Steven Page, born June 22, 1970, is a rock star, not “just” the lead singer of the pop band Barenaked Ladies. Who would have thought 15 years ago that a spectacled, chubby Jewish kid from the Toronto “burbs” would play to sold-out international stadiums, while playing a song where he caterwauled like Yoko Ono? But, then again, that pretty much sums up the wacky charm of Barenaked Ladies that has helped the band gain its wide appeal.
In 1991, Barenaked Ladies’ first independent release, The Yellow Tape, brought them acclaim in Canada, including winning Page the CASBY (Canadian Artists Selected By You) award for most promising songwriter. The band’s first full-length CD, Gordon, introduced their finger-popping sound and Page’s whimsically clever lyrics to audiences in 1992 with a string of radio singles: “Be My Yoko Ono,” “If I Had a Million Dollars,” “Brian Wilson,” “Grade 9,” and “Enid.” But it wasn’t until the popularity of the Grammy-nominated Stunt in 1998 that they became a radio staple, as fans below the 49th parallel began to take notice with their number-one single, “One Week.”
It seems like the success happened in one week, but it has actually been about 18 years since the band’s formation. Page formed the Barenaked Ladies with singer/guitarist Ed Robertson in 1988 while the two childhood friends were at the Scarborough, Ontario, Board of Education’s summer music camp. In addition to his lead vocal duties, Page also plays guitar. About a million records have been sold worldwide for every year they’ve been together—on the heels of hits like, “Falling for the First Time,” “Pinch Me,” and “It’s All Been Done Before.” And since the band’s formation, 10 albums have shown that their music is not as ephemeral as is some of their contemporaries. Page attributes it to never overthinking about the music. “As far as the sound of the record goes, we have no idea,” he says of the record-making process. “If we go in thinking that way, it never works out that way, and it’s never organic. I think it’s important for us to sound like ourselves, first and foremost,” says the 34-year-old Toronto native.
And what makes BNL (as fans know them) stand out among the litany of fleeting pop acts of today, he believes, is the emotional attachment to the songs and the down-to-earth style of the band mates. “Some of it has to do with the personality of the band members and that fans have gotten to know us and grown up with us. It’s the value of the songs for those people. This song, or this or that album, they tell us: ‘It reminds me of a special time in my life.’ Rather than see this as transient, they see it as timeless.”
Along the way, BNL has developed a dedicated following and a reputation as one of North America’s best-loved live acts. The band’s unique concert style, filled with song improvisations and silly banter, developed naturally, according to Page. “It’s just the way Ed and I related to each other, the way we enjoyed making music together,” he says.
However, it’s the old classics from BNL’s first album, some of which Page wrote as a teenager, that elicits the strongest fan response. The die-hard fans, who often sing along or mouth the song lyrics at concerts, never tire of filling in famous catchphrases like, “Haven’t you always wanted a mon-key?” from If I Had a Million Dollars.
“I don’t really get sick of them that often,” he says of the older material. “There are occasionally ones that you do, and ones that you have to play. I see other guys in the band that really do struggle with that sometimes. Being front person is different. If I were playing drums, I’d get sick of it. Part of the charm of performing with us is the banter and the chitchat, and my wheels are spinning during the breaks. For me that’s a fresh experience.”
Just to make things fresh again, he concedes that lately the band has decided to wear clothes especially demarcated for concerts, to delineate between the everyday mundane. “I think we’ve always taken ourselves seriously, even when we profess not to,” says Page, who still isn’t sure to this day whether being pretty goofy has helped or hindered the band professionally.
“We are more tolerant of people who are dismissing us as a comedy band, but they miss out on the good work we do. But that’s partially our fault because of how we present ourselves. Something that really bothered us about other artists is their desire to be important, serious. That wasn’t the point of making music. We did it because it was fun. We weren’t going to pretend it wasn’t fun just to impress people. We’re lucky enough to have a fan base that appreciates our fun stuff and our serious stuff.”
When asked if he was worried that the next album might not be as good or as well-received as the ones before, he pauses, and answers reflectively: “It’s dangerous, but you can’t help but think that. There are times we do and times we don’t. What do people want from our records? Nothing stale or derivative. If you try too hard to be a marketing person, instead of being a creative person, you overanalyze your back catalog instead of moving forward.”
True to form, there was nothing stale or derivative from the unexpected musical offerings of last year’s record, despite having something slightly in common with other singers: Barbra Streisand has one. So does Neil Diamond, Kenny G, and Harry Connick Jr. All of them, very fine Jews with Christmas albums. But recently, Page recorded songs for Chanukah. Barenaked for the Holidays, last year’s 20-song holiday album with three Hanukkah songs on it, including the original “Hanukkah Blessings,” were written and sung by Page. They are perhaps the first mainstream band to record songs about Hanukkah.
“People seem to like to have holiday music play in their homes at that time of year,” Page says, recalling his discussion of the idea with his band mates. “So I said, ‘Well, fine. But we do Hanukkah at my house.’” Thus, he took on the task of offering tunes with Jewish themes. There’s the traditional “Hanukkah, Oh, Hanukkah,” and “I Have a Little Dreidel.” But “Hanukkah Blessings” is an original song written by Page.
Page says the disc’s genesis began as the band found it fitting to perform some holiday songs when touring in December—they already had Christmas songs recorded to start with. First came “We Three Kings,” a duet with chanteuse Sarah McLachlan, which became a surprise minor hit. And a few years ago, the band wrote and sang “Green Christmas” for the movie How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
It was last year that the band decided to fill an album with carols. Because of Barenaked Ladies’ reputation for being offbeat, Page says he thought his band mates had anticipated his Jewish contributions on the album would be humorous. He thought they were expecting a Hanukkah song like the one made famous by comedian Adam Sandler, which was a witty ditty from TV’s Saturday Night Live. “But I wanted a melodic idea that was personal to me. I found more attachment to Hanukkah blessings. The song I wanted to sing was about someone who celebrates Hanukkah in a society where everyone else celebrates Christmas,” Page explains.
“You can feel isolated from mainstream culture. It’s difficult to remember that we have our own culture, religion, and celebration. It’s easy to just go home and light the candles and forget about the rest. But my kids have re-taught me that lesson, to remember Hanukkah and what it’s about.”
While his kids remind him of the true meaning of Hanukkah, Page playfully recounts how, as a youngster himself, the gift-giving aspect of the holiday didn’t always pay off for him. “I’m not sure if I ever got a good Hanukkah present. A sock one night; another sock the other night. Then the third night I heard, ‘What else do you want? You got a pair of socks!’”
He is quick to point out that he and his family light the menorah, eat latkes, and play with dreidels. “We always enjoyed the food part of it. My wife puts on a killer latke-fest every year,” he says. Page maintains a home in Toronto, where he lives with his wife, Carolyn, and two young sons, Isaac and Benjamin.
Barenaked Ladies has shown that it can cross cultural lines with ease and still have appeal to its fans. But what about the band’s appeal across geographical lines? What’s it like to take a Canuck band with a sense of humor and perform in, say, Japan or Britain? Do the Ladies have to change things for foreigners to get the wacky stage banter?
“Early on we thought that’s what we had to do,” Page says. “I’m always the guy who is most nervous about that kind of thing. We realized when touring Japan or Germany that we once thought they didn’t have the same culture or sense of humor, or so you think. It was a revelation for us.”
Page recalls one year when his band opened for Bryan Adams during a Germany/Scandinavia tour. “In some of those places people were wearing leather bands with the studs, but they still loved it. We would talk the same way and act the same way. They’re used to artists coming in and talking. Of course, we would try to incorporate the five words we knew [of their language], which they always find funny at our expense.”
There are, he notes, actually more radical contrasts in “band appreciation” back at home, here in North America. “ Alberta versus Texas, for example. I just find there are more differences. Europeans have a generalized knowledge of North America. Places across North America sometimes are very vigilant about their otherness—they are not New York or Toronto. When we go to Alberta, we get sneering from newspapers: ‘The Ontario band.’ It has nothing to do with the value of my music or me as a human being, just the city I grew up in.” So, while the music of BNL crisscrosses borders seamlessly—though with the odd intercity rivalry—there also are inevitable times when people’s interpretation of the music can admittedly get a little ridiculous.
Now Steven Page could, if he wanted to, build a tree fort in his yard, eat as much macaroni and cheese as he wants, and wear fur coats (but not real ones ‘cuz that’s just cruel). Naturally, these lyrics from “If I Had a Million Dollars” are tongue-in-cheek. But now and again Page hears about those who take the music just a little too far.
“Sometimes I run into people who think they have a deeper connection than they really do,” he says. “On the Internet and chat rooms people say all kinds of crap about me, and they believe it 100%. They read into the lyrics or how I walked past them one day, and they think they can tell what’s going on in my life. You have to take it with a grain of salt. You have to just ignore it sometimes.”
Weirdos, notwithstanding, for the fans who see the music as pure enjoyment, there’s an enormous oeuvre of music to choose from. From “Be My Yoko Ono,” to “Hanukkah Blessings,” few other singer/songwriters can be said to be so musically diverse, eclectic, silly, and serious, all at the same time. One particular song, the semibiographical “Brian Wilson,” does have a deeper meaning to Page, however. “There are lots of points in my life where I thought, ‘What would happen if I just didn’t get out of bed today?’ I think that song is about the power of music to help you find value in your life, either as a creator or a listener. That song I like to get back to, to get myself up and do things.”
Among those “things” is a new record by Page and partner Stephen Duffy. This solo work, The Vanity Project, reflects a less humorous side of Page than is usually reflected in his Barenaked Ladies work.
“There was a lot going on in the world around the time these songs were written, and a lot going on in my own life,” Page says, by way of describing the tone of The Vanity Project. “The album is sort of a series of tableaux with a bit of a story line. It’s not intended as a rock opera or anything like that, but there’s definitely a thread—it’s about missed chances and bad choices. Did I want to compete with Barenaked Ladies? No. Did I want to break away? Not really, no. This was a way for me to express something different, something that was more emotionally raw. The songs express a certain vulnerability, and I wanted to let that show through, rather than worry about making everything sound perfect.”
Rock star, yet human being. Humorous, yet serious. Something different, indeed.
In case you were wondering how the band got their name, the band formed in 1988, taking their name from an old joke the vocalists had shared at a Bob Dylan concert as teens (they were inventing fictional bands with goofy names due to sheer boredom).
Sources: Dave Gordon, “Steven Page: Ladies' Man,” Lifestyles Magazine, 2005; Jewsrock.org