Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew on Gord Downie and the power of music

He’s the frontman of one of Toronto’s most well known music collectives, Broken Social Scene, and over the past two years Kevin Drew’s talents have gone beyond being a performer, but also as a producer of two notable albums - Gord Downie’s The Secret Path and Introduce Yerself.

Kevin Drew produced The Secret Path and Introduce Yerself before Gord Downie’s death

An illustration of the late Gord Downie, The Tragically Hip frontman. (Heather Collett)

He's the lead singer of one of Toronto's most well-known music collectives, but over the past two years, Kevin Drew's talents have gone beyond being a performer to being the producer of two notable albums — Gord Downie's Secret Pathand Introduce Yerself.  

The Broken Social Scene musician opened up about working with the late Tragically Hip frontman during an interview with Matt Galloway on Metro Morning in early November.

"He means everything to me, his family taking me in, the guys, The Hip and everybody was really good to me," Drew said.

Kevin Drew is the frontman of Broken Social Scene and co-producer on Gord Downie's The Secret Path and Introduce Yerself. (Dahlia Katz)

Drew said he connected with Downie five years ago. It was in 2013 that he began recording Secret Path, a solo-album telling the story of 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack, who died after running away from an Ontario residential school in 1966.

Downie recorded the vocals and guitar over two sessions at The Bathhouse in the town of Bath, Ontario between Nov. and Dec. of 2013. Drew and co-producer, Dave Hamelin, played all of the other instruments, with some guest artists featured on the album.

Gord Downie prepares for the first live performance of Secret Path. (Unstoppable | Gord Downie's Secret Path in Concert)

Following his 2016 terminal brain cancer diagnosis, Downie teamed up once again with Drew to help produce and co-write his last album, Introduce Yerself, with each of the 23 songs about a person in the singer's life. Drew said he wanted to be in the room with Downie during this process, but knew it wasn't going to be easy.

"I couldn't tell him that it was going to be OK, which was very hard to accept in the moment. But I knew that we could go into time, into immortality and to do what he does best."

Broken Social Scene musician Kevin Drew describes what it was like to work with Gord Downie on his last two albums. (Video courtesy: Steven Silcox) 0:11

Drew described Downie as "open" and "loving" during the creation of what would be his last musical projects.

"So proud of him, so much love, he had so much love. In the end, people leave angry, they do, I've seen it, and he did not. And that was something that was so spiritually educational," said Drew.

Toronto's Broken Social Scene frontman Kevin Drew describes to Metro Morning host Matt Galloway Gord Downie's outlook ahead of his death in Oct. 2017. (Video courtesy: Heather Collett) 0:21

Drew said he was in Calgary just days before learning Downie had died on Oct. 17.

He said it was nature that gave him the sense Canada was about to say goodbye to Gord.   

"I was in Calgary, there was that big windstorm that Sunday, if you remember. Trees were going down all over my neighbourhood, I was going to see him that day. But his brother Pat, God bless him, said, 'It's an intense time with family right now.'"

Kevin Drew describes when he knew Gord Downie was about to pass. (Video courtesy: Steven Silcox) 0:21

"And when I saw all those trees going down in my neighbourhood and the wind came and my power was out for literally maybe eight to nine hours or 10 hours, I thought, 'he's going.'"

Drew said he was most proud of seeing how Canada united to honour Downie.

"So a couple days later I got the call and then I watched everybody stop and rally together over a man we all knew."

Gord Downie is seen performing during Secret Path in October 2016 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Introduce Yerself was released posthumously on Oct. 27, just 10 days after Downie's death.

On Dec. 19, The Canadian Press named Gord Downie the newsmaker of the year for the second consecutive year.

"It was a crazy first year and a phenomenal last year with him."

Toronto-based artist Jenn Kitagawa designed the album art for Gord Downie's final record, Introduce Yerself. (Arts & Crafts)

Broken Social Scene new album in 7 years

In the midst of working with Downie, Drew also had reunited with his bandmates of Broken Social Scene after going on hiatus in 2011. The rock collective began working on their fifth studio album, Hug of Thunder. Drew credits bandmate Brendan Canning with rekindling the group's magic.

"God bless him for doing that because it turned out to be just a really wonderful time again."

It had been seven years since the Canadian indie band released a new album, which includes past members like Leslie Feist, Metric's Emily Haines and Stars' Amy Millan. And it also saw the introduction of a new member, Ariel Engle.   

BSS originally formed in 1999 and Drew explained that it's the friendship that has kept them together for so many years.

Toronto indie band Broken Social Scene was joined by ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr as they opened their tour in Manchester, a day after the attack. (Craig Champion/YouTube)

"You have this history and this memory muscle of knowing how each other works and because you're a family, which is really what we are instead of a band. You have that patience. It's just having trust, I suppose."

In May 2017, the band began the European leg of its tour ahead of Hug of Thunder's release in July. They were scheduled to perform at Albert Hall in Manchester on May 23 — a day earlier a terrorist attack struck Manchester Arena during an Ariana Grande concert, leaving 22 people dead.

The band debated whether they should go ahead with their scheduled performance, but they eventually came to the decision to go on with the show and open it with Anthems for a Seventeen Year-old Girl, performed with the original artists.

Broken Social Scene pose in this undated handout photo. Members of Broken Social Scene had to make a difficult decision whether to perform on May 23 in the wake of the suicide bombing attack that left 22 people dead in Manchester. (Norman Wong/The Canadian Press)

"The fact that we had Emily [Haines] too, the original vocalist of the song, and Jimmy [Shaw], these guys wrote this song."

The band wrapped their Hug of Thunder tour in the fall.

"To be embraced as we did, there's never been more a time where we need to celebrate than right now," said Drew.  

Kevin Drew joins Matt throughout the show to talk about his new play, his band's latest album, and what it was like to produce Gord Downie's last album. 15:50

Drew takes on theatre

Following the tour with Broken Social Scene, Drew had yet another project on his plate that entailed a different kind of performance from him: live theatre.  

Drew was behind A&R Angels, a live show performed at Crow's Nest Theatre in Toronto between Nov. 20 and Dec. 9.

The BSS singer wrote the script, songs and played a lead role. His co-star was Billy Talent frontman Ben Kowalewicz.

It's described as a "rock-fable" starring both musicians portraying angels who have been pulling people back from the edge of death with their music.

Drew told Galloway during the run in November that he was enjoying the theatre experience. The project rounded off a difficult year for Drew in which he said he experienced depression.

"I was down, I got depressed. I never thought that would ever happen to me in my life and I didn't understand what was going on... I lost the shadow of myself for a moment there," Drew explained.

Drew told Metro Morning that he sobered up, took care of himself and ultimately allowed his friendships to guide him back to a better place.

"I relied on the people in my life to pull me out of that and also the creation and, to be honest, Gord."

About the Author

Victoria Valido

Victoria is a producer, writer and editor for CBC Toronto. She has written and produced countless local TV newscasts and chase produced for CBC Radio One's Metro Morning and Here and Now. She currently is a writer and social video editor for CBC Toronto's Facebook page.

With files from Matt Galloway, Morgan Passi. Illustrations: Heather Collett and Steven Silcox