Fred Eaglesmith: "Americans can tell it's not their music, but I can't hear the difference"
Deeply sincere folk singers pouring their hearts out to a respectful audience? That's for another night. Fred Eaglesmith is on the stage, and making no apologies for not taking things too seriously.
“We’re not curing leukaemia. We’re just guys who play guitars trying not to work for a living, and everything else is baloney,” says the veteran Canadian alt-country star, who spends as much time telling jokes at his shows as he does making music.
“Pretending it’s that sincere and that precious, eventually it just gets old. And so with me it’s always like the joke is better than the song. If you love the song, great, I’m glad you do. But I’m not going to treat it like it’s a diamond.”
Seventeen albums and 30-odd years into his career, Eaglesmith, 52, has plenty of jokes to tell, and plenty of anecdotes of his life on the road, from the goings-on underneath his tour bus at a deep south bluegrass festival to his plans for dealing with British traffic jams – “They need to off some of you. There’s too many of you now.” In between he sings about almost every topic under the sun from the hundreds of songs he has written and recorded – and trains, well, they manage to be metaphors for almost everything.
Eaglesmith’s most recent album, Tinderbox, is a record about fanaticism and the people who question it, he says.
“I’ve been working in the States a lot the last eight years and dealing with the whole thing and realising the right-wing was starting to really get fanatical. And I really thought about it, thought about what it is and how people believe everything and everybody points the finger at other people for believing everything but really they just believe something themselves, whether it’s religion or government.”
He considers himself to be “on the outside.”
“I was raised really religious and I practise Buddhism, some aspects of it, but I don’t believe it either. One of the reasons that I adhered to that is that it encourages you to question. It says: don’t believe a word they’re saying.”
Eaglesmith says he has had no problems taking his thoughts on that to America.
“The best discussions I’ve had about this record are in America. Americans are really willing to talk. Americans are just like the rest of us: we are not our government. When you go to America right away you think, oh, they’re really, really good people, and they really want the best for each other and they really want the best for you.”
Eaglesmith is also on the outside as a Canadian in a very American style of music, but the differences that other people perceive aren’t obvious to him.
“Canadians, some of them, say that I’ve sold out to America, that I’m Americanised. But the Americans say: it sounds weird to me. Americans really like it because it’s different, but I can’t hear the difference.
“I was raised with American music, but Americans can tell that it’s not their pure music. They virtually invented rock and roll, they own it. The rest of us are trying to keep up all the time. I’m always excited to play in America because I think it’s the true test.”
Eaglesmith also spends a lot of time promoting good causes, including his own campaign to put reflectors on the bicycles of immigrant workers in the area around his home in southern Ontario.
“In our community we bring in a lot of workers from the south, from Jamaica and Mexico, and they’re dark-skinned, and in Canada we don’t have a lot of dark-skinned people, and people were just creaming them on the roads, just creaming them. Two or three at a time sometimes. Not even driving fast sometimes, they just didn’t see them. And I just thought this is insane, all they need is reflectors.
“So we put the word out and all these boxes of reflectors came from all over the world. So it was a no-money charity. All you needed was a screwdriver. And now we don’t need it any more because all of them have reflectors. So it was a really worthwhile thing.”
Eaglesmith also worked on a fair trade campaign with Oxfam, but his efforts in recent times have been focused on persuading people to sponsor third-world children through Worldvision. The charity sets up stalls at his Canadian shows and in 18 months has signed up sponsors for more than 150 children.
Eaglesmith was asked to go to Africa to promote the cause, but he refused.
“I just want them to spend the money on the kids. I don’t need to go to Africa. I believe them.”