Poor Nameless Boy
Brave New World
by Craig Silliphant
August 15, 2016
Joel Henderson came up with the stage moniker Poor Nameless Boy sitting around the kitchen table brainstorming with his father. His dad meant it as a bit of a joke when he came up with the name, but it ended up making a lot of sense. You’ll know what I mean when you hear Poor Nameless Boy’s new album, “Bravery.” They fit together well, bringing to mind the archetypal troubadour that wanders the Earth, telling stories and playing music.
Bravery is replete with beautiful violin work, excellent (but thankfully not showy) acoustic guitar strumming, and thoughtful lyrics. This kind of music satisfies the melancholy in your heart, either by expunging it or simply by reveling in it. It’s all the better that the troubadour remains nameless. The music becomes a voice within you; having a face or name would only remove your ability to identify with it so closely while in the throes of your own pain. Of course, Henderson is a real person, who obviously has a name, but he is playing these songs for you. For anyone who needs to feel something between hurt and hope.
I got a chance to chat with Henderson about a few topics, like his songwriting process, Spotify, and the time he pretended to be from New Zealand.
The Session: How did you get into music in the first place?
Joel Henderson (aka Poor Nameless Boy): I had taken songwriting classes in college and began dabbling with crafting tunes. One weekend I visited a friend and he convinced me to track one tune with him to see how I felt about it. I remember being very surprised at how well it turned out and we just went from there. Opportunities continued to arise after that and I couldn’t find a reason to say no.
The Session: I read that your father is a traveling musician?
JH: He was. It’s amazing how many people I come across who say, “I once played in a band with your Dad back in the day.” He was a true entertainer and road veteran for a number of years and has trunks full of stories.
The bands he was a part of would get booked six nights a week, and were featured performers playing multiple genres in an evening. The best part about talking music with my Dad is realizing that lessons he learned in the ‘70s are completely transferable to today. The music business has obviously changed a lot, but the wisdom is still relevant. He’s constantly reminding me about presence and what not to say while on the stage.
The Session: What is your favourite Saturday night record, and why?
JH: It may have taken me a while to get into, but as far as upbeat records go, I’ve been listening to a decent amount of Michael Bernard Fitzgerald’s “I Wanna Make It With You.” He has a way of making me groove. While on tour, I got a chance to see his album release show in Calgary and I came away very impressed. I’m not sure I have a favourite upbeat album of all time. I think most of my affection is for slower, mellow, harmony -filled pensive stuff. Gimme a mix of late ‘90s to mid 2005 pop/rock and I’m sure I’d be fine.
The Session: How about a Sunday morning record?
JH: “Clarity” by Jimmy Eat World has a strong history of influencing both my early mornings and late evenings because of its rich harmonies and beautifully monotonous grooves. Lately, I’d say Noah Gundersen’s last two albums, “Carry The Ghost” and “Ledges,” have made strong appearances with a cup of coffee. Noah knows how to sing emotion. From the first to the last syllable, he conveys exactly how he feels. Regardless if the messages are thought-provoking, heart-wrenching, or troubling, the honesty and authenticity makes it beautiful.
The Session: What is your process for writing songs?
JH: I’m a thinker. I mostly gather ideas of what I think could make great songs and when I’m in a season of writing, they seem to come out a lot easier. The biggest thing is the pre-song thought process. I spend a lot of time cancelling out scenarios that I think won’t work. If I know what I want to say going into a tune, then it helps keep me on track when I finally sit down to write it. When I wrote the song “Bravery,” I already had many hours of reflection when I grabbed my notepad and sunk into the couch. The classic question of, “Do you write the melody or the lyrics first?” has never made sense to me. I couldn’t do one without the other.
The Session: What do you try to do differently than others in the singer/songwriter category? Or a better question might be, how do you stand out?
JH: As a singer/songwriter, you sometimes play in places where people would rather eat nachos and check on the football scores than pay attention to your words, which is fine. The gigs that make or break you are the ones where everyone is facing your way and people are giving you their full wide-eyed attention. From my writing, to my stage presence, to the way I sing my songs, I have tried to get better at connecting with audiences. I hope my heart shows on my sleeve a bit, and I hope the songs come out clear and authentic.
I’m also a big fan of stand-up comedians. My favourite ones lately are those who can delve into a hard situation and find the humour in it. Those who boldly go there often bring strong revelations to the table, which end up making you laugh like crazy. That’s the power of storytelling, and that’s the power of songwriting and musicianship. The potential to speak about difficult topics and find the beauty in (them) is what I want to continue to get better at. I’m not sure if that makes me stand out or not, but that’s what’s important to me. I also got a new hat.
The Session: (Laughs) So aside from the hat, what has changed, both musically and personally, since your last album, “Activity Book?”
JH: I listened to more sad music. (Laughs.) I loved The Activity Book, but sometimes it’s hard to duplicate what I love about those songs when it’s just me and my acoustic guitar. I had to learn how to write songs where I felt comfortable in a full band setting, as well as on my own. Falling in love with the emotion created by a violin helped a lot and bringing on [violin player] Carmelle Pretzlaw was a game changer I think. She was able to take some of the subject matter of the tunes and really make you feel them from your soul.
I went through a lot of healing spiritually as well. At the time of the release of The Activity Book, I was struggling with some issues of faith and hope in what my eyes saw in the world. Bravery was the result of finding peace amidst the conflict and the struggle; singing hopeful tunes while in the metaphorical valley.
The Session: Where did the title for Bravery come from?
JH: Think of those items like a high school sweater, old fishing rod, or those weights you bought four summers ago. Those things, like bravery, can be stored away a box somewhere, and it might even take you a while to find it. The first line of the track “Bravery” poses the question, “What would you trade for a treasure?” which I think is a great representation of this hope-filled record.
The subject matter in these songs tell stories of individuals, making sense of a complicated lonely relationship, not caring about the things other people say are important, battling through the hardships of a committed relationship, and worries about what the future is going to look like. Bravery can go a long way in all of these situations.
The Session: Could you talk about the recording process for the album?
JH: I recorded with Brad Prosko at B-Rad Studios in Regina. Brad is the second producer I’ve ever worked with, and I was very honest with him about what I was looking for. I even gave him homework before we recorded anything. Like the professional he is, our next meeting included being able to discuss the feel of the songs, influential albums I’d given him to listen to, and creating a language which we were able to communicate through. His willingness to engage in the process right from the start made the album a success to me, (even before) the final outcome of the project.
It was also very important to me to think about other musicians I wanted to ask to be a part of the album. I wanted to make an album with friends, who I trusted. In the end, I wanted to be able to celebrate the successes together rather than borrowing talents from a session player who I didn’t know. If you scroll through the list of musicians on this project, I’m genuinely excited about who they are as people, as well as creative individuals.
The Session: What’s the craziest thing that has happened to you on tour?
JH: One time I was in Edmonton with Elias Edlund and we had some time to kill. We decided to stroll around the West Edmonton Mall and pretend like we were from New Zealand. After about 20 minutes of looking in stores using our new accents, we grabbed some coffee. This very nice gentleman sat down next to us and proceeded to talk to us about God. In that moment, with only eye contact as our communication and confirmation, we decided to continue on with the personas we had created. I think we spent the next 45 minutes discussing religion with this stranger as he attempted to inform two rebellious New Zealand tourists of a new way of life. Apparently our accents were convincing enough. It wasn’t necessarily crazy, but it sure was entertaining.
The Session: Can you tell me about one of those moments where a person comments on your music or show and it makes it all worth it?
JH: Sometimes you get compliments that you’re not sure what to do with, and it can be extremely humbling. I’ve now had quite a number of people who battle with anxiety say that my music helps to calm them. To me, that’s about the best thing anyone can say. After the album release in Regina, someone wrote to me and said of one song, “You wrote the song that I’ve been trying to write for six years.” When you get compliments like that, it’s tough to find the appropriate reaction. It’s very humbling and takes a while to sink in.
The Session: What are your thoughts on companies like Spotify, and music streaming?
JH: I had a massive discussion play out on my Facebook page not long ago on this subject. I’m not against more people hearing my music. I’m not necessarily against music being digitally free either. The problem with unlimited access is the potential for lack of appreciation. Someone who owns 50 books might appreciate those books more than someone who has access to 50,000 books. I’ve had people say to me, “You should be happy that I even listen to your music at all, and to have me pay for it is extra.” I honestly just don’t want to live in a world where we take creative people for granted. The next generation has already grown up in a space where music is basically free and at their fingertips, and I’m happy with that as long as listeners don’t start developing attitudes of entitlement. The challenge as a musician is to be your best. Ask yourself, “What makes my music important enough to come back to? If a listener has a desire to see all of the countries, why should they stay for a while in yours?”
As far as royalty rates are concerned, no comment.
The Session: Do you think more bands need to focus on making music and less on being a presence on Twitter or starting Kickstarter pages? How do you balance the art with the artiface?
JH: I have a friend who is the life of the party. He always manages to entertain you for about five minutes, but after that he has to move on to another person. The challenge for him is that, while he is engaging, people can get tired of him quickly because he really doesn’t offer much depth. I have another friend who I can sit and talk with for hours about a wide array of subjects. When we go out, he’s generally quiet and sometimes I wish he’d go introduce himself to people more naturally. I think he’s such a gem and not many people get to see that side. I think we just have to realize our strengths and make sure we are working on/partnering with others who can help with our weaknesses.
The Session: What do you do when you’re not making music?
JH: I love exploring cities and meeting new people. If I’m not watching cartoons or talking about hockey, I’m probably just having coffee with someone...or doing paperwork. I find the balance in BBQing outside, visiting with family, seeing new music, and doing youth work. I’m currently trying to sell my golf clubs so that I can buy a bike. Please don’t hit me or honk at me while I pedal by; I scare easily.
The Session: Anything I’ve missed?
JH: My mom is going to want about 20 copies of this when it comes out.
Poor Nameless Boy performed official showcases at this spring’s Canadian Music Week, and this summer’s Gateway Music Festival, among other dates. His 2016 album “Bravery” (Chronograph Records) can be purchased through the usual channels. For more news and show dates, visit www.poornamelessboy.com.