Tricky Heart: Joshua Cockerill, Toronto, Songwriting and Sexy Cover Art
By Alan Davey, 8 November 2011

West Toronto is a great place for musicians to thrive, through the great and generous community that works there in the record stores, coffee shops, bars, and clubs. Just walk down a side street and you might over-hear a show going on in a garden or a rehearsal in a garage space. There is also a tradition of residencies for acts to hone their skills: if you visited Fat Alberts in the 80s and 90s you may have spotted Ron Sexsmith building his catalog, while Justin Rutledge’s Monday residency at the Cameron House helped ensure his first album (“No Never Alone” – Six Shooter) sprang fully formed to represent one of the best examples of Canadian Americana of the last decade. Over the past two years in the Dakota Tavern has been a testing ground for the likes of The Beauties, Peter Elkas, Zeus and many more.

Another residency is taking place every Wednesday at the venerable Cameron House Tavern, where quietly and determinedly a young roots artist from the Prairies is building something special from solid musicianship and a huge array of songs. Already with one surefooted album behind him (“The Trick with your heart I’m Learning to Do” , Tenth Avenue Music) Joshua Cockerill is using the Cameron residency to expand his style and offer his audience a new song a week – hothousing his development as a writer. Cockerill’s first album has something of a traditional country feel to it, with the ‘alt’ and the grit coming from the tightness of the band and the youthful yearning clarity of the songs. Veterans David Baxter and steel player Burke Carroll ensure an authentic gutsy sound, blending tradition to the engaging existential questioning of the writing. Serena Ryder and Justin Rutledge guest.

But what comes out most is the quality of the songwriting – songs of ‘Bars in Calgary/ where the people there never leave’ that sounds like an alt-country realisation of the Talking Heads’ ‘Heaven’ (‘If Only I Weren’t So Lonely’); more songs of lonesomeness, the need to never stay still, to find something like home, optimism and despair (‘Moving On’, ‘Further West’), Proustian memories sparked by prairie breezes (‘Blue Eyed Prairie Sky’) ending with the chilling ‘Sunday Morning Oh Mercy’ a clinical depiction of a relationship that’s at an end (’Mercy me/ I had a dream/ that you were still young/ so shy and so clean’) which proves that steel guitar doesn’t just add romance to a song. There’s a literary intelligence to the words – the title itself refers to a volume of poetry by Canadian Literary giant Michael Ondaatje – that make the album stand out.

But it would be a mistake to pigeon-hole Cockerill into an alt country ghetto. His songwriting transcends labels like that –the songs are an authentic reflection of Canada, its daunting size and emptiness, and what it means to be an individual under those vast skies in an often overlooked corner of the world. Lyrically strong and musically varied, they offer the sense of a questioning and questing artist of huge potential.

I asked Cockerill, a young looking 23 year old, about the Cameron House residency. The bar, on Queen Street West, has a long history (in Canadian terms) at the heart of the local music scene, its stages serving as a rite of passage for the musicians within it. Justin Rutledge has made an affectionate film about it with Scott Cudmore . The building hasn’t changed since it first opened its doors 30 years ago, and like in all great places, still circulates the breath of musicians long dead and (in some tragic cases) gone.

“Well,” he says, choosing his words about such a venerable institution carefully, “When I decided to dedicate all my efforts to songwriting, I set my sights on the “Cameron”, which had been the home of many of my favorite songwriters. It took a few years to get my wish, but honestly, the last 14 months I’ve spent with a weekly show has been the most fun and rewarding growth period I’ve known as a performer and musician.”.

But surely, I say, setting himself the task of producing a new song a week is a daunting prospect? Too much pressure?

“It’s all relative. It would be daunting if songwriting wasn’t something I took seriously or continuously worked at. I’m not the kind of writer who waits for inspiration. I wake up in the morning to sit at my typewriter, and I don’t leave until I get something. It doesn’t matter if what comes out is a complete song, or a poem, or prose. In the end, everything serves towards the goal of writing a song. Nevertheless, I have good weeks and bad. I’m at my best in the winter, or when it rains. Instead of washing the city clean, it rather brings out its pain.”

The new songs he’s singing (such as “There’s a Trick with your Heart part 2”, “Winter”, “I won’t ever let you Down” ) are less traditional in feel, and reflect the greater array of influences that come out in his stage show. We talk about how he feels he is developing as a songwriter, and he becomes a little guarded.

“It’s something I try not to think about. I guess I like to think of myself as a young songwriter, which might confuse some people. What I mean is that I don’t want to be repeating what people have already done… I listen to a lot of older music and have learnt everything I know from it, but when I sit down to write, I need to sound like the man I am, not the man my father is. (As an aside, I have a wonderful father).”

“For me, It’s partially like building a house. I’m still laying the foundation and I’m excited as hell. The only thing, is that it’ll never be done. I’ll probably been laying the foundation my whole life. Never have a window to look out of.”

As an outsider, I tell him, I can’t help admiring the compact and creative musical community of West Toronto. Is it something he recognizes?

“It’s like living in a small town where everyone’s doors are open at all times. For the most part you know what everyone’s been up to. I’ve gotten to meet and learn from many musicians I greatly admire. I’m not from here but it has become my home. I often feel like I’ve been welcomed into a family consisting of the coolest people I’ve met….A lot of Canadian musicians call Toronto home. I live a few blocks away from Feist, and I walk or bike past her house everyday as part of my day. Once I pointed it out to a friend who is a big fan of hers. Star struck, he kept repeating ‘Really? I mean really? Feist lives in there? She could be in there right now!?’ I answered ‘yeah, but everyone calls her Leslie’.”

Canada is a huge country with a small population (33m). The UK could fit into a small corner of Alberta, Cockerill’s home province. In between his residency he’s also playing the length and breadth of the country, I ask if it’s hard to make an impact in such a vast place?

“Touring Canada is a pretty unique experience”, he says, “It’s a long country and gas isn’t cheap anymore. Plus, it snows a lot and moose really like it here. We pretty much have only one long highway spanning 7,000 kilometers. You have to be crazy to drive across that highway from December to February, but if you’re out in the middle of nowhere during those months, you’re lucky if you can keep the van on the road. When you drive past a van full of young people, you can bet they’re touring musicians too.”

Finally, given the vast amount of material he’s been amassing, he is going into the studio in December to complete a new album. How will the new album be different from the first?

“I’ve asked my good friend Chris Stringer [Ohbijou, Polaris Prize nominees Timber Timbre] to produce this time around. I’m not looking to make another politely traditional album.

Friends ask me all the time if I have the songs for the album, and I always answer “I’ll start writing them tomorrow”. In truth, I think I’m 80% there. The final songs might not come out until we’re in the studio and see just what we have on our hands. I have everything else planned already, right down to the artwork. As long as the cover art is sexy, people will want to buy it.”

I hope he’s right, as he deserves to be heard outside his new home Toronto and his native Canada. In the meantime, it’s festival gigs with Justin Rutledge at Salmon Arm, and that Cameron House residency to see work develop for the new album. As for sexy cover art, we’ll have to see…..