Tomato Tomato, the Saint John, New Brunswick-based roots rock outfit led by Lisa and John McLaggan, released their new album Canary In A Coal Mine on March 1, and it’s a potent display of everything that’s made Tomato Tomato one of the most beloved groups on the Canadian folk music scene in recent years.
Having established themselves over their previous four releases as an award-winning songwriting partnership with a high-energy take on traditional sounds. Tomato Tomato has progressed to the next level with Canary In A Coal Mine, made at Nashville studio The Bomb Shelter (Alabama Shakes, Margo Price) with producers Jon Estes and Andrija Tokic, along with some of Music City’s finest musicians.
The duo’s range is fully displayed from the stomping first single “Take It On The Road” to the quietly powerful closer “Nothing Left.” There’s even a couple of covers: The Band’s “Ophelia” that strips the song down to its bluesy essence, and A-ha’s “Take On Me,” which has already drawn admiration from the Norwegian stars after the McLaggans posted a live video on YouTube. It all adds up to Canary In A Coal Mine being one of the most hotly anticipated roots releases of 2019.
We caught up with Lisa McLaggan just before Tomato Tomato heads to Australia this month for tour dates. Canadian shows TBA, and you can follow their progress at tomatotomato.ca
What makes Canary In A Coal Mine different from your past work?
It’s different in almost every way. John approached the songwriting with a completely different mentality, and that had a significant impact on the entire process. He dug deep and wrote close to 40 songs, so we had a lot of choices, as opposed to being bound to the first ten or so songs he wrote. The songs we chose are also much more personal and raw than anything we've put out in the past.
Recording it entirely in Nashville was something completely new as well. We laid down almost everything to 16-track tape, which forced us to be much more decisive instead of spending a lot of time editing. We also had such an astounding group of musicians to work with, and that allowed for some spontaneity.
What songs on the record are you most proud of and why?
There are a few that stand out to me. I think that “Kite Song” is particularly well written and that slow build was captured so nicely. I'm personally very proud of “You Don't Know Anything.” I think it shows a very different side of me than people are used to hearing. It's very raw. The lyric is about a woman who is finding her strength to get out of an abusive relationship. John saw me through this experience back in the day. We like to think of it as our feminist anthem. I'm also very proud of John's writing on the song, “Gotta Get Up.” The last verse still gives me chills.
How would you describe your artistic evolution so far?
We feel like we are finally coming into our own. We've become really happy with our current live setup and have worked hard doing our listening homework. When we were first starting, we were called a bluegrass band. I think it's safe to say that we've officially become a bit alt-country and maybe even a bit roots-rocky!
What's been the most significant change in your life over the past year?
This year we chose to focus on taking our time to do things right. We were so proud of this record and didn't want to be hasty in putting it out there too quickly. We spent a lot of time reflecting on our goals and building a team of positive, grounded people to help support us in the journey. It seems that even though we are usually in a hurry and running late—mentally we were slowing down and learning to be patient.
If you could fix anything about the music industry, what would it be?
We all know this is not a perfect business. There are many things that people are starting to try and mend, like having more women, people of colour, and the indigenous and LGBTQ+ communities equally represented. People are working to create safe spaces at venues for all humans. Those are probably the most important things to fix. There are other things, like money, how streaming is both awesome and hurting us, declining sales... But that's not as important as everyone being treated fairly.