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Weird genius: what it's like to collaborate with Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip

Andrea Warner

Stories of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip’s generosity are legend. Particularly the ways in which they helped out younger, less successful and emerging Canadian bands over the years, taking them out on tour, teaching them how to command a crowd, about camaraderie and musicianship, art and fandom.

But Downie has also been a supporter, joining forces with various musicians and artists and friends to help bring great projects, Canadian projects, to life. He’s recorded with Sarah Harmer, the Sadies, Julie Doiron, Daniel Romano and City and Colour, and had cameos in films like Men with Brooms and One Week.

Downie’s also been a life-changing collaborator for Buck 65, By Divine Right’s José Miguel Contreras, Mae Moore, Linda McRae and director Andy Keen. These five artists told CBC Music all about their incredible stories working with Downie, some of which have never been shared before.

Artist: Mae Moore, singer-songwriter
Worked with Downie: on Moore’s 1992’s album, Bohemia, he did guest vocals on "The Wish"

Forward to the 39:30 mark. Can't hear much of Downie? Read on to find out why.

How did you end up collaborating with Gord?

It was 1992 and I was recording down in Sydney, Australia, with Steve Kilbey from the Australian band the Church. I had just come back down and we were doing some overdubs and I think it would have been April 1992, and the Tragically Hip were playing in Sydney. I think it was the Annandale Hotel. As my memory recalls, it was kind of the same night as Nirvana were in town and playing, but I opted to go hear the Tragically Hip and I went and it was a fantastic show. The club was packed and I think there were lots of Canadians there.

Gord was wearing a white suit from head to toe, which was kind of unusual for that time and it was kind of un-hip, but of course he made it hip. We chatted after the show and I told him I was recording and asked him if he would be interested in singing on one of the tracks. It was a song I co-wrote with Kilbey. Steve came up with the music and I came up with the lyrics, and it’s funny, because this one part of the song, I had always heard Gord singing it, so it was just really a lot of synchronicity there. He said, ‘Sure’ and came over. But Steven and Gord didn’t really get along. He didn’t like his style and Gord was very gracious, as Gord is, and sang what I asked him to sing, it didn’t take very long.

I asked him if he wanted to come with me that night to hear Midnight Oil who were playing at the Hordern Pavilion. So we went to the show and it was really fun and we just hung out, had a really good time, and then it came time to mix the record, Kilbey didn’t want him on the track at all. [Laughs] I really had to fight him for it! ‘It’s Gord Downie! Come on, he sounds so great!’ So we had a compromise, Kilbey was the producer, and so he put Gord back in the track, but he’s way back there. You really have to know what you’re listening to, to be able to identify Gord. But he’s there and I know he’s there and that just makes it all the more special for me.

He did [have a bigger role in the track originally]. It’s almost like Kilbey threw him down the well (laughs). They were both quite professional at the session, but afterwards, after Gord had gone, Kilbey just didn’t like it. Just not his style of singing, I guess, but I was adamant and that little bit got in there and made it onto the track. He’s just so great. I know he just loves Canada so much and it’s evident in his lyrics and — I don’t know, I guess he’s this century’s Gordon Lightfoot [laughs]. He’s really captured, lyrically, the essence of what a lot of people feel Canada is to them and certainly he’s done it for me, politically, and just the things that have inspired his songwriting.

I went to his show in Victoria and it was heartbreaking. He was the last guy onstage and the band went off and Gord just stood there and he tried to make eye contact with every single person of the 7,000 people at the show. He’s genuine, through and through.

Artist: Linda McRae (solo, and formerly of Spirit of the West)
Worked with Downie: on McRae’s solo debut, 1997’s Flying Jenny, he was a guest artist and did vocals

Listen to Flying Jenny on McRae's site.

How did you end up collaborating with Gord?

We toured quite a few times with the Tragically Hip when I was in Spirit of the West, that’s how we got to know him, touring through the U.S. and opening for the band. We ended up doing the Roadside Attraction Tour, one of the ones that had Blues Traveler and Matthew Sweet and Change of Heart and the Rheostatics, oh and Ziggy Marley and the Wailers. I think there were eight acts on the bill and it was so much fun. Oh my gosh, I couldn’t believe how great it was. Seeing Gord every night — I went to every band’s show for the entire tour. By the time we got onstage, you just felt like you were getting shot out of a cannon! There’s this really healthy competitive thing, you know? It was so much fun. The Rheostatics, after about the second or third show, we’d all end up in their trailer after the show was over, singing songs and jamming and swappin’ songs. They had this, something to do with 'desert island discs’ and everybody had their five favourites and we’d all sing it and Gord was always there, and it was really great because he ended up inviting me and Don to go up and sing with him onstage on their encore, a Gordon Lightfoot song. It was a blast! I’ve got a picture of it actually on my fridge [laughs].

So when I was planning on leaving [Spirit of the West], I did my last show on New Year’s Eve. It was at Niagara Falls, an outdoor show, I guess in ’96, and then I went into the studio right away. The Gas Station, in Toronto, Don Kerr and Dale Morningstar’s studio, and I didn’t have a band at the time because I’d been playing with Spirit so long, I didn’t really have a chance to throw a band together, so I just asked a bunch of friends and people I’d met on the road if they’d be willing to come in and play on the record. Both Gords from the Tragically Hip came in. Gord Sinclair came in all the way from Kingston on the train in a blizzard with his bass and played on a couple of songs and Gord Downie came in.

It was a song that I’d written about the Louvin Brothers, who were a brother duo from the '40s who became really popular and were some of the first well-known country music stars, were on the Grand Ol’ Opry and everything, and had a colourful history [laughs]. When I asked Gord if he’d come and sing on something, he said, ‘Well, I never really sung any harmony, but I’d really like to try.’ When he came in, Jim Cuddy had already done his part and I told Gord the story of the two brothers and about some of the antics that they had gotten into, their history and everything, and it just really pumped him up. ‘Oh!’ he said, ‘I really want to be Ira.’ So he went in there and started singing his parts, and it was so fun watching him.

He’s such an incredibly intelligent, interesting person. Getting to see him perform every night on the road when we were in small, little, intimate venues, like, really, eight- or 600-seater south of the border, he was so engaging and completely different every night. He didn’t have a script that he worked from, which really blew me away. I’ve travelled a lot and seen a lot of other touring bands. Often one show from the next is exactly the same but he wasn’t like that at all. I can’t remember what song it was, but he started laughing at the beginning of this one song and I thought, ‘Oh God, he’s got the giggles,’ but he totally knew what he was doing. It was this freakin’ scary, kind of maniacal thing, and then he went into the song, and it was unbelievable. And then I don’t think he ever did it again [laughs]. He would pick up stuff he’d read from the paper, in whatever town, and he’d read that and current things that were relevant to the places he was playing in. I really learned a lot from him, as a front person, the brilliant front person he is. There’s nobody like him, either.

We did a show at Thunderbird Stadium and I think Los Lobos were on it, and the Violent Femmes, who I love, and there were a couple of things that got thrown up onstage, a shoe or bottle, and Gord was so pissed off. He made sure he went out there and told the audience that it was not OK, don’t do that, and that also happened once in Barrie, when we played Molson Park with them. The Odds were on that, and some of the guys from Kids in the Hall, and Jane Siberry and Daniel Lanois, and oh, man, that was kind of a nutty show. We were third from the end and at one point a vodka bottle, a 26-er, it must have been filled with water, who would throw a full vodka bottle on stage? [Laughs] But it went zooming right between me and the drummer and it landed onstage and smashed all over. It was crazy. If it had hit me in the head, I’d have been dead. It was just nuts. Daniel Lanois was getting pummelled with stuff and Jane Siberry, too, I don’t know what the heck, but he got out onstage after and reamed them over the coals. As well he should. That was ridiculous, why would you do that?

So we were a little worried when we went and did the Roadside Attraction tour, but none of that happened at all. It was such a joyful, fun trip and we were playing 40,000-seat places with those guys. It was just a blast. It was one of the things that I’ll always remember. I still have my tour book from the tour, everybody signed it for me. I have nothing but respect and good things to say about him, and I’m incredibly sad about his diagnosis. I just can’t even imagine. It’s incredibly unfair.

It’s great that he’s still out there. And Spirit of the West, too [sighs]. It’s the same thing, he’s been dealt a really tough card as well. More power to ’em, they’re both really wonderful people and it’s just so friggin’ unfair. But life’s not really fair.

Artist: Andy Keen, director
Worked with Downie: on the Tragically Hip’s 2012 concert doc, Bobcaygeon

What’s it like to have the Tragically Hip call you up and be like, "Hey, we want you to make our movie"?

[Laughs] It was pretty flattering. I had a relationship with the management — I’d made a film [Escarpment Blues] with Sarah Harmer before, they used to share a manager, and Gord was a fan of that, so I think that’s why it happened, or that’s what I was told. But yeah, it was exciting. It was, "He wants you to come in and talk with them about doing something around this show." I’d never met him before, and it was just Gord at the time, because it was just in the city. Johnny, the drummer, lives in Toronto, but the others are all in Kingston.

I won’t forget it. He’s a very gentle soul who’s very serious about his work and I guess he saw that in me. I’m maybe not quite as gentle as Gord, but we struck a chord right off the bat, I think. It was pretty nice.

What do you remember about the first meeting?

I think he was checking out my striped socks. You mentioned the word collaborate, and I think that’s a good word. When you’re making anything, there’s a certain chemistry I guess. What I remember from the meeting is he let me talk about what I thought might be cool, after he told me what they wanted to do. It was their idea to make the film. It started as something like, "We want to make a thank-you letter for our fans, in the shape of a film that happens around this once-in-a-lifetime show in the town of Bobcaygeon." He talked a bit about that, mentioned a few ideas that were cool, and in that meeting we probably bounced a few ideas back and forth, but really, what I want to say is he let me go away, think about it and put some thoughts together and I gave them to him. Then I was given a greenlight and then it was my thing and that’s pretty special. It was a small project with a giant star at the centre of it. And that’s kind of what they are, you know? Believe it or not, they’re a supergroup.... But they’ve never lost sight of — you know, these songs are about towns across this country, small stories and big stories, mish-mashed together. So from then on it started to sink in. I was listening to a lot of Hip music, I’ll tell you that. [Laughs]

I hung out with them at rehearsals for that show and then I was at this little private thing they did and so we shot a bunch of stuff leading up to it, but really, it was the Bobcaygeon show, and it was about the fans and the live performance. It was never a film about sitting the band down and asking them how much that song meant to them, and I think people wanted that, I sort of heard that after the fact, but it’s not really what they wanted to do so we didn’t do it.

The scope of capturing a live concert — there are so many moving parts! That must have been intense.

Yeah, it was. I certainly didn’t have any experience shooting that big a thing. I mean, doc is my thing but with their blessing, and a lot of favours from people in the business, I just lugged as many cameras as I could in there with guys I knew could make good frames, guys and gals. I remember we had our homebase backstage, these Winnebagos and we had 11 camera operators and myself, and I was just saying, "Everybody, we have one chance at this, there are no second takes, get your good frames and don’t be afraid to step over the line." We came back with some gold. I was pretty happy with it.

We had about 15 or 16 hours from the show and then leading up to that, we were chasing superfans around Ontario and Quebec. We had all these great letters from out west and the territories in response to the casting for uber Hip fans, but we ran out of time and money, so we couldn’t get out west.

We showed it to the band and again, it comes back to them understanding the process of making stuff. They didn’t have too much feedback. They said, "Wow, we’re in it for more than we thought.” [Laughs] I said, "Well, it’s a thank-you letter from you guys, you should be in it."

Gord is different from the rest of them for sure. He’s a very interesting person in that that incredible performer you see onstage is not even around when you’re with him offstage. He’s just two different people, so it’s kind of interesting that way. He’s very much like an actor in that he has this facade, like this protective layer, and then when he hits the stage, I mean, it just all falls away and he obviously feeds off the crowd and he goes nuts, but he’s one of the best.

I love the contrast in watching him in the regular interviews versus seeing him live. It really does feel like two different halves or two sides of a coin.

He’s very definitive, and I totally respect that. There’s a mystery there, which makes him really attractive, too, right? There’s something there that you’ll never get a hold of and that’s his and that’s great.

When you found out about his diagnosis, what were your feelings?

I learned about it pretty early on. My feelings when there was a country-wide outpouring, after they released the news, it hit me in a different way then. I found out right around the same time David Bowie died. I found out then about Gord. It’s not like anybody called me; I just happened to be — I mean, I have a relationship with the management and it was just a hush-hush thing. Obviously, many questions, I didn’t know how serious it was at the time. A sidebar, not to turn it onto myself, but my dad had exactly the same thing, so I’ve been down this road.... It rips you apart, but it was weird, when the newspapers and the press conference happened, it really took on — it became far more. 

What I did not know is they were going to tour. I happened to see Gord about four days before the news came out. I just bumped into him, literally, and I froze because it was all kind of surreal.... He obviously has a huge respect for his fans.

I was watching an interview from 2009 and he just said that this is what he’s always wanted to do. He’s never dreamed of anything else. That’s beautiful.

Yeah, he was lucky to live it and live it large. When you get up close to these guys and the workings of the Tragically Hip machine and its workings around the country, it is a beast. It’s really quite amazing, talk about a lot of moving parts. It’s a business, this amazing business of these two-hour blasts while they’re on tour and then back on the bus.

Working with them, having this experience, there is a badge of honour there.

Artist: José Miguel Contreras, By Divine Right
Worked with Downie: on By Divine Right’s ‘Back To You’ and played on Downie’s 2001 solo debut, Cokemachineglow

Listen to "Back to You."

How did you end up collaborating with Gord?

Gord saw my band, and he always seemed to have his ear to the ground, especially back then. Eventually everyone grows up and you try to spend time with your family [laughs] but at that point, they were still travelling and taking young bands on tour all the time. Younger. And by young bands, I mean less successful [laughs]. To a certain extent, I definitely had my champions in Canada, but not in the industry, per se. The industry was uninterested. But Gord liked my band a lot and suddenly everyone was like, "Yeah, me, too!" It was pretty hilarious to see, because we’d been a band for, like, seven years at that point. I have to admit, it was pretty transparent. Gord thought we were cool, everyone thought we were cool. And, it’s not like we weren’t.

So, we got to know each other on tour for a couple of years and we were pretty close buds there. I was kind of semi-homeless as musicians often are, when they’re touring a lot, so I would hang out at his place a little bit. The producer I was working with at the time, João Carvalho, he actually came up with the idea for that song. Probably because he thought I needed a more commercial song! [Laughs] Since the album was going into the — I think it had crossed the $50,000 mark. I don’t know how I could have been so stupid. Or my management could have let me be so stupid, but he came up with this song and I worked on it and because I was hanging out with Gord, I played him the song, and he was like, "Oh, great song!"

He’s really a creative power. I don’t know what his method is now, but at that time, he had little envelopes filled with pieces of paper, that he would just write, like, in receipts or just bookmarks or scraps and write ideas and then put them in envelopes. Then, each envelope would represent that weekend or that night. He had endless amounts of them, so he was just fishing around in the shopping bag and pulled out an envelope and opened it up and started fishing lines out of there for that song. We were in the basement of his house.... This was just between tours, too. You know, the funny thing is I like that song, but I actually finished the lyrics for it after it was recorded. So some of the nonsense lyrics in there eventually crystalized into really good lyrics.

He was very gracious and generous with his time. I played on his solo record, too. That record is so beautiful, and people don’t talk about it enough. It kind of has a terrible name, Cokemachineglow, in the sense that people might get a wrong impression over what it means, I think there’s a lot of his art that’s still secret. But that record is so beautiful.

Can you tell me a bit about working on the solo record?

I worked on a couple songs. He invited me to play on it, but it was tense. There was tension between some of the band and the producer [Steve Drake]. It was pretty tense. Actually it was really tense, considering the fact that he was, like, "Come back every day." He was so gracious. Even though I was like, "You don’t need to pay me to be here," he just insisted on paying everyone. Even though it was a magical session, it was tense enough that I stayed away. But those two sessions were magic. Magic! He would sing different verses — he sang all his vocals live and he would sing different verses and different takes, but each verse as brilliant as the other. Like, you know, you sing a verse and you’re like, "That verse is genius, you have to put that in the next." But the other verse was just as genius! It wasn’t like the song needed more lyrics, it just seemed to be an endless pool.

The other thing is, a lot of it has instrumental sections, no one was really discussing the arrangements that much and he was just sitting there, eyes closed, strumming away at the guitar, but he was sort of conducting telepathically almost, because as long as he was there, we all just kept playin’. It was a really fascinating session and it’s crazy when I think that I opted out of more sessions. The producer tried to use me or win me onto his side, I think that’s why I tried to stay away. Both sides of the tension — the more record industry side and the more artist side, each tried to pull me in their camp, and I just opted out. But those two sessions were amazing. A-mazing.

At that point, I’d never actually been part of anything like that before. I record live now and I sing live now, but there was just so much faith in the process. He just seemed really in the moment in such a beautiful way. I don’t know if he was oblivious to the tension or rose above it, but he never acknowledged it. And not in a sort of negligent way, either. He was there to sing. The Hip is a big organization and I’m sure you have to rise about the politic to get anything done. I could learn a lot from that, not being petty. In my youth I was pretty petty. You may notice I went through a lot of band members. [Laughs]

I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me about this, José.

I always felt pretty hesitant to exploit my friendship with those guys. That’s just not my scene. I don’t walk around telling people about all my accomplishments. I’ve been unsure about if I should say anything about him or tell any of these stories. I don’t want to be like, "Hey guys, mention my name!" ‘Cause truly, it was a real blessing when that band championed my band. And it’s funny, here we are 17 years later, and it’s still one of the reasons why people take me seriously [laughs]. People still come up to me and say, "I saw you open for the Hip! I discovered you at a Hip show." It’s the never-ending presence. I guess that’s just the kind of magic that he has, really makes every place feel important.

Just the way he speaks about honouring new talent and the artistry of young people, I’ve always loved that.

Yep. I really wish him and his family the best. I mean, I could burst into tears thinking about it [chokes up]. I definitely feel lucky thinking about having known him.

Absolutely. And making stuff with him. That’s amazing.

Yeah. There’s a song on the last BDR record that I wrote for him. I never told anyone until last week. I wrote a piece for, I think, another CBC thing, and I was like, again, you know I never wanted to tell anyone this. At one point, I thought, I’m going to write on the album art, "For Gord," but then I thought, I don’t want to get more attention than I already have through my association. That’s just not my style. But I told my drummer, who didn’t know, I never told him [laughs], and he said, "You know, I think it’s time for you to tell people that." It’s that song called “We F--kin’ Rule.” It took me a long time to record, and then once I did, it took me a long time to release it. My engineer was like, "You have to put this song out." It was in the "never to be released pile" for a couple albums.

I’m glad it made it.

Me, too. It’s a good one.

Thanks for sharing this with me. I really appreciate it.

You know, when I was homeless, he has a lot of friends, but he said, "Come live with me and my family." He’s a really generous guy. It wasn’t like, "Just come for dinner," it was, "Come live with us." [Laughs] A pretty sweet person.

Artist: Buck 65 (Rich Terfry)
Worked with Downie: on the Buck 65 song "Whispers of the Waves"

How did you end up collaborating with Gord?

The song that we recorded together just started with the main guitar riff, and although it was sort of inspired by the music of an African musician, when we were in the studio working on it, it occurred to both me and my guitarist that somehow we could hear Gord’s voice on it. I don’t know why, but it just really struck us that somehow his voice would work. My guitarist mentioned it first and I agreed and said, "Yeah, I can totally hear that working." So my guitarist, Charles Austin, said, "What do you think? Do you think it’s the longshot of the century to get Gord on this song? Is it even worth asking?" I had played some shows with the Tragically Hip already at this point, so I had a little bit of a relationship with Gord. I thought, OK, what the heck, I had some contact info for him and dropped him a line and I attached a quick, little mock-up demo of the song and asked the question, "Any interest in working together on this song?" and no hesitation, he said right away, "I’m in!" which really surprised me. I gave it a one per cent chance. Figuring, you know, he’s busy, he probably gets asked to do this sort of thing all the time, so on and so forth, but to my surprise he said yes.

But he immediately had a lot of questions and kind of wanted to know what exactly I wanted from him and how I expected that to work. It was a conditional yes, I suppose. It was pretty clear there were certain things he wasn’t going to do; if we were going to do it, it had to be — I don’t want to say on his terms, but there was a way that it kind of had to work for him, so we had to discuss that a bit. To be perfectly honest, we just thought his voice would be the perfect instrument to realize the song fully. There’s just something in the tone of his voice that we thought would really work. Gord, as a singer and a musical instrument that we were initially looking for.

What are some of those things he looks for in a collaboration?

Well, the idea, for example, that we might have a part written for him to just sing, he didn’t want to do. On the album, there are other collaborations where that’s exactly what did happen. But that wasn’t going to be the case with Gord.... And it didn’t end there. It wasn’t just that he didn’t want to sing someone else’s words. His presence on the song had to be justified. It certainly wasn’t enough to just have his name included so it could be put on a sticker to sell an album, you know, such and such with Gord Downie. He didn’t want that. It had to be about the song and there had to be not only a musical, but, seemingly, a philosophical justification for him being there. And to sort that out, it required a few very long phone conversations between the two of us. It all started, basically, and Gord would really drive the conversation by saying things, like, "OK, if there are two voices then on this song, if we’re both vocalists on it, why? What does that mean? What do our two voices represent? Is it a conversation between the two of us and if so, what’s the conversation about and what are the roles that we’re playing?" It all had to have a meaning. Quickly I realized I really gotta pull my socks up on this. This is not just going to be a matter of tossin’ something off, writing some lyrics and recording it. To be perfectly honest, in a lot of cases for me in the past, that was enough. There are songs on that same album where that’s how that worked.

After many, many long conversations, we came around to this idea that the song was going to be a conversation between the ocean and a man whose wife had drowned and the man was trying to negotiate with the ocean, essentially, and ask for his wife back. The ocean was saying, "Look, I can sympathize, I can feel your pain, but I’m sorry, I can’t do it." I don’t think at that point I’d ever worked so long and hard on a song, and that it’d required refinement. I don’t think I’d ever written a song so carefully. It was a huge learning experience for me, because I thought, OK, if this is the care with which Gord writes a song, what excuse do I have from now on to not write another song with this much care? I just realized, having learned from one of the best, that you just gotta work harder. You gotta put more thought and more effort into it. I’m really happy with how that song turned out and I’m glad that it exists as its own little artifact, but what I got from that experience, more than that song, was just the great learning experience that there’s just another level to which songwriting can be taken to.... Things changed across the board for me after that.

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

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