Tim Baker went from music outsider to insider utterly unprepared. As the front man for Hey Rosetta!, the Canadian artist spent less of his youth sneaking into concerts and more of it learning how to breathe from his diaphragm and sing Italian arias. Since then, his band has drawn genre categorizations ranging from grunge to baroque rock to orchestral folk, building on the traditional four-piece setup with piano and strings. If a mature musical upbringing wasn’t enough, Baker matches it with a scholarly penchant for literature and writing, resulting in the band’s latest and most lyrically conceptual album, Seeds. Prior to Hey Rosetta!’s performance Saturday night at Johnny Brenda’s, The Key spoke with Baker about going from college poet to professional musician, the band’s overly romanticized biography, and why he will do his best to keep the word “saw” out of his song lyrics.
The Key: What was your writing experience like as a student?
Tim Baker: I was actually going to study piano performance, but I changed back just before I went to the university. I ended up going to Concordia in Montreal, which has a great creative writing program, so I ended up studying sociology and creative writing there. I’m really glad that I did, actually. I feel like I learned more useful things for what I’m doing now, doing more with creative writing and poetry. It’s more than I would have known doing just musical rules and being at the piano.
TK: Did that literary background influence your songwriting?
TB: I think it definitely did, undeniably. I’m not sure of specific examples, really. It was one of the first forms I had to write for other people to look at and touch it. A lot of people write poems and write prose to themselves, and not in the disciplined way where everybody is going to judge it. At the university, you always write for the other people in the class and everyone would read and critique it. I think that was really helpful to think of readers and have the discipline to write and find that balance between discipline and being open minded and open to receive inspiration, or the words, or whatever it is that happens in that kind of process. I can’t think of specific examples, but I did have one professor who had only one rule in the very first class. He said, “You can’t ever use the word ‘saw’ in a poem. It makes for bad poetry.” And that’s always stuck with me because I thought it was kind of funny, and I have since read certain people’s poems, and he had a point. We also studied a lot of great writing, and that can never fail to have an impact on your own work.
TK: How did you begin playing music and singing? Your recordings sound like you have had proper vocal training for a long time, as opposed to a lot of other musicians.
TB: I guess every kid ends up singing in elementary school choirs stuff. I sang in choirs for years until my voice changed and I was like 14 or 15 or something. We toured North America and overseas and England, and I think that was a fairly strong influence for me. A lot of discipline learned—not just how to sing, but how to work and practice. We used to sing most songs in other languages, and I was this 8-year-old kid, memorizing how to sing different languages. In addition to that, I learned the mechanics of singing and how it worked. I got out of that in junior high school. All the while I was listening to everything everybody was listening to: a lot of Nirvana, a lot of Pearl Jam, a lot of Rage Against The Machine. I started a band, heavily copying off of the successful bands of the day. We didn’t go anywhere, but I remember that very fondly. I was in a serious band in high school. For some reason I never really took the way to sing from my choir days and used it in a band. I just wanted to sing like Kurt Cobain or whatever, so, about three years into this band, we’d be touring and I’d lose my voice all the time, and it was really stressful and I’d be holding everybody up. I started taking lessons and relearning how to sing properly and healthily. So I’ve done a few different things.
TK: Is it more nerve-wracking for you to think about singing in front of a lot of people, or to worry about songwriting and potential writer’s block?
TB: They’re very different anxieties. They act in very different ways. The sort of fear that you’re never going to write anything good again, or as you get old your inspiration dies, that the constant disappointment and you’re always on the road and you never have any time and you’re wasting your potential—it’s sort of like blocks, constant anxieties that only rise to the surface occasionally. But they always gnaw at you. The other thing, the performance, is very acute, it’s very intense. And I don’t really feel it all that much anymore. It doesn’t really have to do with singing. For a long time I found speaking on stage to be the most nerve-wracking thing. Trying to explain, you know, what a song is about or to just say something that isn’t very common or mundane or, “Thanks for coming.” We all see these amazing characters on stage who just seem like they’re from another world and you want to be a part of it. I’m just a regular person, and that doesn’t come very easily to me. I feel like the more you do it the better it gets. We’ve been at it a while now, and I don’t get that scared any more.