As we prepare to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday, Toronto indie pop provocateurs The Hidden Cameras have set an early tone with their latest album Home On Native Land (Outside Music). It’s a hopeful, but complicated, ode to our national identity, by turns celebratory and at other times questioning what actual progress has been made with First Nations and LGBTQ communities.
Such topics are familiar terrain for Hidden Cameras leader Joel Gibb, who began working on the album a decade ago with the idea of making it a star-studded collaboration. The end result features Rufus Wainwright, Feist, Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys, Bahamas, Ron Sexsmith and Mary Margaret O’Hara leading an adventure in revisionist history, and forming a chorus of voices to deliver a new angle on the Canadiana genre.
Alongside several new compositions built around Gibb’s trademark honeyed vocals, sighing guitars and bittersweet lyrics, Home On Native Land also re-imagines soulful standards such as James Carr’s “Dark End of the Street” and Tim Hardin’s “Don’t Make Promises,” as well as the immortal Canadian folk classic “Log Driver’s Waltz.” Gibb even revisits one of his own early compositions, “He is the Boss of Me,” giving it a proper studio version to accompany the four-track demo that appeared on the band’s 2001 debut EP Ecce Homo.
In short, Home On Native Land confirms Gibb’s status as one of Canada’s most mercurial artists; one whose primary theme of personal freedom is painted with a new set of colours on these 13 tracks.
Home On Native Land was clearly a labour of love for you. What drove you to stick with it throughout the process?
The songs themselves kept me going. I recorded about half of them while I was recording 2006’s Awoo. They had a different style and charm about them than Awoo and in the back of my mind they would be part of a country-flavoured album. It was always something I intended to do.
Were there any specific inspirations behind the concept of this album?
Not really anything specific. I had more of a general feeling or a concept of exploring blues and country. One thing, maybe, was being interested in how pedal steel and banjo were used on a lot of albums made in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
There are some incredible guests on the record. Did you have roles in mind for them as the songs were being assembled?
It all came together without much effort or wrangling. I was telling Rufus Wainwright about my record one day and he said it would be fantastic to sing on “Log Driver’s Waltz” since it was his mother and aunt that popularized the song in the ‘80s. Ron [Sexsmith] just came around, since it’s his longtime drummer, Don Kerr, who I record with. Afie [Bahamas] lived up the street from Don’s studio with Doug Paisley at the time and just laid down a few guitar tracks at the end of a day of tracking - upon Don’s recommendation.
Given the current state of the world, do you have hope that Canada can still reflect the vision you've presented on this album?
I’m not sure if I reflect a political vision of Canada with my record as much as a feeling or a sound. Assuming that Canada represents something idyllic is a little facile. Of course, there are great things about Canada but we should not forget our colonial history, our inability to acknowledge the current treatment of Indigenous people or do anything meaningful about it. The title of the record is a humble nod to that idea. The fact that the Queen is still our head of state is troubling and says a lot about Canada. Trudeau’s overly warm acceptance of the US election is also something to be suspicious about.
If there were anything you could change about the music industry, what would it be?
Perhaps it would be the cynicism that permeates everything these days. I wish the industry cared and respected the point of music more, which is to heal, to transform people’s thinking and to connect people’s humanity. Music will never be dead.