A Conversation with Kim Mitchell
There are currently 50 names in the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, the non-profit, bilingual, apolitical and national hall founded in 1998 to effectively deal with the lack of public and industry recognition of Canadian songwriters. Since its founding, the Hall has recognized a diverse collection of revered Canadian songwriters, from obvious inductees like Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot to regionally renowned fan favourites like Gilles Vigneault and Luc Plamondon.
As of May 21st, 2020, you can add the name of the man who proudly sang the lyric, “I am a wild party!” During an induction ceremony being held as part of the Canadian Music Awards industry awards in Toronto, KIM MITCHELL will finally be recognized for his songwriting in honour of his diverse and eclectic catalogue of Canadian rock classics.
From his early days in Max Webster, through a solo career that has included 20 Canadian Top 100 hits, Kim Mitchell has become synonymous with summertime in Canada. While his 1984 single, “Go for Soda,” was his only charted song on the US Billboard Hot 100, Mitchell’s been a perennial rock radio favourite, with songs like “Rock and Roll Duty,” “Rockland Wonderland,” “Expedition Sailor,” “America,” “Alana Loves Me,” “Easy to Tame” and “Patio Lanterns” serving as part of the ultimate Canadian playlist. With an upcoming gig scheduled March 11th at FirstOntario PAC, Kim took time to talk with GoBeWeekly about his time with Max Webster, his radio show on Q107, and his fond memories of Neil Peart.
GoBe: Joni Mitchell. Leonard Cohen. Gordon Lightfoot. Bruce Cockburn. And now, Kim Mitchell. These are a few of the legends in the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. At the end of the day, you would never have had the career success you’ve had without penning some great songs. What does it mean to you as an artist to be acknowledged as a songwriter?
KIM: Well it becomes kind of overwhelming more so than a platinum record or a JUNO Award, because when you mention names like you just did, I’m like ‘wow, what did I do?’ My first congratulatory message was from Myles Goodwin of April Wine. He was like, ‘what’s a guy got to do?’ I said, ‘easy Myles, it was nice to beat you at something just once in my life.’
GoBe: You’re now included amongst the greats, existing in some pretty rarified air when it comes to the craft of writing songs.
KIM: It’s just really cool to be acknowledged as one of the troubled souls that writes songs. Everybody who you mentioned and who I’ve mentioned, we’re all a bit troubled in certain areas. That may sound like a bad thing, but it’s been a good thing in our fuel, to help tell our stories and paint our pictures. Not to say we can’t see simple beautiful things, like a string of patio lights on a back patio for example. I’m just blown away by it. I’ll be honest with you. I barely lift my head up and look around and go, ‘okay, what’s happening, what have I done?’ I think we all just put our head down and do our work, and that’s what we’re doing. With songwriting, I just work to get songs where I love them.
GoBe: Do you think people underestimate the skill it takes to write a song?
KIM: I’ve always found with songwriting, people think, I came up with this and I came up with that, I wrote this and I wrote that. I’ve always looked at it like, I’m the song’s roadie. It’s fucking telling me what it wants. I poke around with it and tweak this and do that. The song kind of tells me what it wants. I’ll try some stuff, but it’s almost like the song talks to me and goes, ‘yeah, do more of that.’ I just sort of try to serve my songs over the years.
GoBe: You’ve worked with songwriting collaborators, from Pye Dubois to Andy Curran amongst others. But was there a particular songwriter from any genre that inspired you as a songwriter or who you admired for their songwriting?
KIM: Very early on as a child, yes. I grew up in Sarnia, Ontario and I was in a band where the one band member wrote songs and we did a lot of his original stuff. His name was Jim Chevalier. To this day, I sort of credit him. I looked up to him as a songwriter, he came up with all these cool ideas. I was like, ‘how do you do that?’ I looked up to him as a kid. I was probably 16 or 17 years at the time. It wasn’t until I was 20 years old in the Isle of Rhodes in Greece, Pye came over for a visit because he was going to travel to Turkey. I was living on a Greek island playing in a show band. He started pulling out material, lyrics and stuff, and I was like, ‘what’s this?’ He goes, ‘I kind of write.’ I remember the first song we wrote. I read the lyric, pulled out the guitar, and we wrote our first song in Greece. After that, my Greek trip, I came back to Toronto to take guitar lessons and start Max Webster. That’s when Pye and I started writing the first record.
GoBe: There’s no denying the music you’ve made over the years is woven into the tapestry of Canadiana and summertime fun in a way unlike any other artist. You don’t write “I Am A Wild Party” without speaking from experience. But there’s real depth to your more melodic tunes, from early tunes like “Lily” and “Summer Turning Blue” to solo songs like “Alana Loves Me”, “Easy to Tame” and “All We Are.” Which of those styles came easier to you?
KIM: None of them come naturally (laughing). No, I’m serious. I’d have to say the more complex stuff is a little harder, but sometimes that’s just woodshedding parts of it, like no, I want something interesting here. Once again, I look at it like, I’m not the creator. The song is coming from somewhere. That’s always been the magical part for me. This idea has just presented itself to me, it wants to be born. It’s all equally as difficult, but when the song comes to me it’s like, it’s time to go to work and do what I do with it. Sometimes, a song like “Rock and Roll Duty” took under an hour to write. “Patio Lanterns” took a long time to write, even though I got the first part of the song in a couple minutes. Writing a song, it has a life of its own, and it’s going to present itself when it wants to. I’m not in control.
GoBe: When Max was put to rest and you embarked on your solo career, was there a conscious decision to refine your song writing? Did you do anything to hone your skills? Or was there just a natural progression from writing eclectic moon trilogies to writing more accessible rock tunes?
KIM: Very good question. When I quit Max Webster I moved into an apartment in the Beaches in Toronto and wrote songs. I thought, ‘I’ve saved up enough money that I’m going to take a year off and write.’ I did that. Tom Cochrane was in the apartment above me writing one of his records, and I was writing all the songs for Akimbo Alogo and Shakin’ Like a Human Being. After speaking with Rik Emmet, he gave me a songwriting lesson. He goes, ‘Kim, do you know what choruses are, do you know what a bridge is?’ He started talking about the formatics. He wasn’t cutting me up, he was sort of very conversational. I’ll remember that chat forever. That was probably one of my biggest lessons in songwriting. I was like, okay, that’s my checklist, to know what a bridge is supposed to do, to know what a pre-chorus is supposed to do. The idea of songwriting is, be aware of all that stuff, but mess it right the fuck up sometimes.
GoBe: I would say your catalogue of music is probably one of the most eclectic of all the songwriters in the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.
KIM: That’s a huge compliment, thanks you. But you know, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, come on. Good lord. I guess you’re saying it’s more diverse.
GoBe: For sure. They didn’t go from writing complex almost prog rock moon trilogies to writing sweet and tender pop rock staples like “All We Are.” But if you were to be remembered for one song, much like Ian Tyson is for “Four Strong Winds” or even Paul Anka is for “My Way,” what would you want it to be? What’s the one that you’re proudest to have pulled from your imagination and crafted into something truly special?
KIM: Very nice question. They’re all my kids, so it’s hard to pick one. But I guess at the end of the day, it would be “Rock and Roll Duty,” for a hard driving tune, “Beyond the Moon” for one of the more complex tunes, and I’m going to say “Words to Words,” Max Webster, for one of the prettier songs.
GoBe: Speaking of rock and roll duty, I was working at Y108 through the years you were at Q107. We often thought of counter programming you by having a Hamiltonian like Tom Wilson or Gord Lewis as a host but it never materialized. What did you enjoy most about being a radio host?
KIM: The first thing you’d know, because you’ve done it, is that you have to respect the craft. To do anything well, you have to work hard it. I sucked for a very long time. I sucked for at least a good year, and was fucking terrible. I had a good boss, and we had lots of meetings, but it was my second boss who said, ‘you’ve got something here man. I’m not going to put you with a co-host. You’re Kim fucking Mitchell, and you’re going to turn this into something.’ That sort of let me relax and find my legs. I liked wearing headphones all day and rediscovering the music I grew up on. To sit there and have headphones on and listen to how amazing Heart records sounded and were recorded, and Zeppelin how fucking creative it was. There was just so much great music. As you’re involved in your own career as a musician you listen to it but you’re of focused on your own stuff all the time. It was just nice to be visiting that music.
GoBe: What I really loved not only as a fan of yours but as a lover of radio, I think it was really the last show of its kind on terrestrial radio in the market. You were playing live music, jamming with guests, and telling those amazing stories. What would make radio programmers not want that kind of entertainment? It blows me away.
KIM: It still blows me away too to be honest with you. The show was doing good. I think radio, it’s a business. They’re up against a lot of stuff and it’s scary times for them. You know, I was older, I get it. It’s time for me to go. I had a pity party for maybe a couple weeks, then I went ‘I’m going back to be a rock guitar player, that’s not too bad.’
GoBe: You talk about revisiting the music you love. I recently got challenged on Facebook to do one of the 10 Albums in 10 Days things, and I really enjoyed looking back at the albums that impacted my life the most. Tops on my list was High Class and Borrowed Shoes. I can still feel the joy remembering my first Max Webster concert, you opening up for Rush in Niagara Falls, New York and belting out “Oh War’s” refrain “fuck you instead of thank you.” It was liberating to a 15 year old who had his mouth washed out with soap as a kid far too often. The band is held in such high regard still to this day; what’s your perspective on the band, that music and that time of your life despite the roller coaster ride that was Max Webster.
KIM: It blows my mind. I didn’t realize what it meant to some people. That’s what blows my mind all the time now. We were a band that rehearsed a lot, we played a lot. We just played a lot and gigged a lot. It was a beautiful time, because we were in this vortex of gig-dom, just hanging out and travelling and vans and loading the gear ourselves and setting it up ourselves. I have beautiful memories of it. I can’t say there are any moments where I’m going, ew.
GoBe: I went on line yesterday and Max Webster’s THE PARTY box set is selling for $279 on Amazon, all eight LPS in a vinyl box that I can get shipped from Kentucky. Do you see any money for sales of such things? Or is there some account at Anthem Records that just sucks that money right out of your pocket.
KIM: I’m not sure I get any money out of that kind of thing.
GoBe: You had a heart attack a while ago and fans are of course thankful you survived. How has that impacted your lifestyle. Is Kim Mitchell up early doing palates and drinking kale smoothies?
KIM: No man. I’m up early, but the first 15 minutes of my day start with me picking up dog shit. I walk a dog every day. I do try to get to the gym. I’m like everybody else. I go through a period where I’m slamming it hard, and periods where I’ll go see my cardiologist and he’ll go, ‘how you doing?’ And I’ll go, ‘I’ve been eating like shit for a couple months.’ And he’ll go, ‘so you’re living your life.’ I guess I am. We all try.
GoBe: You’re coming to St. Catharines March 11 to play the Performing Arts Centre. We’re a community still in mourning over the loss of the great Neil Peart. You toured with Rush and knew him first hand. Is there a particular experience you remember most, or any thoughts on his passing?
KIM: Well, I knew they were keeping it quiet. I knew quite a while before that I knew he was sick. I had two people around me die of the same thing, glioblastoma. And so I knew what his fate would be. I didn’t say anything to anybody either, because I knew the band wanted it quiet, and the person who let me know was very close to the band. My memory of Neil is, he was – and I said this in another interview – that I think Neil was just a big fan of Alex Lifeson, because Neil was pretty straight. Neil’s M.O. was just to play a stellar show all the time. Here’s a memory. Max Webster would open up, and almost every show, Neil was playing the drums to our show. That’s how he warmed up. He would be on stage, none of his microphones were turned on so the audience can’t hear him. He’s behind a scrim so they can’t see him. But on stage we could hear him every night. He’s playing along with us. That was a beautiful memory. He’d check in with us and go, ‘is that okay?’ We’d say, ‘fuck yes, it sounds great, we love having two drummers.’
GoBe: So last question then, back to the honour of being inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. Do you hold this award in a little higher esteem than your 1983 JUNO Award for Most Promising Male Vocalist, given that you’d already released six of the most beloved Canadian rock albums ever made when you won?
KIM: Listen, I won Album of the Year too, just so you know (laughing). This is really special. I admit, any accolade you get, any award you get in this business is really nice. The women (from CSHF) took me out for a drink, and I thought it had something to do with my royalties or some kind of thing, or do you want to perform. She was like, ‘we want to induct you into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.’ My jaw dropped. I was like, ‘pardon, this is a joke, right?’ She said ‘no, we’re serious, we want to induct you this spring.’ I almost started to cry. To be acknowledged by your peers, and to be in that kind of company. I love the fact they don’t induct two or three people a year. They’ll induct 18 people a year. They’ll do awards for the east coast, for Quebec, they have a west coast thing. So people well-known in a certain region still deserve to be acknowledged they feel. They’re slowly looking after everybody. I’m just blown away I was on a short list and everyone said, let’s induct Kim Mitchell.
GoBe: Well, as a guy who’s lived in Niagara most of his life, I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more. There’s not a person in Niagara who hasn’t seen or heard Kim Mitchell and Max Webster over the years. Kudos to you.
KIM. Thank you.
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