"Earnestly Me": Tim Baker opens up about going solo

The togetherness that is created when everyone is signing a song and feeling the same thing at the same time, that is the opposite of hate.

- Tim Baker

Smart and soft-spoken, Tim Baker is in the midst of launching a solo project and career. It’s a bold move that the former lead singer-songwriter of Hey Rosetta! characterizes as “bittersweet.” On the one hand, he no longer has the luxury of his talented band mates behind him, but on the other hand, he doesn’t have to alter or compromise his vision. 

His new work showcases his searching voice and renowned poetic lyrics, and so far, the songs have been played only before intimate house-concert audiences. Ultimately, Tim’s performance at this year’s Hillside Festival will be his first “big” show—a prospect that both thrills and terrifies him.

The new record, which is slated for release in late 2018, is “earnestly me,” Tim says. We caught up with him between intense recording sessions for a captivating conversation in which he unveils who the “me” really is behind the songs. Check out our Q&A with Tim, below!

[Hillside Festival:] You grew up in St. John’s, Newfoundland. What did it mean to grow up there?

[Tim Baker:] Well, it was the only thing that I knew so it was just how it was. It was a beautiful place to grow up. I had a really great, loving, big, supportive family and it was a pretty normal upbringing. Just going to school, playing street hockey, skateboarding, and going to piano lessons. I used to get asked this question quite a bit in relation to the band’s [Hey Rosetta!’s] music. It isn’t initially so evident in the style of music that we used to make and that I make still, but I think there was just sort of a pervasive appreciation and love and celebration of music in St. John’s. It’s such a vital part of the culture.

Were you raised in a musical family?

Actually, no. Nobody else in my family plays any instruments. We were a singing family but never seriously, you know? Just everyone singing as they walk around the house all the time. There’s a great tradition in Newfoundland of people having kitchen parties and just sitting around the kitchen having a few jars of wine; everybody has “their song” that they sing. I have friends that really grew up in the heart of that. Every Sunday, I would go over for dinner, we would play tunes, someone’s Nan gets the accordion out, and everyone would play guitar. It’s a beautiful thing and I wish that I had it more but I never really had that around my house. It was very non-performative but there was this sing-as-you’re-driving or sing-as-you’re-cooking mentality.

What age did you form an interest in music and then decide to pick up your own?

My Dad had me in piano lessons at, jeez, I don’t know, 5 or 6 years old and I took to it. I guess he thought it was a good idea, as most people do, to fuse those channels of brain development that music can help create and foster. I’m naturally drawn to it and I really did do well in piano. I was a classical piano player for a long time and was going to study jazz performance and composition in university, but I had to abort that plan. I went to Concordia University in Montreal and I studied creative writing instead.

It’s funny the things that happen to you. I was very upset at the time that I couldn’t study music. In one way, I wish I had because then I would be able to really shred [laughs], but in another way I’m very happy with the success that we’ve had. I love the world that I’m in and what I write. I love lyrics and that was a big part of that.

As an artist’s musical influences change over time, it’s interesting to see how it impacts the music they write. How have your influences changed over time?

You’re always swimming in the stream of your influences. Certainly in the beginning, it started with the music being played around the house and that has stuck with me for a long time. My Dad used to listen to The Beatles, Cat Stevens, Stan Rogers, and Ron Hynes. That sticks with you as you grow up in junior high and high school. I came of age in the late ‘90s, so there was lots of punk, pop punk, and it was just a great time for rock music like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and all that heavy goodness.

Do you find that makes its way into your music a little bit even though the styles are obviously very different?

It definitely did a long time ago. With the band, I was trying to fuse my classical music experience with the energy of the loud music that I came of age listening to. Some of the narrative, poetic and emotional drive came from my years of studying poetry. I was never really a music listener. I was never in a scene or anything; I never went to any shows. There is a scene in St. John’s that’s alive and well, but I was in my own shell. Once you’re in the world and touring around Canada, you meet bands and realize there’s a scene. We would tour with bands that we thought were so great. That was during indie rock’s heyday in the mid-2000s – it was a good time. Now there’s this whole thing I’m doing. I haven’t done interviews about it yet, but I’m in the midst of it now.

Right, and you were in the studio this past week and again this coming week.

Yeah, I had Saturday and Sunday off and then I’m back in studio tomorrow. I took a long time trying to decide how to do this and what it’s going to be. I’m quite eclectic and I write demos in a lot of directions, so I’ve been trying to figure it out. I really wanted to make something that is just earnestly me and not distracted by some of the compromises you have to make in a big band when the edges get shaved off. That’s really the opportunity for me. I get to make something that’s exactly what I want to make and reflects who I am, although that’s a difficult question when you love everything. So it’s been a long search, but the record is sounding very much like those early influences. It’s really a reflection of what was there at the core.

Having made music with Hey Rosetta! and now moving into your solo creation, what have you noticed are the main differences in the songwriting process between the two projects?

The writing hasn’t been that different. I used to write things in near-completeness, bring them to the band, then we would mix everybody in and things would change as we follow a certain direction. Occasionally, I would have to change the actual structure, meaning, lyrics, or emotional arc of the song, but generally everyone would just pile on to it. This new album is different because there is nobody to pile on to it [laughs]. It’s very challenging when you strip away everybody’s skills. There’s such a depth of knowledge and experience in everybody in Hey Rosetta!. You know, Adam lives and breathes guitar – what a guitar can do and what it should do – whereas I play guitar, strum a few chords, and use it as a basis for writing. I’m trying to get better at guitar and I’ve been playing a bunch of lead on this record, which is super fun and kind of scary [laughs]. It’s certainly also a joy to be playing with a bunch of different musicians. Just to hear the difference – to hear what different people bring to things. To hear the feeling in the way one drummer strikes a snare drum to another. It is a world of difference even though it seems so subtle. It has been very interesting and enriching to play with such great musicians on this record that I’ve been really lucky to play with. I’m excited.

The whole process is bittersweet, you know? I just did a solo tour of intimate house shows in Western Canada. I wasn’t quite ready to hit the studio yet in terms of the songs that were going to make it and I thought the best way to do that is to play songs in front of people. It changes how you feel about the songs immensely when you’re playing it for people. So I took to the road! My friend, Dan Mangan, has this great startup called Side Door, and they set up a tour for me. It is kind of like the AirBnB for house shows. It was relaxing and beautiful since it was just me in a minivan. I could stop when I want to stop, pee when I want to pee, and eat when I want to eat. There was a real freedom and quietness to it that was closer to my writer-self.

A total contrast of what you’re used to.

Yeah, but not as much fun at all! With the gang, there would be constant laughter all day long. This whole project is better in some ways and shittier in others – that’s just the way it goes.

It must be enriching in the sense that you’re pushing yourself outside of something you’re comfortable with. Has that brought some new influences to your songwriting?

Yeah, and that was part of the reason for this tour. I didn’t really grow up performing in houses. That terrified me, so whenever that opportunity arose, I would just be very, very nervous about the whole thing. I would just say, “I don’t know any songs! I can’t sing any songs! I don’t know anything!” which is ridiculous, but fear doesn’t pay attention to logic. This house tour was me standing in front of a room of people, which destroys the ‘fourth wall’ that exists when you’re with a band on a stage. It was scary to me and I knew there was going to be this dead air between tunes. So I went on this tour as a challenge. We recorded the whole thing and filmed a bunch of it. There may be a live record from that tour released some time after this studio record.

Is there a concept that you weave throughout your lyrics perhaps as an overarching theme on the new record?

I think we’re too early in the process to know. I’ve always put together the best songs we’ve had, then we jettison some to have our list. That’s usually when I do a deep dive and see what commonalities have come out unconsciously between all the tunes. Often there are several similar images that sum up a time in your life or something you were obsessed with. I haven’t picked the final list yet, but I imagine that’ll happen here, again. There will be plenty of songs about getting old. Something that weighs on my mind and I think everybody’s mind is how we are destroying our planet and fucking up the future of the human race. Just modernity, you know? I moved to Toronto about a year ago so that is inside a lot of these songs as well.

I’m interested in how you weave the concept of modernity into your environmental take on things.

It’s a hard thing to do without preaching. We all know what state we’re in, so it doesn’t help for everyone to pile on it in a negative way. We all have these things in common just like how these concerns come to me and fit into my music. I always try to write about things that are important to me and that may lift up the songs, create some sort of impact, and help or enrich.

This summer will not be your first time playing at Hillside, but it’s definitely your first as a solo artist. What are some of your favourite things about Hillside and what are you looking forward to this year?

Well, we’ve been to Hillside a couple times but the thing I remember most was that last time we did a jam session with Royal Canoe where we played the entire B-side of [The Beatles’] Abbey Road. We were told we had to do something together, so we arranged it by long-distance because we were both on tour in different parts of the country. I got on the phone with Matt, the lead singer of Royal Canoe, and cooked up this crazy idea where we would just perform the entire second half of that album.

How was it received?

It was amazing. We were so surprised. The tent was packed and people had just finished eating breakfast so they just sort of wandered in. We knocked it out of the park and I was very proud of everyone because obviously we had never had a single rehearsal. I remember sitting on a plane playing air piano, learning how to play the songs on the way there. Of course, this was the year [2014] we didn’t end up playing our set! The set with Royal Canoe was the only set we played because we got ‘thunder stormed’ out. That’s definitely the central memory. I was having a great time doing that because Hey Rosetta! never did a lot of that stuff. We had the tunes that we played and didn’t fly by the seat of our pants that often so it was very exciting. It was well received and everyone at Hillside is so friendly and open and great.

In the backstage area, there were just so many friends that I almost didn’t know I had. I knew almost everybody back there and it was just this great little party with great people from all over the country. There are many great festivals around Canada that this kind of thing happens at, but Hillside is pretty fucking great. I’m very excited to be playing it and it’s really the first big show that I’m playing. When I was discussing it with my manager and we decided to do it, he said, “you should really do this” and I said “it’s an honour; I would love to – but I guess I’ve got to put a band together!” [laughs]. But yeah, Hillside will be the first show of this whole new adventure.

Every year the Hillside Festival has an overarching theme and this year it is the notion that artists like you are capable of challenging the status quo in society and countering hate through the beauty of art. Does this concept perhaps intentionally or unconsciously make its way into your songwriting?

That’s a really good question. That’s the purpose for all music and art, really. People feeling the same thing together in a room with each other. I would hope that I contribute to that and I’m certainly conscious of it. I’ve written the odd protest song, as well. We did a song with Yukon Blonde during the Canadian election and I thought it was a good thing to protest. As an artist, I consider the power that I have all the time. When you’re singing in a band, it’s basically just standing in front of a bunch of people yelling words and people play music around it. You’ve always got to make it important. I’ve always tried to do that, just in my own way. The togetherness that is created when everyone is signing a song and feeling the same thing at the same time, that is the opposite of hate; especially when the words are positive, loving, accepting things.

If you were to go back to ten-year-old Tim Baker, what advice would you tell him?

I think I would tell him to not be afraid to make more mistakes. I think there’s a lot of beauty in fucking up. There’s lot of discovery in it. I was a bit of an overachieving kid, so I think I would tell him that.

Do you have anything to add?

I’m excited about the record. This week of recording was very exciting. I’m honoured and happy to be playing at Hillside on the Friday night, and I hope people enjoy it. I’m going to be playing songs nobody knows and obviously a few old favourites, but I’m just thankful. Hopefully everybody will enjoy that and respect it. I’m excited to send these songs out into the Guelph air!