BNL'S Page makes album with mentorBy KAREN BLISS, Jam! Showbiz, 1st June, 2005.
It really is a crazy story. Twenty years after a 15-year-old Barenaked Lady-to-be, Steven Page, sent a fan letter to Britain's Stephen "Tin Tin" Duffy, then of "Kiss Me" fame, the pair will release their first full album together under the monicker The Vanity Project.
The self-titled 12-song disc will hit stores June 21 domestically on Warner Music Canada and new indie Flagship Recordings in the U.S.
Of course, anyone familiar with Barenaked Ladies knows that Duffy has worked with Toronto's Page before on the multi-platinum pop band's material, such as "Jane," "Alternative Girlfriend," and "Call And Answer."
On The Vanity Project, the two co-wrote 11 of the songs over the past five years. Duffy, who went on to front the pastoral pop band The Lilac Time, is now working with fellow Brit, Robbie Williams, and has no time to help Page promote the release.
"I was in Los Angeles for two weeks where he was there recording and I didn't even see him once," says Page. "He's totally into the record, but he's now Robbie Williams' music director and they're touring this summer."
The Vanity Project is actually Page's vanity project, not Duffy's, and future releases may include one or more collaborators, or none. Self-produced and recorded, the album is a departure from BNL, a point not lost on Page, who hopes it may pull in fans from other places.
"I think there are a lot of people who would like Barenaked Ladies' music, but don't realize that they would like it. Whether it's the image of the band or the hits they know from the radio, it's kind of marred their view of what the band really is," Page says.
"And if anything, the biggest success I could hope for with this record is that it might bring some of those fans, people who really like music, to pay attention to the stuff that the band does."
In Canada, The Vanity Project's first single is "Wilted Rose," a harmony-driven track that is reminiscent of early REM. "That's talking about the Quebec City Summit of the Americas in early '01 when we compromised all of our values in order to impress foreign leaders," explains Page of the lyric. "It has a Canadian theme to it too so it will work nicely (here)."
The single in the U.S. is one of The Vanity Project's first pennings, "That's All, That's All."
"I think the sense is that 'That's All That's All' is too slow for Canadian radio. Whatever. I let them (the label) make those choices because I make the record and they figure they know how to sell it or get it played. I think it's easier sometimes to get away on radio with a slow song if you're a female voice."
Page does recognize how remarkable it is to have made a record with his early mentor and enjoys telling the story.
Back in the mid-80s, a teenage Page discovered Duffy when he purchased the Tin Tin record at Music World at Scarborough Town Centre. "It was classic, romantic, slightly maudlin singer-songwriter stuff about unrequited love," says Page. "It was a perfect 15-year-old-boy record. I just couldn't stop listening to it, so I wrote him a fan letter at the end of that summer and he actually wrote back. It was just a paragraph or less."
The two began a correspondence that spawned a two-decade friendship. Page even sent over early Barenaked Ladies demos, and Duffy provided feedback and encouragement. The two met for the first time in 1989 when the scholarly Page attended a summer program at Cambridge University, and Duffy invited him to stay for a few days while his then-new band, the Lilac Time, recorded.
"We were in our first year (of Barenaked Ladies)," says Page. "I remember that we had just done our first photo shoot. It was just me and (co-vocalist-guitarist) Ed (Robertson) at that point, but I'd written a series of very passionate fan letters over the years and he'd written a few terse and glib replies (laughs), and here he was inviting me to come and sleep in his house for a few days. And we got along great.
"And I remember someone from the NME came to interview him and he introduced me as a 'poet from Canada,'" continues Page, who was in university at the time and had published a couple of chapbooks. "That was pretty cool—as opposed to, 'This is a kid who's a fan of mine.'"
They kept in touch and eventually became close friends. Duffy would often come to Canada to spent time with the Pages. The two began working on The Vanity Project in 1999, yielding such songs as "That's All, That's All."
In 2001, Duffy was in New York when 9/11 hit and in the new year he came up to Toronto, where they wrote "Everything's The Same." That summer, after a flood destroyed Page's basement studio and he bought a farm outside Toronto, Duffy stayed with the Page family there.
"In the basement room, we cobbled together a little studio and we finished recording the record there, but then it just sat there for almost two years and then last summer got it mixed," says Page.
The songs are essentially just Page and Duffy, with Page's brother, Matthew, playing drums and BNL keyboardist Kevin Hearn on some tracks.
The album was finished two years ago, but only recently did Page get around to finding a distributor for it. While Barenaked Ladies, which used to be on Warner Bros., now has its own record label, Desperation Records, he struck an entirely different deal with Warner Music Canada for The Vanity Project.
In the States, Page licensed The Vanity Project to Flagship Recordings, a new label formed by Marc Nathan, the American credited with bringing BNL to the attention of Sire boss Seymour Stein back in 1991. He managed Canada's Meryn Cadell at the time, who had a hit with "The Sweater" from the 1991 album "Angel Food For Thought," which featured bassist Jim Creeggan of BNL, and whose follow-up album, "Bombazine," was released on Sire in 1993 and featured BNL drummer Tyler Stewart.
"He's been in the business since the mid-70s and worked through a million different labels and now he has his own label," says Page. "I think he has three (other) records coming out this year, but this is certainly the most high profile for him."
Because Page sat on the album for so long he says Duffy is too busy now to tour with him behind it, but Page will still go out solo and play some acoustic shows this summer.
Meanwhile, Barenaked Ladies has cut a song called "One Little Ship" for the soundtrack to the animated Disney feature, Chicken Little, due in theatres this fall. By then, the band should be full swing into the recording of its next album with producer Jim Scott, who engineered 2000's "Maroon."
"We're still writing now," says Page. "You know, it's so hard to tell what it's going to be until we start recording it and even when we're in it, I always find it hard to describe.
"I think that we're maybe a little more self-reflexive, but in a wryly humorous way. I think we understand that the music business is changing and that we don't have to chase radio as much as we had in the past. I think that grants us a lot of liberty that we haven't had in the last few years."
And as a matter of curiosity, has he ever struck up a friendship with the author of a fan letter?
"I'm not good at writing back to people like that," Page admits. "Although I have a good relationship with our fans, I don't think of it as being something that could grow into something personal, and I think he (Stephen) never thought that either, but he still says that something about those early letters made him understand that I was okay."
So you've never invited any fans to sleep at your house? "Er, no."
But it worked out so well for you. "I know, I keep thinking about that, that I should be more generous."