Globe and Mail 2007

Canada’s best-kept secrets in the arts

‘He’s big in Japan, y’know.”

It’s a line publicists trot out every now and then to try to entice a magazine editor or radio producer into doing an item on a Canadian performer or artist who, to their mind, is a talent deserving wider recognition in his home and native land.

In effect, it’s a variation on the old saw that says for a Canadian actor, painter or musician to get sufficiently recognized in Canada, he (or she) has to make it big elsewhere first.

Nowadays, however, we like to think you don’t have to go away, as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, Monty Hall and Lorne Greene, Arthur Hailey and Graydon Carter, Mavis Gallant and J.W. Morrice did, to establish a career. After all, it’s an epoch of globalization, YouTube and LongPens. Aren’t Margaret Atwood, Sarah McLachlan, David Cronenberg and Michael Levine as well as Robert Lantos, Ben Heppner and Jeff Wall proof that Canada and the rest of the world can be conquered not from Tokyo or London but from a studio on Vancouver’s Cambie Street or a home/office in Toronto?

Well, not entirely, it appears. As the world seems to grow smaller by the day and we find ourselves increasingly enmeshed in a dense web of interconnectivity, Canadian culturati continue to depart the Great North Woods for fame, career mobility, critical attention and commercial success that loom somewhere over the rainbow.

Sometimes the leave-taking is intentional; sometimes it’s dictated by circumstances. And sometimes in doing so, the expatriate artist fulfills half the “fame equation” – that is, recognition elsewhere but not so much at (what used to be) home. There can also be the weird paradox of a Canadian who stays here, scores huzzahs in New York, Paris and London, but ends up underappreciated on the home front.

Here are some of the Canadian musicians, arts administrators, writers, bloggers, pundits and dancers who’ve managed, in their fashion, to become “big in Japan” while staying relatively under-recognized in the land in which they were born or came of age – under-recognized, that is, for the time being.

musicians, writers,
visual artists

Late last year, critic-musician Franklin Bruno, writing in the Boston Phoenix, one of America’s oldest “underground” newspapers, declared that the best rock record of 2006 was The Observer by the Vancouver-based duo Mecca Normal (a.k.a. Jean Smith, 47, and David Lester, 49). Better, he claimed, than White Bread Black Beer by Britain’s Scritti Politti, his No. 2 choice, better than Sound Grammar by New York jazz legend Ornette Coleman, better even than Songs and Other Things by Television founder Tom Verlaine.

It’s a pretty safe bet The Observer didn’t end up on any similar list from a Canadian critic. In part, this is because the disc was released by Seattle’s small Kill Rock Stars label and distributed, as most of Mecca Normal’s records usually have been, as an import. Partly, too, it’s because Mecca Normal, with a repertoire of self-penned songs with titles like I’m Not into Being the Woman You’re With While You’re Looking for the Woman You Want and Don’t Heel Me Like a Dog Just to Break Me Like a Horse, remains stubbornly sui generis – “the Buckley’s cough syrup of rock” – 20-plus years and 12 or so full-length records after its formation. As vocalist/keyboardist Smith remarked recently: “We operate Mecca Normal as a vehicle to put across ideas. I didn’t start a band and then try to think of things to say. I had things to say, so I started a band … We aren’t changing to satisfy trends or new audiences; anything we want to do, we give it a try.”

She added: “From the very beginning, there have been those who love what we do and those who hate it, and both of those positions give us inspiration and encouragement.”

Sometimes the things Mecca Normal has wished to say haven’t taken a musical form. Indeed, Lester, the group’s guitarist, and Smith – who stresses they’re “not a couple … We have an excellent friendship” – have “included art exhibits, lectures, publishing, writing (Smith’s novel Broke Like Me, her third or fourth work of fiction, will be published next year) and graphics into the Mecca Normal vehicle.” The duo has worked various day jobs to keep the vehicle running — Lester’s the editor and designer of B.C. BookWorld while Smith, a former ski instructor, has a steady gig as “a fitness technician encouraging and instructing women in weight-bearing exercise.”

Neither Lester nor Smith has ever seriously considered moving out of Vancouver to, say, New York (Mecca Normal has opened for Sonic Youth and Fugazi) or Seattle. True, “we have made a lot of friends in the U.S. over the years,” perhaps because “Americans believe or hope that art and music can change the world – more than Canadians” and because “the gregarious nature of Americans, their energy” provides more of a boost to Mecca Normal’s live shows. But, noted Smith, “we did not set out to be famous … [we’re]not essentially a ‘get-ahead’ kind of a band.”

Yes, if fame and fortune ever come to the band that once produced this couplet “You vote Socred next time instead of NDP/I’m gonna have to wonder about you and me,” it’s gonna come on their own terms.

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