2016 marks the 10th anniversary of Jason Collett’s half-literary-half-music series known as the Basement Revue. With its surprise lineups and exceptional collaborations, it’s one of Toronto’s most anticipated annual shows with this year being no exception – four out of the five 10th Anniversary performances have already sold out. Collett and literary co-curator Damian Rogers have built a reputation of thrilling audiences with both big names and exciting emerging talent over the years. Past performers have included Canadian icons such as Margaret Atwood, Gord Downie, Michael Ondaatje, Rufus Wainwright, Naomi Klein and Feist.
Beginning in 2007 at The Dakota Tavern, the Basement Revue has expanded into larger venues over the years including The Opera House, the NAC’s Ontario Scene Festival and three consecutive years at the Luminato Festival. This year, in celebration of a decade of performances fueled by passion and a rock’n’roll sensibility, Collett and Rogers bring the Basement Revue back home to the Dakota Tavern for four intimate shows in December with an extra special edition being held at The Great Hall on December 22nd.
In the days leading up to 10th anniversary shows, Jason Collett shared the story of the origin and evolution of the Basement Revue with Stories Behind The Songs.
Jason: Well the precursor to the Basement Revue was a thing that I did years before for several years around the turn of the century called Radio Monday. I would do a residency at a venue say, three times a year, and it was based on the typical folk singer-in-the-round setup except it wasn’t just acoustic guitars. There were some jams, there were some stories, but it was pretty linear in comparison to what the Basement Revue is. I stopped doing that because of the amount of touring that I ended up doing with [Broken] Social Scene. But you know, there was various incarnations of Social Scene that were part of that over the years – it was a veritable who’s who of the time. People would always ask me when I was going to do Radio Monday again but I just didn’t think I had the time. But then I wanted to do something in December in 2007 because I had some new songs and I decided to do a residency and call it the Basement Revue and to incorporate some literary elements. It was Kevin Connolly who I first invited – he’s a poet – and he was an early co-curator of the literary stuff with me. So I invited Kevin out because I had heard him read at a function that we were both at and I really liked his stuff. He brought in Damian Rogers and then it kind of grew from there.
J: Well, I was envisioning the Basement Revue as a one-off residency that December for a couple of reasons: it’s when all of my peers come off the road so it’s an easy get for people, and The Dakota had opened up the same year, so this is The Dakota’s 10th anniversary as well. The Dakota had quickly become this sort of neighbourhood institution for a lot of musicians to just sort of walk down the street. You know, you’ll find Ron Sexsmith at the end of the bar and you know people are going to be there. Jimmy Shaw from Metric, his studio is just down the street so people would always wander up for a drink. It was sort of a nice neighbourhood place for the community to come together and I always envisioned the Basement Revue as an extension of my kitchen table. My wife and I host a lot of dinner parties and often over the years there have been a lot of bands staying at our place from out of town and then other friends want to come by and say hello and then a dinner party ensues and it’s late at night, the guitars come out, stories are being told. It always impressed me – that kind of sharing that’s not really performance but just a really intimate kind of sharing. I always wanted to recreate that and The Dakota has been a good place to do that because it lends itself to that kind of domestic vibe.
J: Yeah, and what’s also key to the way the chemistry works there is that there’s no backstage for artists to hide in. We’re very careful when we go to do a larger show about that because that sucks a lot of energy out of the show – when performers aren’t relating to what else is happening. When you give performers a backstage with all the accoutrements, they just hide out and then they’re just in their own garrett so we make everybody sit on stage just so that it feels like we’re all at this table together. And it changes how you perform because often what’s happening is an organic kind of setlist – people responding to punchlines that came earlier and adding to it. They’re carrying on a thread of something else that goes throughout the show. So all of those little things we learned from The Dakota because there’s nowhere to hide there. I’m at the side of the stage and I end up watching the audience a lot. A lot of what the audience is watching is who’s going to be performing because they can see certain names and there’s a kind of anticipation like, “Are they just here to watch tonight or are they going to get up?”, you know? So that’s kind of fun too.
I’m curious about how the curation process works. With both the big names that perform as well as the emerging talent that you like to showcase, how does that come to be? Do people approach you? How does that process work?
J: It works in multiple ways but part of what we try to do is introduce artists and I think it’s why people come too, right? People come not knowing what they’re going to see so there’s a couple of things going on. There’s a certain anticipation. We build a certain amount of our currency on the fact that we do deliver names but we use that as a way to introduce new talent and I think more and more people are really beginning to dig that because they’re coming [to a show] and going away with maybe a new favourite artist or somebody they haven’t heard of before. And in some sense, the whole literary element has been that too. People weren’t coming for that at first but I think that’s why people come now, because it’s both and they get turned on to new artists. But the process is all over the map, really. Both Damian and I try to keep as much of an ear to the ground as possible and Damian’s in a good position to do that as a poetry editor. She’s reading a lot of new work all the time. The other thing though, as far as curation, that I think we’ve kind of fallen into, that I think is a good thing, is that we’ve been showing a lot of the same artists over those 10 years. It’s not that we’re always looking for fresh material, we’re also following the trajectories of several artists that are alum of the Basement Revue. You know, someone like Karen Solie or countless others like Kevin Drew who shows up every year because that’s just tradition. But there’s others – and particularly literary ones – where their performance skills have gotten really good. They weren’t necessarily good at the beginning but we’ve helped them learn to be more comfortable. It just comes from experience but some of them have come to become very captivating performers in their own right. But the thing that I kind of find fascinating is following an artist’s work over the years. A lot of the work that I’m personally very interested in is the work that my peers are doing at an older age now, you know? It might just be because of my own age, but it’s one of the stronger things that I see us doing right now is just continuing to explore them.
J: Yeah, which is kind of counterintuitive to the way my industry works which is just always about a fresh new face.
The Basement Revue is also known for unexpected and exciting collaborations with both musicians and literary authors. Are those encouraged or do you play an active role in setting up the collaborations?
J: Yeah, we do. It’s a useful way of getting people to do something. It actually allows us to get some people easier than if we just asked them straight out to come because we’re presenting something that they often can’t refuse. Like Joseph Boyden and A Tribe Called Red which was a pairing we did in 2014. I knew that they were pals and we wanted them both but rather than asking them separately if they wanted to come be a part of it, we asked them if they wanted to do something together. And that got them really excited to collaborate. And the same worked with Feist and [Michael] Ondaatje and [Margaret] Atwood and The Sadies. The Sadies were very, very excited about working with Margaret Atwood and vice versa. And those things are most often not rehearsed. They’re kinda talked about and what happens on stage is happening for the first time. Those collaborations are a bit of a high-wire act because we’re introducing the potential for a bit of a trainwreck or too much fromage, you know. But that’s what partly makes it thrilling and exciting to watch.
J: Yeah, like, for instance I think we played a significant role in the supergroup Hydra which was made up of Snowblink, AroarA and Feist. They had sort of gotten together in I think 2012 for the Polaris Music Prize and Leslie was telling me about how fun it was to put that thing together to back her up so then I asked her to do it for The Basement Revue but do it so that they were all backing each other up where she’s a part of AroarA’s material and Snowblink’s material and vice versa. So that happened and then subsequently they kept doing that and they toured that for a year.
The other example would be a side project we’ve been working on for a few years that we were doing in conjunction with the documentary film that came out last year at TIFF [called] Al Purdy Was Here. The filmmaker for that, Brian Johnson, asked if I could help wrangle artists for not only the film but to make a record by giving musicians Al Purdy’s body of work and getting them to write a song either inspired by his life or a specific poem or cutting and pasting from his body of work. The people that we have like Leonard Cohen, Bruce Cockburn and two of the most notables for me, Sarah Harmer and Jennifer Castle. So, when asking an artist to take an iconic artist’s body of work and make another body of work out of it, it’s interesting. And what’s really confirming about this is that for both Harmer and Jennifer Castle, the songs that they ended up writing are centrepieces on that new record. In Jennifer Castle’s case, it’s going to be the title track. So that tells me something, right? That there’s a lot that can be created by mashing up the disciplines like that. Giving an artist an assignment is often a really good thing for them, you know?
I know that you’ve done themed Basement Revues in the past like the 2014 “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women” show at The Opera House. For these upcoming five shows in December, do you have specific themes that are being applied other than the 10th Anniversary?
J: Well, we haven’t instigated a theme this year. You know, that 2014 show was particularly acute. Damian and I would meet to plan the lineup but we would spend most of our meetings just talking about what a fucking crazy year that was. I mean, that was the Jian Ghomeshi fall and here we are in the Trump fall now so I’m very aware that on some level, some of our choices reflect that for the lineup this year. As has happened in the past, we haven’t specifically embraced a theme but the theme just materializes often because it’s a show that’s at the end of the year and it can’t help but be a reflection.
Your ninth solo record, Song and Dance Man, came out this year – will you be taking your producer’s hat off long enough to perform some of your record during the upcoming Basement Revue shows?
J: I haven’t even figured that out yet. I might. I usually do but I won’t know until the last minute. I’ll probably play a certain amount but how much I just don’t know.
J: Oh, yeah, there’s lots. There are endless amounts for sure. I think the most profound one was the “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women” show. There was a confluence of things that came together that we were just so blessed by. Everyone from Ondaatje to Gord Downie to Shary Boyle to Naomi Klein and people who actually put stuff together to go on stage who don’t usually go on stage. Shary Boyle is a visual artist. Naomi Klein was like, “What are you doing, asking me to do this? I don’t do this.” But she told an incredibly powerful story, which is a big part of what we do. Yeah, that show… I mean, the fact that we had a fire at the venue a week and a half before the show was supposed to happen and I had $14,000 on my credit card, we were faced with losing the show completely and rather than go to a smaller venue – because there were no lateral moves to be made at that time of year – we went for broke and went for The Opera House and sold it out. And then this year, we’ve actually been providing that footage to The National Association of Friendship Centres online site New Journeys. That sort of deepening of our relationship with Indigenous artists and organizations, that’s something we just kind of stumbled into and it’s had a significant impact on both Damian and I so it’s been really rich and rewarding.
Jason Collett has been featured in the Stories Behind The Songs Playlist Series. Listen to Jason Collett on Field Trip Favourites, SBTS Standouts – The February Collection and the Sandbanks Music Festival | SBTS DJ Set
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