By Keith Sharp
Going to the barber shop hardly rates as a life altering experience for most people, but for former Jitters’ front man Blair Packham, two separate incidents had a profound effect on triggering events which shaped his musical career.
Emerging from under a dark cloud of personal and business problems which had left Packham “more than a little unmotivated for the past 13 years”, he has found the time and inspiration to record a gem of a pop record titled `Unpopular Pop” which is being propelled by a solid lead-off track called “You Yeah You”.
Musing on the first barber shop incident which tilted his former band, The Jitters’ fortunate in an upwards direction, it was Phase One Studio’s head, Paul Gross who ambled into Nancy Rochon’s barber shop for a quick short back and sides (probably not!) in early 1986 when he heard an unfamiliar track being played on Q-107. “Hey, these guys are good, I wonder who they are”, mused Gross. “I know exactly who they are, they’re The Jitters,” responded Rochon. “Their bass player is a friend of mine.”
The track, Gross was listening to was “Last Of The Red Hot Fools” a track that had placed The Jitters third in Q-107’s annual Homegrown Contest, thus providing valuable airtime on Toronto’s key influential rock radio station. Rochon had been given a tape of the band’s demos by bassist Matt Greenberg so when Gross heard the tape, he made contact with the band and soon had them recording more complete demos in is Scarborough recording studios. Those demos resulted in a recording contract with Capitol/EMI and came at just the right time.
“We were going to break up, we had been at it for five years and were getting sick at the sight of each other,” Packham explained. “So we got the record contract, got to tour the UK with Heart and got nominated for a Most Promising New Band Juno Award, but the album didn’t really happen. To be honest we sounded a little dated. We tried to inject some humour into our live act but Capitol Canada told us rock music and humour didn’t mix. One year later, The Barenaked Ladies came out with their brand of humour, and I’m saying, “Hey, look what they’re doing, that should have been us!”
Flash forward to 2013. Packham has not been fairing well of late. The Jitters lost their recording contract with Capitol after their 1989 second album `Louder Than Words’ made little impression, Packham managed to bounce back with two well received solo outings; `Everything That’s Good’ (2000) and `Could Have Been King’ (2004) despite being released when the Grunge movement was peaking.
But then Blair’s dad died, he lost a friend, his jingle company ran into problems, his wife left him and as a topper, his mother, who had been in failing health and had been looked after by Packham for over two years, finally passed away in 2012.
“I was so depressed I felt I just had to get away, I had to get out of Dodge,” Packham explained. Scanning Craigslist, he noticed a service where people traded houses for like six months, he noticed a contact in Ireland who wanted to trade with someone in Toronto and so in June 2013, Packham found his way en route to Dublin.
And here is where Barber Shop No.2 story unfolds. “So I need a haircut and I walk into this barber shop called Abner Browns which has all these guitars in the window and the walls are covered in photographs of people like Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. So I am having my haircut, the barber asks me who I am, where I come from and what I do for a living. I tell him I am a singer-songwriter from Canada and he tells me the barber shop has this idea of shooting a series of videos of artists performing in the shop and was I interested in being one of the first performers.
“So this `Live At Abner Browns’ becomes a video series that is a hit on you tube, I become a bit of a local celebrity, get interviewed by the Irish Times and The Guardian, and Dave Judge, the barber, starts managing Irish bands and turns Abner Browns into a live concert venue.”
More importantly for Packham, he rediscovered himself creatively. “That barber shop changed my life again,” he announced. “I got enthusiastic about writing music, I found myself again.”
Packham, who had spent the intervening years writing music for television, animated series and jingles while staging a series of song writing camps with former Triumph guitarist Rik Emmett, found that he had gotten his groove back. “ I had gone through a spell that was not a happy story but now I’m in the most prolific period of my life, I am writing better songs, everything is onwards and upwards.”
“Absolutely, Nick Lowe had “Cruel To Be Kind” but for the most part, those guys wrote great pop songs that weren’t necessarily great hits, that’s where my `Unpopular Pop’ title comes from,” Packham noted. “Actually that title was how my dad described my songwriting, he allowed.
Even despite Packham’s past problems, song titles like “Loved By You” and “I Don’t Know Why”, which involve vocal contributions from friends like Ron Sexsmith and former Bare Naked Lady, Steven Page, reflect a more positive frame of mind. “I don’t get it when people say, `Well you’ve gone through some tough times, you lost your father and your mother, your wife divorced you, but at least you’ll get a good song out of it.’ “Really, these are the last things I want to sing about.”