Jason Collett Shares his “Best Of”

When the pandemic began, I would put my 6-year-old in the car and drive from Toronto to Niagara Falls because there was very little, it felt like, for us to do. I’d always been a Collett fan and his album release show for Reckon, in 2012, backed up by Zeus at the Great Hall is one of my favourite shows of all-time. Collett released Bitter Beauty, his debut, in 2001 and has made all of his eight records on the Arts & Crafts label, including Idols of Exile (2006), Rat a Tat Tat (2010) and Song and Dance Man, his latest, in 2016.
On these drives, Matthew and I would listen to My Daddy Was a RocknRoller and in April, 2020, I emailed Jason, telling him he was bringing us pleasure, telling him thanks. A few days later, he sent me back a demo he was working on, and that’s Jason: writing, listening, seeking connection. Collett is a member of Broken Social Scene and founder of the Basement Revue, a 15-year-old literary rock show that’s brought together friends of his, like Margaret Atwood, Gord Downie, Michael Ondaatje and Feist. Now, a year into the pandemic, Collett releases Best Of, a collection of thirteen songs that span his 20-year career. Unfortunately, there won’t be a live show to celebrate this record. But when I needed something I reached for the music of Jason Collett, maybe others might too.
  • Ben Kaplan: I’ve really listened to you a lot during this whole thing.

    Jason Collett: One always hopes it lands in such a way, that it’s meaningful to people and that’s the reciprocal gift—to know that sometimes it does.

  • BK: You seem kind of young for a Best Of.

    JC: This is the label’s idea.

  • BK: Don’t get me wrong, I love the album.

    JC: It comes at a good time for me. I’ve been in this self-imposed hiatus for going on five years. It’s been the longest time I’ve taken between records for me—ever—and I had a fair amount of ambivalence releasing the last record and that was summed up in Song & Dance Man.

  • BK: The music industry.

    JC: A confluence of things. The ever changing nature of the industry, its tumult. Getting older.

  • BK: Listening to the Best Of reminds me how much I miss these songs. Hangover Days. I’ll Bring the Sun. Love You Babe, which I learned about after seeing a Tweet from Hayden. I’ve seen these songs live in so many different places.

    JC: There’s so many things I love about touring, but I was getting tired of the cycle of making a record, tour a record, and I needed to spend more time at home. I got a lot more domestic, and I grew to really like it.

  • BK: No!

    JC: When I put out Idols, my wife was pregnant and we had just bought our first house. I was at that time touring with Social Scene, leaving a tour, going to do my own tour and then going back to Social Scene and not coming home. I had two kids born that way and I dragged those kids around doing that and I just needed—I think the whole family needed—a break from that routine.

  • BK: I know you’ve always also enjoyed woodworking.

    JC: Ever since I was 19, I was able to support myself being a musician as a cabinet market or a woodworker. I had a 3,000-square-foot shop in Liberty Village, one of the last woodshops there, and shared it with some other people and loved it. But then I got into a weird situation where the carpentry wasn’t supporting the music, it was the other way around. I was still away all the time and had expensive overhead so I got rid of everything. But after the last record, going back two and a half years ago, I built myself a small shop again and that’s been my life the last couple of years: getting back into the tangible satisfaction of building things.

  • BK: It’s nice to have a space to yourself during COVID. I kind of turned my basement into an office and light candles and stuff.

    JC: I enjoy it. And on days when I’m not working, I’m still in there clocking hours just writing and in this last year in particular, with this Best Of record coming out, it feels right because I’m going into the studio in July and making another record. I wasn’t sure if I was.

  • BK: Wow, man. You’re making another record! You should’ve led with that.

    JC: That’s been the journey. It’s been good to step back and get some perspective. There’s a lot of things I needed to write through to get where I’m at now and taking the pause has allowed me to become a better writer (which is the thing I’ve always wanted to get better at).

  • BK: I don’t even understand that because you’re one of my favourite writers.

    JC: I’m aware of my shortcomings as a musician, as a singer, but the thing that gives me the most joy is writing songs, so I’ve been trying to figure out how to do that better.

  • BK: Tell me about the Best Of.

    JC: I’m a fan of Best Ofs. It’s how I’ve been turned on to many artists and I don’t understand why people don’t do it more. In the 70s and 80s, some artists seemed to release Best Ofs in between every record; this is a good challenge, a good snapshot of the body of work.

  • BK: What do you hear when you listen to this stuff now?

    JC: At this point in my life, when there’s such a traffic jam, I’m trying to find the balance between saying anything. If I’m going to say anything, it has to contribute in some small way. I’ve become very aware how important it is to not take up space, old white guys like me.

  • BK: But dude, I was listening to that record with my son, I needed it.

    JC: We’re doing this interview the day after the Grammys, which was fascinating—Taylor Swift winning again and, no knock against Taylor, but just think about how many white artists dedicated their awards to the black artists that should’ve gotten them in the first place.

  • BK: True.

    JC: It’s tricky stuff to even talk about and I will fail at being eloquent, but I’m only saying it because it’s something that’s affected me, but that’s healthy. We have to take stock that our privilege has taken up so much fucking space. We have to be smarter about what we’re saying.

  • BK: The Basement Revue, which you launched at the Dakota in 2006 morphed into a great platform for all kinds of poets and authors and musicians to play.

    JC: It became its own thing. I started doing that as a way of bringing Toronto songwriters together in the late 90s and I met Kevin Drew and everyone else in that family and the Dakota opened, it became a place where people were hanging out when getting off the road. Jimmy Shaw from Metric lived on Ossington and I lived up the street and it was refreshing for Toronto. It was fun.

  • BK: The Basement Revue started with you doing a residency?

    JC: I had a bunch of new songs I wanted to kick the tires on and I invited some friends to come and I did a literary event for the House of Anansi and met Damian Rogers. In the spirit of what Social Scene was, which was involving everybody—whenever Social Scene did a photoshoot, if there was a tripod, the photographer was in the shot—I engaged with the literary scene.

  • BK: Was it similar to the music scene?

    JC: Writers are the worst people in the room, they’re all talking, they don’t listen to each other, they kind of don’t like each other—that’s another Toronto thing, but if you change the dynamic, it’s not a rock show or a reading. It’s discombobulating. Nobody knows what the fuck is going on. I liked that.

  • BK: It’s become epic with huge surprise headliners and a real social context that became much more than what I used to see at those Dakota shows.

    JC: I miss not being able to do it this year, but I look forward to being able to do it again next year.

  • BK: I’ve been feeling so low that it’s hard to even imagine seeing something like that again, hearing you say that feels, you know, kind of like a dream.

    JC: The Paradise on Bloor Street, this year, was our first time in a soft-seater and it felt right. I hope to be back. Fingers crossed.

  • BK: This is for kind magazine and we’re distributed in cannabis dispensaries, I know you’ve made some references in different songs.

    JC: I’m a hash guy. It’s a bit of a dad drug. I find it’s a 15-minute commitment and if you want to keep being high, you smoke more. And I like smoking.

  • BK: You’ve told me smart things about smoking and drinking, in that you like it so much that you have to be careful—it’s too precious to make it a problem and have it taken away.

    JC: I’ve lived a lifestyle that’s taken down a lot of peers. It’s the only job in the world where you’re given a bunch of alcohol and told to go to work. I enjoy it. I love wine. I love smoking. But it can be problematic. I have friends who’ve had to stop and I love it so much that I want to make sure I don’t have to stop. I practice discipline around it (as I sip my white wine on a Tuesday).

  • BK: Crab Walking Home in the Rain is a new tune on the album.

    JC: I’m real happy to have the single out. Andy Shauf is a rare writer and we’re labelmates so I reached out and I know he’s very particular about what he does, but COVID was the right time because he’s never produced before, but he created this track for me.

  • BK: It’s good, man.

    JC: I’m just excited right now about getting into the studio and making a new record. It feels good to feel excited about it.

  • BK: Thank you.

    JC: I haven’t done an interview in years. I don’t even know what to say anymore and we’ve lived through a year of strange times. Hopefully a Best Of allows some people a new way into the catalogue and allows some people into the body of work.

  • BK: I can’t stop listening to the record.

    JC: I’m hoping a year from now I’ll actually make a new contribution to it. I’m looking forward to that.

Best Of Jason Collett is out now on Arts & Crafts.