Harper, Stephen (Interview)
Q: I read somewhere that when you were a young musician you had a problem with your hands shaking. When you walked out on stage last Saturday at the National Arts Centre with Yo-Yo Ma and a big audience, were you a little bit unsteady?
A: Well, can I tell you the whole story? It's true I had that problem when I was young. I took piano for 10 years. I got my Grade 9 Royal Conservatory. I had a bit of talent but never enough to think about it professionally. My big problem was that, while I didn't appear nervous, my hands shook, which obviously was fatal for any kind of pianist. I never did that well on my exams for that reason. Indirectly, this led to where I am now because at a very early age, almost from the first time I ever gave a public speech at school, I spoke without notes so nobody would notice I was nervous.
Q: You just kept your hands at your side or in your pockets or something?
A: Yeah. Or just put them on the podium. They didn't shake so bad that you'd notice it unless I was holding papers or something. So that was one fear. I haven't performed music in front of a crowd since I was probably 11 years old, so I was worried, "Jeez, will this come back? Will I get this shaking?" But no. I mean, I was nervous, don't get me wrong, but I didn't have any hand shakes. I was just a bit stiff. Now, the band had told me - when we were rehearsing, they said, "Look, if at any point you get uneasy about the piano part, or your hands, just sing. Nobody's going to care, just sing." So that was the backup plan. But no, in the end my hands were okay.
Q: How often did you rehearse?
A: We did three or four band rehearsals and then I did a little bit late at night every night, but as I said to Laureen, if we'd had another week I would have been able to play without concentrating so hard on what I was doing. I could have just performed and not worried about whether I was hitting the chords or the notes right. But that's all we had.
Q: What's your best memory of the performance, of the evening?
A: Probably just when we ended, and the great crowd reaction, and the sense of relief. I have to say that as we played I started to get into it after a bit, and the crowd was kind of right into it from the beginning, so that all helped.
Q: Well, you've been a politician for decades, and one who's always been criticized for not showing a softer or more human side - why did you wait so long to break out this talent?
A: You have to remember that after I got my Grade 9 Royal Conservatory, I didn't play. I played the piano hardly at all for almost 30 years. I only started to get back into it a bit when my son Ben started to pick up the guitar and he wanted me to accompany him, so I'd play a few chords. And then Roger CHARBONNEAU, our house manager and a great musician, he would play guitar and fiddle at house parties we would have, and I would sing with him. And over the last couple of years, it got bigger and bigger where we had other friends in who were singing, friends of ours who played some instruments, and then my wife brought in these professional musicians to back me up at our at-home jam sessions. And she kept saying, "Oh, you should perform some time," and I just said, "I'm not good enough." But then when she pushed me kind of in the lead-up to this event I thought, "Well, I'll bring the band over, see what they think." So I sort of fell into this thing, in the same way I fell into this whole job, with Laureen pushing me to do it and me thinking, "Well, you know, if people think we can pull it off, let's try. Otherwise I'll be looking back saying I wish I'd tried."
Q: You chose a Beatles song - With a Little Help From My Friends - and you've been a Beatles fan all your life. What's the attraction? Why the Beatles?
A: First of all, just on the song, we picked it for a bunch of reasons but the biggest was we only had a week, so we picked something that was catchy, fun, within my vocal range but also not a lot of complicated beats or chord changes, and obviously it fit the scenario in that it's the classic nobody-knows-you-can-sing song. But why? I mean, I'm just a huge fan of the Beatles, I always have been since I was small.
Q: From what I know of you you're never casual about things that you do, and I can't imagine you're a casual fan of the Beatles. You know quite a lot about them?
A: Yeah. I know less about pop music than a lot of people think I do, but I know the Beatles inside out.
Q: What's your least favourite Beatles song?
A: Funny, I thought you might ask me that. Probably Revolution 9, because I don't really consider it a song. I agree it's an interesting piece of work. I don't really put it in the category of a song, so that would probably be my least favourite.
A: You know, I've got so many I love, but probably in the end Hey Jude is my favourite.
A: It's just a magnificent piece of work. It's a great tune, it has great production, it's really uplifting. I'd say it's one of those perfect records, you know? There are a lot of great songs but there's only a handful of records I'd say are just absolutely perfect, that could not have been better. And that'd be one of them.
Q: The age-old question, Lennon or McCartney - who do you prefer?
A: Well, if forced to choose, I would say Lennon, but my actual analysis is that it's a combination. I think that's what everybody who has that argument is really missing, that the Beatles were, at the core, Lennon and McCartney, not Lennon plus McCartney or vice versa, but Lennon and McCartney together. And while both are great artists and musicians in their own right, they were never as good without the collaboration and the competition that created their special symbiotic relationship.
Q: Lennon once said that if more politicians in the world were like Pierre Trudeau we'd have world peace. What's your response to that?
A: You know, the funny thing is - most people wouldn't believe this - in a strange way I'm a big admirer of John Lennon but obviously I don't share his politics. Although, if you know much about John Lennon, his politics were not quite as fixed as people think, his politics shifted around a fair bit. Look, I know that when a lot of musicians are singing they're trying to get a political message out. I'm a politician: when I'm singing I'm just singing. I got no political message.
Q: I know you like classic rock but do you like any music from the last 20 years?
A: I don't want to say anything trashing music from the last 20 years because it's not that I dislike it, I just probably haven't given it much of a chance. Laureen actually listens to music a lot more than I do - I just don't have the time. But I still tend to like stuff in the rock vein. I loved the Alanis MORISSETTE album Jagged Little Pill, loved it. I like BLUE RODEO. I like NICKELBACK.
Q: You play when you're at home, and I understand you play on the road sometimes if you can get a piano in your room. What do you play when you're by yourself?
A: It's almost always a series of Beatles tunes, a few other songs from classic rock, the '50s to '70s kind of era, the stuff that I know.
Q: How often are you able to play?
A: Laureen claims I play almost every day. That's not true, but probably every other day I play an hour or so. I don't do scales or any practising. I just sit down and fool around.
Q: What do you get out of it? How does it make you feel?
A: I've always had a kind of peculiar relationship with music. I love playing music in some ways, and I sit down, I relax, but I really get into it, I get lost in it. On the other hand, it isn't long before I start to get perfectionist about it and, you know, start to maybe ... well, it becomes less than relaxing.
Q: You've taken some heat in the political arena for speaking dismissively of fancy arts galas where artists take the stage to beg for higher subsidies. Was your performance at the National Arts Centre gala intended as some sort of gesture to the arts community? Was there a political message behind it?
A: Well, I certainly wasn't there to complain about my salary. No, look, I've never had anything but respect for artists. That's not the issue. I was just there singing a song. As I said, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I thought, "Well, while we're on this bandwagon, let's ride it."
Q: You've done a lot of other things over the years to show a non-political face, a more human dimension of yourself - everything from flipping pancakes to comedy skits. Why do you think this particular performance has resonated the way it has?
A: I'm not sure. I'd probably have to go watch it. I haven't. I hate seeing myself on television and I haven't actually gone and watched it. I just saw one 10-second clip but it did capture the electricity in the room. We were surprised at the response, at how kind of crazy it got. Obviously we thought people would notice, we'd get some coverage, but this is much, much bigger than we expected. It was just a wonderful reception.
Q: Why don't you like seeing yourself on television?
A: I don't know. Maybe it's the perfectionist in me. Also, I find it like an out-of-body experience. It's like watching somebody imitating me. It makes me very uncomfortable. Maybe it's the shy side of my personality or something. But I don't watch any Canadian news - I don't want to see myself on television. But I guess I'll watch this one.
Maclean's October 19, 2009