Books·How I Wrote It

Michael Barclay's Hearts on Fire is the historical deep dive every Canadian music fan deserves

The Toronto journalist and critic spoke to CBC Books about researching and exploring Canadian music history in his new nonfiction book Hearts on Fire.

'I want people to know how weird and wonderful Canadian music is.'

Hearts On Fire is a book by Michael Barclay. (ECW Press/Liz Sullivan)

With two Canadian music history books already under his belt — including The Tragically Hip biography The Never-Ending Present and the co-authored Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985–95 — music journalist, editor and critic Michael Barclay figured he was the right person to dig into the early 2000s and turn out a deep-dive on the rise of what he calls the Canadian "weirdos." 

Barclay's latest book on the Canadian music scene is Hearts On Fire. Featuring more than 100 exclusive interviews and two decades of research, the 600-page nonfiction book is meticulous in scope as it explores the emerging scene at the turn of the century — including Canadian musical acts such as Feist, Arcade Fire, Tegan and Sara and Constantines.

The Toronto author spoke to CBC Books about what went into writing Hearts On Fire. 

The early days of influential Guelph indie-rock band Constantines are chronicled in Hearts on Fire. (Sub Pop)

How the early 2000s changed Canadian music 

"This is a time when the weirdos won in Canadian music. Canadians have always been very good at making superstars who worked very hard at breaking out beyond Canadian borders. And this was a transformative time in technology when a lot of traditional gate-keeping was no longer as important and there were ways to leapfrog over it to reach an international audience.

"It created this fearlessness in Canadian artists that registered worldwide. They were no longer trying to conform to get on the radio or trying to attract a certain kind of booking agent. They focused on making unique art — and it was that art that really captured the world's attention in ways that I think were not possible for previous generations of non-commercial Canadian musicians.

This is a time when the weirdos won in Canadian music.

"For example, you can't imagine something less commercial than Godspeed You! Black Emperor. An all-instrumental, anti-capitalist band with 20-minute songs. That seems like a recipe for commercial suicide, and yet they created a very sustainable model such that they're still a very viable band, even 25 years after they started.

"There was new attention being paid to a totally different kind of Canadian music that didn't sound like Neil Young or Celine Dion. It just felt like a really fresh wave."

Barclay attended many of Montreal indie-rock band Arcade Fire's earliest shows in the 2000s. (Guy Aroch)

Writing 'the first drafts of history' 

"I was a working music journalist, so I was interviewing people and writing the first drafts of history, as the saying goes about journalism. I was also keeping gig diaries and writing down what happened at certain shows. I was lucky enough to see a lot of very early Arcade Fire shows and Hidden Cameras shows, so I was able to draw on some of those memories directly while writing this book.

"It was thrilling to see incredible things before they blew up and then to see them as they blew up. I was at those Arcade Fire shows where there were more people on stage than the audience, you know? Those early Hidden Camera shows were so unexpected and glorious and celebratory.

There's nothing like discovering someone for the first time — you hear them and you're like, 'What is this?'

"There's a vicarious thrill as well. I don't know any music snob that actually wants to be the only fan of a certain artist. Everybody wants to share that passion with everybody else. There's nothing like discovering someone for the first time — you hear them and you're like, 'What is this?' 

"It helped to have a lot of my own clippings and things that I consciously saved at the time, thinking, 'This will be important to remember.' I didn't know at that point that I'd write a book, but I was conscious that this was a very important time."

Singer-songwriter Leslie Feist, known as Feist, was a vital part of the early-2000s music scene captured in Hearts on Fire. (Arts & Crafts)

Two decades later 

"Twenty years later is a good time to do a project like this. It's not so far away that people's memories are pretty fractured or lost to drugs or alcohol or life. It's somewhat fresh, but there's also a lot of perspective. A lot of these people are now in their 40s, so there's a lot of humility and recognition of what went right and what went wrong. 

I want people to know how weird and wonderful Canadian music is and always has been. This is a time when the world realized that — and now, it's a given.

"I really fell in love with almost all of these people. For the most part, Canadian musicians really are awesome, beautiful people. Some people are just dream interviews. 

"Torquil Campbell of Stars is a hilarious, painfully honest interview. Tegan and Sara are such a delight. Sam Roberts speaks in complete paragraphs. John Samson chooses his words very carefully — and with good reason, because everything he says is very profound and thoughtful. 

"Leslie Feist is also just a total delight. Her manager was like, 'You have 20 minutes. Is that okay?' We ended up speaking for more than three hours total for this book. Godspeed You! Black Emperor is a band who's had a historically antagonistic relationship with the media. We had delightful conversations. Time and perspective softens a lot of edges.

"I don't think this is the final word on any of them — and I hope it's not. I hope other writers look at this book and go, 'There's more we could dig around and tell here,' or, 'Barclay messed it up so much that we need to do it properly.' [laughs] I genuinely hope that happens, because I want these stories to be told.

"I want people to know how weird and wonderful Canadian music is and always has been. This is a time when the world realized that — and now, it's a given. There's no chip on our shoulder."

Michael Barclay's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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