The great Canadian artist Fred Eaglesmith once remarked that he believed one day southern Ontario will be viewed much like Texas in terms of how many great singer/songwriters each region has produced. What he heard was a common voice, capable of expressing all the joy, pain, fun and frustration of living in a place where the past and present are always seemingly at odds; a voice able to channel this tension into a sound that can’t strictly be called country, blues or rock and roll, but a bastard offspring of all three.
This is the sound of Lucas Stagg’s latest album, Off We Go!, released on Busted Flat Records. The Kitchener, Ontario native, now based in Toronto, has nine other albums preceding it over the past decade, each a reflection of Stagg’s choice of the troubadour life, and the peaks and valleys of building an audience one gig at a time.
Stagg has been at it long enough now to ride those waves with confidence, and Off We Go! finds him and his band, comprised of bassist Danny Alac and drummer Cleave Anderson (yes, Blue Rodeo’s original sticksman) defiantly hewing to a bare-bones approach, wherein a song must stand or fall on its own merits. For listeners of a certain vintage, the album will surely conjure memories of alt-country’s Golden Age of the mid-‘90s, or perhaps take them further back to the edginess of post-punk New York and London. But as much as Lucas Stagg respects tradition, Off We Go! presents a band clearly aware it is hitting its stride, with no desire to wear its influences on its sleeve.
This is a band built to live in the moment, both on stage and in the studio, clearly evident in the taught precision of tracks such as “Lost And Found” and “If Love Is A Crime.” Conversely, Stagg shows no fear in leading his rhythm section down some dark alleys with “In My Dream Last Night” and “Bottle Shock.” If the album as a whole possesses an unnerving quality, that could be explained in part by where it was recorded, producer Aaron Comeau’s studio-in-a-trailer in Toronto’s east end. Three musicians, no overdubs, nowhere to hide.
“We really did stick with the rule of three,” Stagg explains. “No more than three takes of everything and I think 90 per cent album is take three. We had the songs road tested for a year, so we were totally prepared, as was Aaron. It was all done in an afternoon, and then we shot photos on my rooftop in the Junction. It’s the way I prefer to work, especially when I’m fortunate enough to have a band this good.”
Off We Go! is in many respects a product of a decade making countless trips across North America, and building a reputation beyond being a hometown hero. That all started with some legendary parties, which soon grew into a desire to personally introduce his audience to his own underappreciated heroes like Peter Case and Ray Materick. That’s expanded further since Stagg moved to Toronto, as he’s established frequent classic punk and power pop nights with a similarly devoted circle of musicians—anything to convey his passion for the pure sounds that seem as necessary for his survival as air or water. It is rare indeed when Lucas Stagg isn’t performing somewhere in some guise on any given night.
“I don’t really think about genres anymore or how that translates into my own writing,” he says. “In the last couple of years, I’ve become very comfortable living in Toronto’s west end. The city has become my muse, so if I have to describe my sound as anything, it’s really Toronto music.”
Stagg is that rare breed of recording artist, in that he is in fact an artist. His musical vision is a simple, yet powerful one: keep writing better songs, making better albums, and playing more shows. It’s all there on Off We Go!, an album that requires no further explanation. Just listen, and you’ll get it.