Last fall I found myself in the oldest and most easterly city in North America, St. John’s, Newfoundland, in a large convention hall amongst a standing ovation for the band Hey Rosetta!
They had just won their fourth major award of the evening from Music NL, which celebrates music from Newfoundland and Labrador, for Group of the Year, and the audience spontaneously rose to their feet and would not let the cheers die down—the most remarkable part of the adulation being the band was, at that moment, literally on the other side of the world on tour in the middle of Australia.
It was fitting and somewhat ironic that instead of being cradled in the bosom of their supportive community, they were plying their trade on the opposite end of the earth. Perhaps it was the great distance the between them and the band being celebrated for what this tight-knit music community was most proud. In an industry that many times bases itself as “too cool for school” and aloofly prides itself on exclusion, this gratitude for a band that represents the polar opposite ideals was wholeheartedly refreshing.
Later, in speaking to 30-year-old lead singer Tim Blake, I asked him how Hey Rosetta!, once known as “that great band from the Maritime Provinces” broke into the broader music world.
“It started in a very insular way, writing songs in my room and none of us really knew what we were doing. When we started, I never really listened to new music or knew anything about recording trends or anything like that. In other words we are slowly pulled into the music game. But luckily the Newfoundland scene wasn’t very, well, “sceney” nor about being fashionable or trying to be discovered, famous or even being liked for that matter,” he laughs.
“It truly was about playing music. Even though it’s an incredible, supportive and vibrant scene, it’s obviously not the musical hotspot of the world. No one joins a band here as some sort of defined career path, or sets out to even make any money; it’s just too isolated. I mean we even have our own time zone.”
When I ask him if it’s strange for a band that officially started in the summer of 2005 and in the current band configuration since 2008 to just now be breaking in America, Baker pauses, before offering insight into what many other Canadian bands have been wrestling with for years.
“It happens when it’s supposed to happen and in many ways we feel incredibly lucky for the pace. Meaning, we’ve been hammering across Canada ever since the beginning playing into bigger and bigger venues. But, some times you play to thousands one night and in 20 minutes we go over the border to Detroit and play to 40 people in a bar the very next night. It’s hard to get used to it, but we kind of like it. It’s a continual reminder that we need to keep working on winning people over”
While this humility and continued hunger is a plus for any band, the true benefit to their slow maturation process has been their ability to continually experiment and hone their skills as a live band doing the smaller stateside shows while having strong ticket sales close at hand when needed, which takes a lot of pressure of a band trying to break into a new territory.
Hearing them play their six-piece melodic folk rock at one such gig in Boston last spring, it was clear that the band has evolved its pastoral and unplugged anthemic sound to a more intricate and nuanced sonic aesthetic without losing itself in the self-aggrandizing vibe of “acoustic art rock.” In other words they’ve grown super tight but haven’t lost one ounce of the engrossing authenticity that endears them to audiences of all sizes.
This ability to literally keep crossing the border between known and unknown has clearly helped Hey Rosetta! for many of their contemporaries miss this essential and organic step in their growth; one minute they’re playing a small club and seemingly the next second they’re playing some uber festival to a massive crowd they’re clearly not prepared to handle.
In seeing their no-holds-barred set at Bonnaroo, one such uber-festival, it’s clear Hey Rosetta! is ready to handle pretty much anything and poised to break big with their next album. A few days after their set where they played a chunk of their new material to an enthralled crowd, Baker was back in Newfoundland for a quick woodshedding break between other big festival gigs. He seemed to be catching his breath from playing such high-profile gigs while still trying to find the time to craft the new songs a bit more carefully after trying them out on a live audience. When asked what he had taken from playing the new songs live he says,
“I learned the longer you do this the more ‘fluffy’ and particular you get about the recording process versus how it sounds live, in trying to figure out how you want it to sound instead of simply plugging in and getting it all down as fast and raw as possible. We’ve learned to refine what we’re doing more carefully when matching the sound of the part versus just turning it up and going for it; finding out what the song is supposed to sound like instead of just figuring out what parts we are each going to play. For example, on the first full length, I used the same guitar and the same amp through out all the songs. I mean we just set up the drums in the same spot, with the same snare and did all the drum tracks in two days. While it does give a sense of continuity to a certain type of record and I think it was great, I don’t think we’ll do it again. It’s cool and it’s raw, and it’s real, but we are learning to be a little more measured with each recording since”
Hey Rosetta! is clearly a band not to rest on laurels or shun the long road to make a name for themselves outside of the Maritime Provinces, and from standing amongst the applause from audiences from small clubs to massive festivals or even to rooms when the band is not physically present, it’s clear people are pulling for this band to make it no matter where they play.