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The Bare Naked Truth

By IAN NATHANSON, Ottawa Sun, February 17th, 2001.

Ladies get serious with thoughts on life and mortality for new album Maroon.

Life's greatest trivialities can sometimes baffle Barenaked Ladies lead singer Steven Page.

Case in point: His recent appearance on Celebrity Jeopardy, which aired a week ago.

"You didn't see it? Good, I'm glad," says Page, phoning in from New York. "The 'Final Jeopardy' category was children's literature, so I thought, 'Okay, I could ace this.' And the answer was something along the lines of, 'The first line of this poem from 1815 takes place in a Massachusetts school.' I bottomed out big time." (By the way, the correct response was "What is Mary Had a Little Lamb?")

"But I did come up with a joke answer: "What is 'There Once Was A Man From Nantucket?' "

Ah, humour. Anyone who's caught the Toronto-based Barenaked Ladies in a concert setting over their 10-year career knows to expect some on-stage goofiness and pop-culture-laced raps to accompany their high-energy concerts.

Of late, Page, singer/guitarist Ed Robertson, bassist Jim Creeggan, drummer Tyler Stewart and keyboardist/guitarist Kevin Hearn wowed audiences at last fall's Farm Aid and appeared on TV's Live with Regis and Kelly two days ago.

Ottawans get a double dose of Ladies fever this Friday with a noon-hour live telecast from The NewRO's studio at the CHUM Market Media Mall (for contest winners only), followed by their 8 p.m. Corel Centre show, joined by Chantal Kreviazuk.

Fun and frolic remains an integral part of the quintet. But Page admits his recent writing has taken on a more serious look at life itself.

"It's the least ironic record," he says of Maroon, which earned the band a Grammy nod as well as five Juno nominations. "It certainly wasn't intentional, but the last two years have been pretty intense for us, writing about life and mortality."

Of course, Page is referring to Hearn, who had a near-brush with death after being diagnosed with leukemia in 1998. Just as the Ladies' last album Stunt would finally break open American success for the band — with sales of the disc reaching the 3.5 million mark and single One Week topping the Billboard charts — Hearn was in a Toronto hospital undergoing a stem cell transplant.

Treatment was successful but further battles lay ahead, including cancer treatments and a bone marrow transplant.

"He was just fading in and out," Page says of Hearn's physical and emotional state over those past two years. "But the guy remained vibrant. He brought in a couple of songs for Maroon: One funny, one serious. We took the serious one because we thought it was apropos for the mood of the album. It turned out to be a high point for us."

That ethereal track — with Hearn singing lead — appears hidden at the end of Maroon.

Page calls the album the group's least ironic, yet an air of irony hovered over the sessions in a Los Angeles studio where Beach Boys head genius Brian Wilson once created some of that group's finest material.

So who'd have thunk in that same studio Page would come face-to-face with the subject of a song he wrote 10 years ago called Brian Wilson? "All I remember were his last words of advice: 'Remember fellas, don't eat too much.' How poignant is that," Page laughs.

Timing and band maturity may have a lot to do with Maroon's way-past-platinum success, but not because the disc follows the super-hot Stunt. Recall the Ladies released 1994's introspective Maybe You Should Drive and '96's Born On A Pirate Ship on the heels of Gordon, their breakthrough '92 debut. But the public didn't immediately warm to singles such as Jane or The Old Apartment the way they did to Be My Yoko Ono and If I Had $1,000,000.

"All we're interested in is playing music that moves us, whether it's funny, poignant or depressing," Page says. "But we're a lot more comfortable with who we are now, and our fans are fully acceptant of that now."