Sheena Lyonnais September 6, 2012
Craig Stickland first heard the poem when he was stuck in LA traffic, trying not to think about his brother who was over in Libya with the Canadian Navy. The ship his brother arrived on had been fired upon by artillery from the land, and the Stickland family was consequently living in fear. So when he heard Emily Dickinson’s poem, it resonated.
Surgeons must be very careful
When they take the knife!
Underneath their fine incisions
Stirs the Culprit—Life!
“We were taken back by that poem thought it was beautiful and brilliant,” Stickland tells me over the phone the day after his Farewell Love Songs for Summer show at the Drake. So he did what he does best and turned the poem into a song called “Stirs the Culprit Life,” a song that made the hair on my arms stand when he played it.
Stickland’s ability to tell memorable stories through song is perhaps his greatest asset. I still remember his 2007 Canadian Music Week performance. Then, later, with the now defunct We Are The Take, he began to transform into a showman, something he’s carried through charmingly into his solo work. Though I shouldn’t really say solo, for his performance at the Drake was a nine-piece show that included DeVah, a female sting quartet. They kicked the show off with a Florence and the Machine cover before breaking into an original string track.
It should have been a 10-piece performance, but Stickland’s guitarist was unable to make it. So Stickland did double duty, transitioning between guitars and keys throughout the night. Still, at times nine people crammed on to the tiny Drake Underground stage to deliver a beautiful performance to a pretty packed crowd, especially considering it was a rainy Tuesday night.
He’s an interesting performer to watch on stage in the way he introduces these songs. In one, he explained how sometimes you write songs about someone or something and those things change, but you’re still left with this song as a whole. This song you have created, it remains the same. For Stickland, it becomes obvious that each song is important and impactful, and though this could be said for any songwriter, for him it seems more pertinent. It seems simultaneously fragile and powerful.
His songs are reflective. “The Only Way Is Down,” which he wrote with Justin Nozuka, is a perfect example. It’s about the poor treatment he has witnessed and received as a bartender and server. “When you get to a certain level of wealth or ego you have to come down,” he says.
This very notion of the wealthy and poor is woven quite literally into other tracks, such as “Kings and Beggars,” which he introduced at the Drake as, “not to get too preachy but…” His music, though sweet and romantic, is very much about the working class and his struggles to sustain his music career. And when he’s frustrated, he writes about it. “I’m a happy guy and I need to express my sad moments through song,” he says.
Another track, “See Just Like You Do” was written the day after Jack Layton died. Stickland remembers looking around the city and just seeing nothing but condos.
“It was an introspective day,” he tells me.
When we talk, he’s in Streetsville recording arrangements with James Robertson, keeping in mind pieces for the full 10-piece band. Right now, Stickland has an EP out and is working on a full-length. He’ll be releasing it track by track, each with a complementary music video. He’s already released one for “Fire” and the next will be “The Firing Line.”
Stickland will be performing monthly at the Drake. His next performance is October 10.
Watch the video for “Fire” below.
Sheena Lyonnais is Toronto Music Scene's Editor. Follow her on Twitter @SheenaLyonnais.