"Right now, and for the past few years, it seems we are all so divided. Politics, Racism, and now the pandemic. Music, too, has gotten pretty isolated as well. So much of it is single artists making beats on a midi, recording on their own and releasing it. All the juice has been boiled off."
Robert Billard: The Blues of Life
For 30 years, the two sides of Robert Billard have fought each other tooth and nail. The architect vs the recording and performing artist. From the street corners of Halifax playing original maritime folk music to blues/rock on the main stage of a CBC Gala performance broadcast across Canada, Robert played his heart out. Just as passionately, he has designed buildings in seven provinces and territories from Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, to Victoria, British Columbia, to Canso, Nova Scotia. He’s shared stages with everyone from The Barenaked Ladies, Great Big Sea, Garnet Rogers, Archie Fisher and James Keelaghan. As The Oakfield Times, he played the Maritimes with original folk music releasing two albums, Passages (1993) and This Land, This Sea (1994). In 1999, Robert moved to Iqaluit, Nunavut, and in 2002 his band performed at the nationally broadcast Arctic Winter Games CBC Gala and released as a full-length album Terra Incognita Live! In 2013, as The Concord Creek Band, Gravel Runway, was released.
(Photo: Robert Billard)
In 2018 Robert and local musicians started The Draggin Hearts: Tom Petty Live! Tribute Band. In 2020 Robert finally brought architecture and music together when he designed and built Fifth Chord Studios, a high-quality rehearsal, recording and livestream performance studio. Now, armed with songs written in the dark times of this life, and others looking to find strength and joy, Robert has brought together an amazing cast of Canadian blues artists to record a new contemporary blues-rock album. Robert Billard and the Cold Calls new release “Stop” (2021), recorded and mixed predominately at Fifth Chord Studios, features a veritable who’s-who of Canadian musical royalty, including Clayton Hill of Trooper on drums, Guy Wilson-Roberts, Alexander “A-Train” Boynton, Tobin Frank, JW-Jones, Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne, Tony “Wild-T” Springer, Murray Porter, Tonye Aganaba and Gowan.
Interview by Michael Limnios
How has the Blues and Folk/Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?
Having come from the Canadian Maritimes, a sense of history, the good and the bad, is part of my life. The connection to the collective roots of the people. When I lived in the Arctic, and that sense of ancient history is all around you. All of that leads to a style of music that is story and emotion based. A music that has a long and deep history, good and bad. The Blues and Folk/Rock is those things.
How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?
Personally, I've been through a lot in my life. I have a lot of stories to tell. Putting them into bite sized pieces in a song makes me condense things. Process things. Like this latest album. It was a lot of therapy for me. Going back to some songs I had written 20 years ago but had never recorded and re-feeling the emotions that went into them. Then writing new ones that continued the story. It was hard but it was good for me too. What comes out of it is sometimes some anger or sadness. And other times it's strength and almost happiness.
I guess my philosophy would be writing songs that have depth. Songs that are crafted. You can have a happy fun song and still make it have multiple layers. After 30 years of writing songs, I don't like pedantic lyrics. I like lyrics that leave another story underneath, lyrics that make you think or want to know more. But at the same time, I stay away from overly obtuse and pretentious lyrics. You shouldn’t have had to have read Plato in order to understand what the song is about. My sound has evolved over time. Started really acoustic and simple. Now it's more electric with many parts. It has more edge. More grit. Time, I guess, does that to people. (Photo: Robert Billard)
"Architecture is creative, at least at the start. It's a lot like song writing. You have an idea, something grabs you. A sketch on paper is like a lyric in your head. Then you start to build on it. When you have it all together, then you start to edit it. Make it actually work and not just be an idea."
What touched you from the architecture? How started the thought of Fifth Chord Studios?
When I was five my grandfather asked me what I would like to be when I "grow up". I said an Architect. My family never let me forget that. But I kept procrastinating and going off in other directions. That's where music came in. But Architecture kept coming back. Architecture is a form of art. It is a creative process. That creativity fuels the music and music fuels the Architecture. They are all creative outlets that keep me from getting stale. After a long time, I was lucky enough to get to a point where Architecture could support and help the music.
Fifth Chord Studios was a dream of mine. Having my own studio. A place I can go to anytime I want and play, write and record. But I don't tend to do things half way, so it became a huge project. It was the perfect blend of Architecture and Music. Once I got to a certain point in putting it all together, I realized that it really should be a working studio for other artists.
What are the lines that connect: music & architecture? What are the similarities of?
Architecture is creative, at least at the start. It's a lot like song writing. You have an idea, something grabs you. A sketch on paper is like a lyric in your head. Then you start to build on it. When you have it all together, then you start to edit it. Make it actually work and not just be an idea. So that it can be built/played. But the work doesn't stop there. For me, the work really starts when it's time to get the song/building out there. That's the hard work. For me at least.
Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
I have opened and played with a lot of artists over the years. Some stick with me. I remember playing at a Sam The Record Man in Halifax promoting a new album in the early 90's and Great Big Sea was playing before me. We were both just starting out then. Staying up way too late with the guys from The Bare Naked Ladies after we played a small pub. When I was learning how to play guitar, I met Garnet Rogers and we spent a bit of time together and he taught me about open tunings. I was a big fan then and that was a very special time for me. Then a few years later I opened for him. That was cool. Playing the 2002 Arctic Winter Games CBC Gala Show was a big thing. Cameras everywhere, fabulous sound, big audience, broadcast all across Canada. It was a high point for me. Made it a bit hard to start all over in Vancouver 12 years later to rooms with three people in them. (Photo: Robert Billard)
"I guess my philosophy would be writing songs that have depth. Songs that are crafted. You can have a happy fun song and still make it have multiple layers. After 30 years of writing songs, I don't like pedantic lyrics. I like lyrics that leave another story underneath, lyrics that make you think or want to know more. But at the same time, I stay away from overly obtuse and pretentious lyrics."
What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?
I own a recording studio, so I listen to a lot of different music. We record a lot of different music. It's all good. It all does something. For me, I miss multi-layered real instruments. I miss bands and musicians being the big pop music. The bands and the skills are all still out there. There are thousands of bands working really hard, but that's not the big "thing" today. Fabulous Blues and Rock bands are out there. It's frustrating that big award shows put the Blues and Roots/Rock in the "Also awarded in a separate ceremony were..." category. Unless they sell a lot of records.
Why do you think that Tom Petty's music continues to generate such a devoted following?
Because he was good. He was an amazing songwriter. He was able to take a complex emotion or story and put it into an amazing framework and make it popular. But it was also his singing. He told the story. He made you feel the emotion in it. He was singing lyrics. They didn't sound like he was reading. He became the story. Also, he evolved. The raw, high power, sneering fun rock of the 70's turned into real Blues and R&B later on. Like he said one time, he went back to where they all started. His live shows were filled with Blues classics. Maybe it was because we were all getting older with him, but it spoke to us.
What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?
Well, recently it has been to never give up. To have faith in myself. The other thing making this album especially taught me is to trust my gut and to make the call. Having the guts to get in touch with Gowan and JW-Jones and great players from bands and artists that I loved like The Payola$, Spirit of the West, Rough Trade, and David Bowie. And then to have them say yes. It was self-affirming.
What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want to affect people?
Right now, and for the past few years, it seems we are all so divided. Politics, Racism, and now the pandemic. Music, too, has gotten pretty isolated as well. So much of it is single artists making beats on a midi, recording on their own and releasing it. All the juice has been boiled off. There's a lot of sound but not a lot of substance, I feel. A lot of copying. A lot of sampling. For a lot, too, the goal is to just have 15 seconds of your track used on a viral TikTok video. It's all isolated snippits. Short attention spans. I have a big ego but so big to think I am going to change any of that. But at least I can avoid becoming that. I can stick to my music roots. Hopefully it will all come back.
"Having come from the Canadian Maritimes, a sense of history, the good and the bad, is part of my life. The connection to the collective roots of the people. When I lived in the Arctic, and that sense of ancient history is all around you. All of that leads to a style of music that is story and emotion based. A music that has a long and deep history, good and bad. The Blues and Folk/Rock is those things." (Photo: Robert Billard)
Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?
That takes a lot of thought. There are a lot of places, of course, but, right now, today, I would go and sit in the Clubhouse and watch Tom Petty record the Mojo album. It wasn't made to get back on the charts. It was made because that was the music that moved them at the time. There's a lack of pretension, a lack of commercial intent in that album. It feels heartfelt. It feels authentic to them. Watching them work out the details and do retakes to get it to a point they are happy, would be very inspirational for me.
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