disappointment.
Mb: How about a road story? Have any good ones of late, being out there on your own? I’m sure traveling with Blue Rodeo for so long it was all very comfortable and now… different expectations from audiences… from promoters…
JC: It’s been pretty good that way because a band that doesn’t play a lot is very well behaved.. very considerate of each other. The problems occur more when a band has traveled together for 20 years and is doing it relentlessly. That’s where people blow their top every so often. But no, not any good road stories. It’s funny, if I sat around with a bunch of people who had road stories, I could think of a million things. If a journalist asks me for a road story, I can’t think of one single thing. I don’t know why my mind blanks out. Maybe it’s a member’s code, we’re not suppose to be telling these stories.
Mb: It’s probably the prompting from other artists…
JC: Of course! We do have so many similar experiences. Same dickhead manager at a theatre or arena or the food in some place…
Mb: What about a new record? This one is a couple of years old…
JC: Ya, this is our winter to be making a record, so Greg and I are going to be getting together this month and we’re going to be working stuff out and I guess we’ll start recording next month. Our cycle is kinda like every second fall, so this fall we’ll have a record out and then start touring next winter. We have this winter and spring to get our record together. We’ve already laid the groundwork. We know what we’re doing and the type of record and where we’re doing it. That’s always the beginning of the evolution of a record. What style, where we going to do it…
Mb: And what style is it going to be?
JC: I think it’s going to be a bit more of a Jim and Greg record. I think that we’re going to work together for a little while before we bring in the band and that always marries the songs a little more. We’re going to do some of it out at Greg’s and that is a very rudimentary studio. That will determine a certain sound of his songs that he wants… very rough edges and then we’ll put it all together in our own studio. So that means it will be the 401 record. Driving back and forth on the 401.
Mb: With Basil and Bob Packwood on your solo album, I can’t help but think that you guys were slipping away during Blue Rodeo gigs and working on your own stuff!
JC: (laughs) No, it’s very easy to keep it separate. There’s really no cross over. the only cross over is I do a couple of Blue Rodeo songs in my own show. Other than that… I never do my own songs with Blue Rodeo and I really keep all the work separate… completely separate. I’m usually working on my band when Blue Rodeo is taking a break. I want to work more than the members of Blue Rodeo, so I fill the breaks with work.
Mb: Is that what prompted the solo career? I mean, Blue Rodeo is so successful I imagine they’re just picking the gigs you want…
JC: No! Back then, 10 years ago, it was bit more survival. 10 years ago I think there was a level of dissatisfaction in the band that was getting critical. I think people’s departures were kind of frightening, whether they’d come back. I didn’t really have my mind set to do a solo record, I was happy doing the group thing. But once Greg went and did his record, I just wasn’t sure of his state of mind. I wasn’t sure whether he’d ever come back. So I thought, well I’d better protect myself and see what I can do. Then it became something totally different. Then it became something that was enjoyable and had nothing to do with trying to protect my life or trying to show Blue Rodeo I could do it. And then it was easy. Everyone in the band has made records, numerous records. Then it just becomes everyone’s side line is of interest to everybody. If they can help play on each other’s records no problem. So then it just became a very healthy outlet. When you’ve been a band a long time and everyone relying on each other 100%, and 100% of the time, it’s just a little too much pressure and once you just spread it out a little bit everyone just starts acting a little more normally. i think it’s a very good thing for a band. I highly recommend it.
Mb: So what else is going on in life, beside the music. I don’t know if you remember the last time we spoke. I interviewed you back in the late 90’s and asked you what your favourite colour was… you wouldn’t tell me!
JC: (laughs) I remember. It sounded like you were getting bored and just wanted another question. Other things I do… well, I have a family and that’s a huge focus. I have two kids in university and one in the later stages of high school, so my wife and I are starting to do a little bit of travel and I play a little hockey and…… I’m still not going to tell you my favourite colour! (laughs)
Mb: You’re being pretty evasive. It isn’t pink is it?
JC: You’ll still want to interview me 9 years from now.
Mb: And I’ll still ask you that question..
JC: “God damn it, tell me!”
Mb: Ok, what if you were a pizza, what kind of pizza would you be?
JC: (laughs) I tend towards more of a classic. My tastes tend to go more toward the classic pizza. Maybe with pepperoni, but I think just the cheese pizza. Just go straight. Nothing to it. I think that’s the most difficult.
Mb: I get the feeling you like to play safe.
JC: No, not particularly. I do a lot of cooking and I’m not a very safe cook. But I do think the most difficult things are often the most simple. You load some shit up on there and you can fool everyone into thinking the basis of that pizza is good. It’s like a song. Sometimes you can load up a lot of arrangement and instrumentation, but if the song’s not solid… if you don’t have that cheese pizza under there, it’s not going to happen. Search Amazon.com for jim cuddy