Carl Newman may have moved to Woodstock, NY to settle down with wife Christy Simpson of Matador Records and have their now 8-month-old son, but musically, the indie pop icon is just getting started. If anything, growing older has blessed Newman with the ability to play what he wants, uninhibited, like he did when he first started out.
Performing solo as AC Newman, Carl Newman reflects back on his younger days as an artist in Vancouver. In the early ‘90s, Newman released two albums with electric, power pop band, Zumpano. This was of course before he graduated to the top of the pops as the leader of the New Pornographers.
“It was a lot of fun just playing music for the hell of it. You’re not making any money at all, you’re just happy to be there. I look back very fondly on all that stuff,” Newman tells BeatRoute while on the road in Philadelphia. He has just finished playing a set at NPR’s World Café and is on the first leg of his North American tour.
In his beginning days, Newman found it easier to not care as much about the economic pressures of “making it,” but as he is heads out on tour in support of his third solo album, Shut Down the Streets, he can’t say things are still as carefree as they once were. Now a mature artist and family man, he believes people have begun to interpret what he does differently. Since 1996, when Zumpano split up and Newman moved on to bigger, newer and more pornographic things, his life has inevitably evolved.
“Everything’s changed. Looking back in life, I remember being in Vancouver and hanging out with my friends and now I realize how much time has passed. Now I live in Woodstock, I’m married, I have a baby, and I have a house. It’s hard to reconcile it all. It all seems crazy because everything’s changed yet nothing’s changed.”
Starting in the ‘90s, electronic music, alternative music and new wave bands were making major label appearances. Newman has commented on the state of the industry today, saying that it’s every man for himself. Things have changed a lot since the days that record deals were being thrown out like candy, but Newman is still perplexed.
“It’s been interesting to look at it. People talk about the ‘90s as this Golden Age when everybody was being handed record deals and publishing deals. But that wasn’t at all the case for me. At the moment when the record industry started falling apart, I started doing well.”
In 2003, after the production of Mass Romantic in 2000, the New Pornographers signed with Matador Records, the recording studio where Newman first spotted his wife, Christy. AC Newman has signed with Matador for the past three albums, including Shut Down the Streets.
Though his discography is expanding, Newman’s reason for doing what he does remains consistent. Just like he did in the beginning, he plays because he wants to.
“That’s the reason I’m still doing it. I was doing it a long time even when nobody cared about what I was doing. It’s just my natural, go-to thing. I’ve met a lot of people, people I used to play music with, who said, ‘Oh I’m not making any money doing this so I’m going to quit making music and do something else.’ I always thought that was strange; I thought, why did you ever do it in the first place, then?”
The term “dad rock” has become familiar to Newman, considering it has been used in several reviews to describe Shut Down the Streets. With songs like “There’s Money in the New Wave,” a song he has admittedly called a cliché song for a new dad, discussing the sometimes unspoken but always present love a father has for his son. However, Newman isn’t really phased by the idea of his music being labeled “dad rock”. It’s a term that he takes literally, rather than interpreting it as an insult.
“It’s a harmless enough term. You can’t stop people from calling you things, I don’t really think about it too much. I mean, I’m a dad and I play in a rock band, so there you go!” Instead of getting lost in the mess of dirty diapers, Newman says that his son’s birth has helped direct and promote his creative process. He now has someone he needs to support and there is a pressure to be a role model.
“When you’re really young, you’re doing things for the hell of it, you’re more of a punk, whereas at this point in my life I’m still doing whatever the hell I want but it comes off as something different. It’s more about using your music to talk about where you are in your life. When I was playing in Zumpano, the message was ‘I don’t give a shit, I just wanna have fun.’”
At the core of Shut Down the Streets is Newman’s struggle with his mother’s death and the birth of his son just two years later. At a time when Newman didn’t really know how to handle his life, he used music as an outlet.
“I just tried to do something honest that related to where I was, because that seemed like the only thing to do at that moment. ‘Shut down the streets’ is about huge things happening in your life that aren’t huge to everybody else. You can’t believe the world keeps turning, but it does. It helped me learn to deal with things; the best you can do is come out the other side and not feel crushed.”
Newman revealed that his baby, Stellan, was named a Scandinavian name in order to honour his Mother, who was originally from Norway.
If there is one characteristic that bright-eyed redhead falls under, it’s modest. Although, his accomplishments with The New Pornographers and his past two solo albums have granted him credit to boast of achievements. Newman’s work with the New Pornographers has been critically acclaimed. Newman said that there was a concern about living up to his past material recorded with the New Pornographers, but there is a lot less pressure working on solo projects.
“There’s a lot more at stake in a band setting than in solo work – if this record was a New Pornographers record, people would be asking me ‘where is the single?’ whereas with this album, there’s a little more freedom.”
The inclusion of the notorious Neko Case is an element that was considered for a lengthy period of time. Newman felt it might pose problems for setting his solo work apart from work with the New Pornographers but he took the risk of blurring the lines between his solo work and other projects and decided to feature his longtime friend and bandmate.
“I think it was far enough away in the past that it wouldn’t matter. At the time, I thought why not?”
Shut Down the Streets reveals a new side of Newman, adding twangy banjos, and an overall more ethereal and real sound. While the New Pornographers is exuberant pop, Newman has created a raw and honest autobiographical album that deals with heavier concepts. As a homegrown Vancouver boy, Newman looks forward to coming back to the West Coast and remembering where it all started.
“I know when I go back to Vancouver and see old friends it’s going to be like I never left.”
Newman performs at the Biltmore Cabaret on November 8.
By Ali Omelaniec
Cover Illustration: Joshua Ruckstuhl