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Gremolata's Interview with Jason Collett

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By Malcolm Jolley

Jason Collett is probably the most in demand singer-songwriter in the Canadian music scene today. Organiser of Toronto's renown Radio Monday concerts, guitarist for indie-rock superstars Broken Social Scene and accomplished solo artist.  Gremolata's Malcolm Jolley caught up with Collett on a sun-dappled patio in Little Italy, just before he flew off to Vancouver to play with Lucinda Williams.

Gremolata: I've heard you say that the indie rock movement is a lot like artisanal, or organic, food movement. What do you mean?

Jason Collett: Well, I think the essential similarity is with the people that are involved in the indie rock scene, whether you're a musician, or a writer in a small journal: in that world it's about pure passion and it's not about commerce. And I think that people in the Slow Food Movement, or the organic movement have a similar motivation to be involved: they just love it.

You know, indie rock isn't so much about selling you something as it is about creating something wholesome and sustaining outside of the culture of commerce. More and more people are coming to realise that it's something sacred: music is sacred and food is sacred and commerce fucks those things up and waters them down. So they miss something. The large record industry has shot themselves in the foot, in a way, because they no longer cultivate artists, they're just crunching numbers and hiring teams of lawyers and marketers to come up with something that's designed simply to sell. And now they own so much of the industry and monopolise so many aspects of it, that they can get anything out there. But they've created this huge void. People want to hear great music and real artists - they want more. And that's why independent labels and independent bands have gradually filled that void. The internet has also exploded a lot of that corporate culture. And that's also part of the similarity: the desire for small scale production, local scenes. Big companies like Kraft have reduced their product to the point where it's no longer anything like real food. People's souls want more.

Gremolata: You've been trying to eat as much organic food as you can for a long time. How did that come about?

Jason Collett: It first came about back in the mid-90s, when I was living up around Owen Sound. I had a dream, like a lot of romantic urban people, moving to the country, owning some land, building a house and raising my young family. So when I got there, I met a few people who had had the same dream and had established themselves, who became friends and were into organics.

I kind of scoffed at the whole notion at first, it seemed a little precious, you know? And expensive! But then, it all started to make sense as I saw how hard my organic farmer friends worked to produce that level of quality. I was thinking, "holy shit", all that work just to raise a very small cash crop of lettuce or carrots, or whatever. And that made me think about the mass produced, cheap food on the other side.

Then, when I moved back to Toronto I was living in the Kensington Market neighbourhood - I've always liked the feel of the market, ever since I was a teenager. I started getting to know some of the store owners - they were neighbours - and it all just started to make sense.

Gremolata: Where do you go in the market?

Jason Collett: Well, I've been going to Natural Essence for a long time. It's a small little health store. I used to know the previous owner. His kids went to the same school as my kids…it all comes back to a sense of community. This idea of a small scale economy of buying from your neighbours has always been attractive to me. I like that the stores are buying from local farmers, and it's cool to be a part of that.

Actually, there wasn't a lot of organic produce in Kensington when I first moved back there. So I hooked up with Front Door Organics deliveries. They would bring me something new every week. I really loved because not only would get a box of fresh produce on your doorstep every week, but they would always throw in some really strange vegetable I'd never heard of and put in a recipe for it, too! I just thought it was great.

In the end, it's having a relationship with where your food comes from. I really appreciate that.

Gremolata: You tour a lot, and have been all over the world lately with the Broken Social Scene: in Europe and Japan. What have you seen in some of those countries that's different form what you find in Canada or the States?

Jason Collett: Well, Japan is wild and wonderful, but the thing that has impressed me most is the European culture around food. I remember on one of the first European tours, I think it was in Vienna, I tried to get a take-out coffee. It was just a couple of doors down from where the club was that we were playing - we had sound check so I wanted a coffee to go. There was a bit of a language barrier between me and the old lady behind the counter: she was very much like "what do you mean?" Nobody does that. And I'm trying to gesture to say, "do you have a take-out cup?" And she's making out like she's never heard of such a thing! So finally, she gesture to me to just take it. Take the cup of coffee and come back with cup. It took me about 10 minutes to figure all this out with her, and I was so impressed by it - by the culture. Especially around things like coffee. They have such distain for our take-out attitude: if you don't have time to stand at the bar and sip your coffee, then there's something wrong with you! And I guess that's what sums up what's so ass-backwards with North America: we just don't take the time.

You know, this relates to all sorts of different things, including public space. The travel has really opened me up to a whole new world of quality of life and I want to try and find that here, when I'm home, as much as I can.

Gremolata: Have you found anything like that in your travels in Canada and the US?

Jason Collett: Ah…well…it's hard. I mean you can find it in urban centres and on the coasts. But Middle America is tough…it can be a nightmare for food.

Gremolata: What do you do? What's your survival strategy?

Jason Collett: We look for a Trader Joe's, or something like that. And there are several stores like that now, even in Middle America. We'll just stock up and load up the bus with fresh things.

Now, in places like California, the selection is fantastic - I'm amazed at the produce and amount of organics. It can make Toronto - even now - seem like a bit of an outpost. Though it is getting better here all the time, so I'm not really complaining.

Gremolata: Where do you hang out when you're back home?

Jason Collett: We just moved to the Ossington and Bloor area, so it's a whole new neighbourhood for me. I've been checking out some the new places (for me) around there. I'm still quite attached to Kensington, though, so I still gravitate towards there. I was spoiled for 10 years, when I lived there. Being able to go the market every day to pick up fresh food and never having to plan a meal ahead more than a day. So, when we moved we bought a really large fridge! I was really scared not to be in the market and having to plan ahead!

Anyway, it's turned out not to be nearly as bad as we thought. There's a great butcher on Bloor Street [Gasparo's - Ed.], the new store, La Fromagerie, on College Street. And the liquor store is still a just short walk away, like it was in market. We're pretty happy.

Gremolata: Your new album has a song called "Hangover Days". What would be the cause of the hangover?

Jason Collett: [Laughs.] Well, I wrote a lot of the new record on the road and, you know, it's a common problem with being in a touring band: your alcohol is free and kind of limitless.

Gremolata: That's a problem?

Jason Collett: It's a problem when you're on a six week tour and you find yourself drinking every day. And it's not like you have a nine to five job to keep you straight. So it's a hazard that comes with the territory. You have to watch it.

But, you know, that song's not really about being hungover. It's more a "hungover love" song.

Gremolata: Is there anything else about food, wine or life you'd like to touch on before we sign off?

Jason Collett: I guess I'd say that three things I love the most, after my family and friends, are music, architecture and food. It's a great privilege to get to experience all three.

Photo credit: Victor Tavares


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