Tim Baker Remembers Hey Rosetta!'s 'Into Your Lungs' and How It Ultimately Broke Up the Band
"I remember talking about really wanting to make music that's timeless, which we obviously failed at doing," he says on the album's 15th anniversary
Published Apr 10, 2023Tim Baker is in on the joke.
The singer-songwriter from St. John's, NL, offers up a trademark sheepish grin when confronted with a now-15-year-old press photo that, in his eyes at least, hasn't aged well.
"Do you expect me to remember exactly what we were thinking when we took this 15 years ago?" he heckles sarcastically during a reflective sit-down with Exclaim! It's an image of a different time and place for the road-tested troubadour. Tim Baker circa 2008 was a green, reserved yet hopeful singer-songwriter, one-fifth of promising East Coast indie folk ensemble Hey Rosetta!
Of course, promise and potential were the recipe of the day for Hey Rosetta! in the wake of their Hawksley Workman-produced, Polaris Music Prize short listed sophomore album, Into Your Lungs (and around in your heart and on through your blood) — a work that punches its 15th anniversary in 2023.
Yet 2008, and the ensuing years that followed, would also serve as the catalyst for the impending demise of one of Canada's most lauded ensembles. In 2017, seemingly at the height of their popularity, Hey Rosetta! announced an indefinite hiatus, a decade's worth of grind from the road and music industry at large having finally fractured all hands beyond repair.
Now, faced with a walk down memory lane in the form of this interview, Baker is of many minds about the album that launched the group into the collective consciousness of Canadian indie rock stardom.
"I remember talking about really wanting to make music that's timeless, which we obviously failed at doing," he recalls. "As I listen to it now, walking down by the river, it's anything but timeless. It's so rooted in that time. The way that I sing, the things that I'm singing, it's from a whole other world. It's hard for me to listen to, obviously, having grown."
Baker is perhaps his own toughest critic, as plainly seen during his extensive one-on-one with Exclaim! Here, in his own words, is Tim Baker, toasting and roasting Into Your Lungs ahead of its 15th anniversary on June 3. Baker hits the road this month in support of his 2022 solo album The Festival.
Obviously the artist, the person, the songwriter you were 15 years ago is a world away from the person you are today. Listening back, do you think you would do things differently with the vocals, arrangements or song structures? What are some of your bigger critiques?
You know, honestly, I don't think about it very much. I sort of was trying to think about it prior to coming into this interview, which is why I listened. I mean, I would change everything. I wouldn't make it now, you know what I mean? It's so hard to get perspective on something so far in the past. It's almost like, why bother casting judgment on it now? I would change so many things about it. Not even change them, because I wouldn't go back and change it, it's just those things never would have happened.
A lot of the subject matter, the high drama of everything, I have trouble connecting with now at 40. It's like a completely different person; it has nothing to do with me, really. In a way, it's nice to visit just to listen to it as listening to a different band, kind of. It's not totally my cup of tea, but you know, these kids got a lot of pizzazz, they got a lot of chutzpah. I like it. I like them. They're really going for it.
You mentioned the drama, and maybe that's more rooted in the songwriting, themes and the overall feel of the record. On the surface there are parts of Into Your Lungs that feel like more of a straightforward rock record. There's so many layers and textures to what you achieved on Second Sight and now in your own solo records. It has a bigger quality. What do you take away from that?
Yeah, I mean, it came out in 2008. It obviously was recorded in 2007, and mostly written in 2006 and 2007. Those were still early indie rock days, kind of. It's hard to put yourself back there. But certainly, in terms of the arrangement of it, we, I think, just by necessity had to keep it a little simpler, a little straighter. We had two weeks to record the whole thing, and as I said, it's over an hour long. It's 12 large songs. Very large songs. We had a week to do everything. We had a week to do the drums and the bass and the guitars and the strings and the horns and the woodwinds and all the backup vocals and all the percussion and all the singing. It was crazy. I mean, I've never done another record like that, in terms of the hours that we kept. It was just insane. We basically never stopped. We somehow magically got it done in two weeks and didn't have a day off of course. Crazy — it was crazy. I guess we were younger then and had more energy for it. And Hawksley was such a trooper.
I've worked with a few different producers since then and I've done some producing myself, and I learned a lot from him. You know, he's not really an engineer. He probably has become much more of an engineer now. In those days, he wasn't much of an engineer. He was a real producer. He was a big cheerleader. He kept the momentum up. He kept the energy up. He kept us all excited, kept us all laughing. He would crack a joke before every take so we were always laughing at the beginning of every take. He just kept it so fun. And he really made us feel like he believed in it, you know? He really made us feel like it was going to be a big record, like it mattered. I mean, there was no reason to believe that was really the case.
But yeah, getting off topic slightly, we kept it pretty simple. We kind of had to. We didn't have enough time and, at that point, that was a real transition from the Plan Your Escape record and the one EP demo thing before that, that were really recordings in which I had, and we had as a collective, no idea what we were doing. No idea about how to capture sound.
It's kind of fascinating to think, because now I realize how important sound is, you know? And I think just music as an industry or music as an evolving art form, everybody kind of feels that now. Everybody knows that production is really important. And with more electronic music the sound is really, really important. It always was, obviously, but it was really song-centric and energy-centric. And so we would just sort of play them as a six-piece. That's pretty much what the record is. We ended up squeezing in some bells and whistles, some woodwinds and a lot of back-ups and stuff, and some percussion we wouldn't normally be able to do. But it was pretty much an honest band record.
Working with Hawksley at that point in your career, a JUNO-winning artist with big records and hits, it's like the seal of approval for those who might have not been aware of this rising six-piece indie rock band from the East Coast. Adding that to your resume, coupled with the energy, levity and professionalism he brought to the sessions, certainly didn't hurt.
Yeah, you're right. I think that was a thing. I mean, he was a big influence of mine. I remember, years earlier, walking around Montreal when I went to school there, listening to his records and just loving the energy of them, the audacity and the grandeur of them. And it was a great stamp of approval from him during the making [of the record] and after too. He sort of went around and spoke about how exciting this upcoming record and this upcoming band was from Newfoundland. So that was a huge thing for him.
And it's funny, I know Hawksley now and I've known him for a long time, of course. We're all getting older, and you're right, he was a really big deal, and it was a really, really big deal [to work with him]. I remember the first time he came into the basement here. I've been in the same house this whole time, and he came into the basement and into our jam space and listened and we worked on some tunes. And it was such a trip to have him.
Looking at the tour schedule for Hey Rosetta! over the three year period from 2008 to 2010, it's completely absurd. Can you recall it being nonstop, or is it all a blur at this point? How do you look back on that with the benefit of hindsight?
Yeah, I'm just looking at it here. I mean, it was utter madness. I was just thinking of it and that's why I brought it up, because we spent Christmas in Australia that year . And I must say, touring Australia in January, not a bad call. The scheduling was absolutely wild. There were so many times where we had to drive through the night without sleeping from one show to the next to make it on time. Huge drives. This was the period — 2008, 2009, 2010 — those are the years that ended up going on to break up Hey Rosetta!, basically. This sort of madness. Even though in the end, in 2014, 2015, our touring was a lot more reasonable. We had all suffered physical and mental breakdowns from this schedule. Our touring was much better, but we were still haunted by these years.
Looking back now, there was so much jet lag, so much going and no money. No money. I mean you can't fly a six piece to Australia and then to Corner Brook and then to New York and then back home and then to Vancouver and then back home again and then out to Minneapolis and start a big tour and then over to the UK and then back home. Six plane tickets and three hotel rooms plus crew. I mean, it was wild. We never stopped. And I remember for me, I mean, my great love, of course, is writing music. And it definitely was hard because I couldn't write anything for these three years, basically. You get a little two weeks at home and it's not like I could relax. I would stay in those two weeks, finally getting to work. It was untenable.
I mean, I should look back romantically. It was extremely romantic. It was really, really fun. So many stories from it, but it's hard not to look at it in the beginning and to see how the ghost of this really haunted us. Even after the most successful tour on a bus to sold-out venues throughout Canada in 2015, still, we came home and Josh [Ward] said, "I can't do it anymore," and Adam [Hogan] was right behind him. And we were all like, "Yeah, of course. Of course you can't do it any more. None of us can."
It's funny, I want to quote myself. I was listening to Into Your Lungs. There's a line, "Ambition give me wings and ambition break my legs." It was both an incredible adventure and more success than we'd ever dreamed of, and also just a completely untenable, disastrous way to live.
That's kind of ironic in terms of the mirroring of that record if you consider the "Red Heart" and "Black Heart" juxtaposition. It's almost an allegory for the band. Those highs and lows, balancing rough patches and amazing memories. That record is kind of the physical embodiment of that.
That was like a constant theme in Hey Rosetta! — just living through highs and lows and trying to make sense of huge mood swings and huge changes in energy. People would often ask in those days and still people ask, how was your tour? And that was the first time people started asking that to me, was in this era. And I didn't ever know how to respond.
I mean, I was like, "Well, it was amazing. It was unbelievably bad." It was everything, you know? But it's like saying, how was your month? Well, it was everything, man. It's a bit lazy to be like, "Oh, good." Because there were many times I was just lying in the back of the van feeling like all the potential I had as an artist was just dripping out of my ears, completely wasted. But there were also lots of times when we realized that we were exactly where we needed to be as well, and that's the band that we were in. We were a band that beat it out on the road. We sweated it out and we toured.
We just talked about the really condensed recording schedule for Into Your Lungs. You can juxtapose that with your recent solo album The Festival, where you're in isolation, and all of us in the pandemic had nothing but time. In hindsight, did you prefer the fast and furious approach to production? Or do you prefer the luxury of being able to take two years to really flesh something out?
I like having time, for sure. I didn't feel like I had too much time at any moment during the pandemic. That's my speed right there, in truth. Obviously there's a lot of drawbacks for a lot of people, but I had a ball. I mean, the big problem was that I couldn't work with other people. I do a lot of work alone, and I do write alone for the most part and I like to come up with ideas, but I really love bringing other people into the music side of things. I love jamming and rehearsal and arranging and overdubbing all sorts of instruments. So that was tough. But in terms of having time to write and time to record and fiddle with things, yeah, I would rather take three years every time.
Were there any points within the Into Your Lungs or Seeds eras of Hey Rosetta! where there was a fear of not being able to live up to your potential? Or even now in your solo career. Do you reach points in songwriting or with preconceived notions of success where there's a feeling that you have to live up to a certain level?
Yeah, that was definitely there. It's funny — you have to sort of be willfully ignorant of that. You feel it, of course, and then you have to just sort of put it out of your mind. It's not very helpful. But yes. I was way more high-strung and stressed out in those days, possibly because I had no time to do all the work, the deep work that takes so long to do of writing and conceptualizing things. But I still have those fears. It's less like, "Oh, I can't equal up," because that sort of necessitates some third-person viewpoint — like, live up for who? You can't please everybody, and the people that like you, they don't like everything you do and it's going to change.
So it's more for me of the fear — at least now, and I think then as well — that somehow the well would just dry up and I wouldn't have anything to say or any songs left to write. And I know that's not a reasonable fear either. As soon as I hang up from this, I have to finish the mixes on this new EP that's coming out in a month or two, and then I have to go start working on overdubs and this other EP that I've finished recording the beds to. And I'm also writing other songs on the side for the next full-length. So yeah, there's no shortage of songs, I guess.
What's something that 40-year-old Tim Baker, fresh off his second successful solo record, would tell 25-year-old Tim Baker while he's crammed in a van about to trek across Milwaukee, Melbourne, Iqaluit, St. Anthony or wherever else? Is there a message you would tell yourself?
Yeah, that's a good question. There's definitely realistic things, advice, things that I would say, but I think the greater sort of philosophical thing that I really needed to hear then, and I wouldn't have believed it from anyone — well, maybe I would have believed from my future self — would be just to relax, to really calm down. I'm sort of an overachiever by nature. It was a lot to have this successful thing on my hands that I did not expect, and I have to keep feeding that machine and to be thrust into situations that were, frankly, kind of scary. Doing an interview on TV was very scary, and speaking at award shows. I never did any public speaking in my entire life. I had no idea what to do. I am not a particularly extroverted person and didn't really like the spotlight. More like a nerdy, bookish guy that wrote songs. All of a sudden, I was thrust into this role that I was not ready for. And I worried a lot.
I worried non-stop and made myself sick all the time from stress and trying to hold everything together. I would tell myself just to relax. It's going to be okay. Like, it's actually gonna be okay. It is, and it was. The worst, most inconceivable, worst thing happened: we ended up breaking up, disintegrating as a band. I mean, possibly not forever. And then I came out of that okay. I wouldn't give anything up for the last five years of my own life, making my own music the way that I have. It's been wonderful. Just that you're alright. The worry does nothing. It's a waste. What do they say? Like you're paying interest on something that you haven't gotten. That's what I would say.
I mean, I would also say, very practically, don't tour Australia and Europe and the United States and Canada. Don't do that. You're just going to spread yourself too thin. Spend all of the money you make in Canada trying to develop these other markets and it's not going to work. We really should have just focused on probably the United States or maybe just Europe, but not all four of those major markets. It's not sustainable ecologically either, but just in terms of energy and in terms of finance, you should not do that.