While on the road to kick-start their Summerfest Tour, at a random truck stop outside of Ottawa, Marc-Antoine Robertson, lead singer of the 6-piece Nova Scotia band SoHo Ghetto, took the time to talk to me about his band’s music and what he hopes to communicate to the crowd while performing.
Let’s start with something I’m personally curious about…
…Yeah, the title of the band, isn’t it?
Yes. Come on, it’s my first interview, cut me some slack!
(laughs) Yeah, that’s cool, a lot of people ask about it. Essentially, it’s about being a poor artist. That’s all it means, it’s just like SoHo is something that struck me as New York and London – artsy hubs. That archetype for “you know you’re cool and you’ve made it when you’re cruising SoHo.” And then ghetto means the opposite. At the time when I formed the band I was living in a student ghetto in Halifax, a lot of artsy students live in the north end of Halifax, and it’s essentially kind of a ghetto-ish area. SoHo Ghetto, there you go! A lot of people think we’re a rap group, as well. I guess the dichotomy created a lot of buzz and people talked about it a bit more and it’s worked out for us because people don’t know what to expect. For the most part, when they hear us, they’re very surprised. It’s only been a positive effect.
Along the same lines, your genre is listed as roots pop, but how would you describe your music to someone who hasn’t heard you before?
When we first started to gain a little ground, a couple of years ago, someone called us orchestral pop and that’s how I like to describe us, symphonic or orchestral pop. A big pop sound.
I’ve seen you guys live, you do need to use a lot of qualifiers from different genres to describe your music.
Thank you! Honestly, Cristina, I get bored really quick. Every song I write is essentially influenced by something different. I don’t do it on purpose; it just comes out melodically that way. And I try to write as epic as possible and I guess that’s where the pop sensibilities come from. The rest of the band is the same way, everyone has their own version of what pop is. So it’s created a big orchestral poppy sound. People make the roots or folky comment because I write all the songs on guitar, and if I were to perform them alone I guess it would sound a lot more roots. Certainly with our new material and the next album, we’re maintaining the roots vein in a minimalistic way, but really pushing the whole big sound of pop. It’s what we’re striving towards at this point.
You mentioned you write all the songs, do you isolate yourself and then just write a bunch of songs or do you write as you go?
There’s no rules. Oftentimes I’m just at my kitchen table, usually watching something on TV, and I just sit there with my guitar. I’m into pop culture, movie soundtracks, that’s always been something I’ve been influenced by and how things are put together; different songs that form one picture or one cohesive unit that represents the sound of a visual project, so I’ve been influenced by everything. We’ve been on the road for just about a day and a half now and I pull out my book; so, I can do it when there’s people around too. For the most part I’m alone and isolated but I’ve been known to pull out a napkin and just scribble down a few words.
You’re just starting your Summerfest Tour, is there anything special you guys do to unwind or to prepare for the next show or how do you keep it together when you’re on tour?
That’s a good question. We typically just talk a lot. They talk more than me, I like to keep to myself; we make each other laugh. We were listening to Meatloaf for the last hour in the car, the go-to album from 1992 which I knew by heart. Like other bands, certainly there are topics to come up whether they’re political or pop-culture. When we get a moment to unwind, most of us just lie down; in a hotel or camp, we love camping, we do that while we’re on tour, a little bit here and there, certainly when we’re in the more rural areas so that works well to help us unwind.
Sounds like you’re friends, too.
Oh yeah, when I formed the band, there were different people, it changed, of course, but my best friend, Brian, has been in the band from the beginning; I lived in Europe for a year after I graduated from Dalhousie, teaching in France; and decided that I didn’t like or didn’t want to teach and I had my guitar over there and wrote a bunch of songs. Then I decided to come home and be with my friends and it just unfolded and we got bigger and it started to roll along, but we’re all pretty close, I’ve met a couple of them because of music, but a couple of them I’ve known for a long time as well. We’re a mix and match from all over.
You guys are playing in Toronto on Sunday at The Horseshoe, right?
We’re playing on Sunday at The Horseshoe with The Stanfields, buddies of ours from Nova Scotia and another band called The Town Heroes, they’re friends of ours, they’re from Cape Breton; there’s a couple of other bands whose names I don’t remember right now. East Coast Canada Day at The Horseshoe. We’ll also be back in August, twice!
Do you have any other favourite Toronto venues that you’d like to play at?
The Horseshoe we’ve played before; and Lee’s Palace, both those places have really been good to us and we’ve actually had, this past October, a night at The Horseshoe with another band from Toronto, called Inlet Sound. And the Rivoli, of course. The first Ontario show we played two years ago, again with The Stanfields, they played right after us; we had this fantastic crowd and we went there and really killed it and as a result we got picked up by the Agency Group, so the Rivoli really holds a special place with us because we were discovered there. Nobody saw it coming, certainly outside the band or within the industry or anyone that knows us from the East Coast. We’re definitely proud of that moment.
Sounds like you’ve had a positive experience but how do you think the Toronto crowds compare to other cities? Some people say that Toronto crowds can be a tad snobby, what was your experience?
People respond well to us, I don’t really have anything; or maybe we just haven’t had our moment with snobby audiences yet; we’re a big band, there’s 6 of us and we have quite a few friends, all of us combined, in Toronto so there’s always really huge support; Halifax is much smaller, so you see a lot of the same people at a lot of the shows, but Toronto, with its massive venues and all the other bands we got to share the stage with, it’s just a lot more people so it’s different every single time but we’ve all had a really positive response in Toronto, for the most part. So we should have an interview after we have those snobby moments. We’ll definitely have something to say about that.
Well, if you haven’t had them ‘til now maybe you won’t have them.
Maybe we won’t, yes! Maybe we just moved past it and didn’t even realize it.
Or maybe you’ve converted even Toronto snobs!
I hope so; I really hope that’s the reason. It’s a bit of everything. There’s 5 great musicians sharing the stage with me, and we just want to go out there and entertain people, so we try to bring as much physical and emotional energy to the songs as possible. We try to cater to that and hope that people feed off our energy and I think that’s really been key, that we bring a good energy and people respond to that. We try to make some connection, everybody in the band has been quite good with that.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve seen you guys live and something that really struck me was that everyone in the band contributed to the atmosphere on-stage and you guys have such a great energy that really does come across.
That’s a point of pride for us, that we just get up there and have a good time and spend all that energy on the crowd or whoever’s watching. We always say if there’s only 2 or 3 people in the crowd then it’s just really good practice. Like many other bands out there, we just want to get out and play. I just want to entertain people, I love being the centre of attention, being the lead singer of the band works (laughs). But everyone in the band, we’re musicians, we just want to get up there and show off our skills and want to see people have a good time as a result; we just try and zap people with music lasers!
I don’t know how you do it, I could never be on stage!
Well, that’s the type of person I want to affect. If you can’t feel it because you’re not on stage, then I want to make you feel it while you’re watching us.
Uh huh, you want to blur the line between stage and audience, make the audience come to you and feel like they’re part of it
Exactly, totally! I want to preach to people! I want people to listen to the words I preach, listen to the music, and feel something.
In that case, what’s the most important message you preach?
Happiness, for sure. I try to, anyways. I just want people to interpret my lyrics and our music in any way they can, whatever they’re feeling or whatever they need, I hope the music gives it to them. So yeah, happiness is pretty important. But, as I’ve mentioned before, the epic quality of writing pop is really what I try to focus on. I always want to try and make people feel like they’re conquering a mountain or defeating a dragon, or going on some kind of quest and then getting the girl or the boy at the end of that quest. Life is an epic journey and I always try to convey that in our albums and our stage presence, certainly with our songs and lyrics also.
What about Europe, do you think you’re going to want to expand overseas?
Oh, I’d love to! Hopefully eventually; there’s been talk of it. But we want to establish ourselves here first and we’re definitely right in the thick of that right now and then once we do that, yeah, hopefully we’ll get over to England or, you know, (French accent) France or wherever, I’d love to get over there and play. It’s cheaper to get over there than it is to go out west in Canada, this being such a big country and all. So hopefully we’ll go out there before we go out west. The new album’s got a French song on it, too. So we’re starting to open those markets as well, and get some more bilingual and francophone people on board. My mom’s French, from Quebec, I was born in Montreal, I have heavy roots in Quebec, lots of family living there. We played Montreal a few times and we’ve been well received. Every time we go back there’s a few more people, so I’m looking forward to playing there in August and pulling out some French tunes for people. There’s no limit, we want to do it all, whatever language. Hopefully move on to Spanish and Japanese, who knows. But for now, trying to open up some French doors. It’s important to us to be bilingual, living in a bilingual country, I’m proud of that.
Do you have an album coming out soon?
Not yet, should be out in the fall, that’s what we’re shooting for. Should be done by the end of the month, then shop it around and hopefully the powers that be will be interested and we’ll get some support behind us and release it. But we’ll certainly have something new for everyone, at least a single in the fall, if not a full album. We finished all the recording, it’s just being mixed and produced right now.
What’s next for you, guys, other than the Summerfest Tour and the album?
The Summerfest Tour is just starting and we’re putting the final touches on a smaller tour in August, we’ll be in Toronto 2 nights; I think we’re going to do Quebec City, Kingston, Montreal, Toronto, Toronto. We’re also playing EVOLVE Festival, that’s in Nova Scotia, in a couple of weekends. I was just on the phone with our manager today, we’re in the process of planning an east coast tour for the fall, we’re going to be playing in Halifax, probably in September, October and then back out to Quebec and Ontario in November. Hopefully, to support an album. Hopefully, which is then represented by a label (laughs).
Sounds like you’re off to a great start! That’s all the questions I have, thanks for talking to me.
No problem, anytime!