Kevin Drew Makes Space For Hope on Aging

We caught up with the Broken Social Scene frontman about his new solo album, finding hope and healing in music and writing through grief with no intentions of anyone ever hearing it.

Music Features Broken Social Scene
Kevin Drew Makes Space For Hope on Aging

“I mean, I’m such a joker in this life. I’m such a psychic drunk in this life,” Kevin Drew, the co-lead vocalst of legendary indie rock group Broken Social Scene says to me when I ask him about his decision to release his most recent album into the world. Aging arrived this last Friday, November 3rd, via the Canadian Label Arts & Crafts and, for Drew, was a project both deeply personal and entrenched in community. It required his utmost introspection, as well as his deepest empathy. The record understands its extremes and wears them well. If Broken Social Scene can be seen as a robust, sprawling collective of artists engaged together in their art-making, then the portrait Drew paints on Aging exists as its perfect counterpoint. It is a deeply lonely record, steeped in the guilt and grief that enmesh as time moves incessantly forward.

Aging is not Drew’s first go at a solo record, though his 2007 debut Spirit If… was hardly a sequestered and solitary effort. It may be his third project without his Broken Social Scene bandmates, but it is the clearest portrait of his own interiority; rich and brooding, yet painfully blunt. If anything, Aging comes as a canonic successor to Drew’s 2014 album Darlings or his 2021 K.D.A.P. effort Influences, especially for its reliance on moody synths and affective experiments in minimalism. Drew’s writing on the thing, though, is unprecedented. Since the first Broken Social Scene record, he’s been all-in on emotions; that’s how his work has remained generationally resounding. Yet, we spoke about directness, a sort of brutal honesty that emerged to separate this album from the rest of his catalog.

Aging’s, Kevin Drew aches for love. “Everybody loves,” he sings on ballad “Out In The Fields. “They don’t want to love / They’re trying to be loved / All the people dying to be loved.” He aches for a past version of himself—his life—uncertain if he’s moving through the world in the right direction. On “Awful Lightning,” he sings “I’m not aging right… My hands are rust / and my body slow.” The shimmering, extended vocal delivery he offers on the track is enough to bring anyone to tears. The record ends only 32 minutes after it starts, but it resolves itself on a note of sheer hope. Closing track “You’re Gonna Get Better” is a testament to the vast and supernatural power we all have for healing. “I think you’re gonna get better,” he sings “I know it’s in you.” The last line of the album? “Don’t forget that love is free.”

In many ways, hope and healing are the two guiding forces behind Kevin Drew’s mission and his art. We sat down with the Broken Social Scene frontman via Zoom to talk about grief and memory, the arduous decision he made to release this new album, the soul-sucking state of the music industry and the utterly indestructible power of music as the cure for almost all.

The conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity

Paste Magazine: Just to get started, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the process of creating Aging. I’m interested in people that you’ve worked with during the process, and how collaboration played into such a personal, very vulnerable album.

Kevin Drew: I’ve spent about 10 years working with this gentleman—Niles Spencer—who works up at a studio called The Bathhouse, and I met him through Gord Downey, who was in the band the Tragically Hip. I called Niles up and said, Listen, I think I’m thinking about making a children’s record where I can get other people to sing. We tracked this song, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.” I expressed to him how much I wanted a very strong female presence to sing this, like a mother singing it to her child. And he was like, Okay, well, for now, I’ll just auto-tune you in. I’ll make you sound like a delicate, fragile mother, you know, just press that mother plug-in and boom. And when I heard that, it made me think of my mother. My mother was—and had been—sick now and her body had been slowly deteriorating, and her mind was starting to go. And she and I were very, very close.

So, after I heard that song, I switched the script on the Niles and went, Hey, I have a couple other songs that I want to bring in.. And we just made the record very organically together in the next week. I leaned into the aspects of wanting to sing about those who aren’t in your life, wanting to sing about those who are going through a lot of pain. And I did really reflect on the aspect that I was in my middle age, making a solo record, and I didn’t know what I was. I just knew I was recording. I was kind of in my Chris Martin years, so to say. I didn’t have to have that indie rock, bury the vocals or have to be cryptic about how I was singing. It was very open. And for me, I was going through some personal heartbreak shit, and music—it always soothes. It’s always a back rub.

May I ask why? What drew you to children’s music? I guess, in that particular moment, why was that where things started?

Well, I’ve actually been trying to put together a children’s record now for some time. You want to do things you haven’t done in life. So, I did come in thinking this would be fun and fresh and something that, maybe, the Social Scene guys would get behind and we could share files—because, as I said, we were doing all the social distancing and all that. I’ve written a lot of kids songs over my career that have just been sitting on shelves. So I just thought, Hey, maybe we should pull this stuff out. And still, to this day, I think that might be the next move.

I feel like that’s not something I hear a lot. It is fresh and interesting. Can you tell me about how you approach vulnerability on the album? A lot of the music you’ve made, in its many different variations, has been vulnerable and has been emotional in some way. But I think, on Aging, there’s a difference—as you said, there isn’t that “indie rock, bury the vocals,” dance around the subject sensibility. There is this directness, and I was wondering if there was a different approach or a different kind of feeling that that inspired.

I just thought that I wasn’t going to put it out—so it gave me so much freedom. I knew I was doing this to get to the next point in moving forward with my mom and moving forward with this new heartbreak. I’ve been in such denial about actually being heartbroken for well over a decade now that I built such a huge wall—but it’s built out of plasticine. It’s not built out of concrete. And I think, anytime you have any sort of trauma or repetitive PTSD where you fall into a pattern, it keeps chipping away. But the chips are in the plasticine; it takes nothing to crumble that. And I think, for me, I knew I couldn’t carry this record. So I didn’t embrace the vulnerability. I put it on the shelf and I played it for myself, and I only played it for a couple other people. I just made this recording, but I couldn’t get behind it. So, it really did sit on the shelf for two years—because I wasn’t able to embrace that vulnerability.

What changed your mind? When did you end up deciding to put it into the world?

I mean, I’m such a joker in this life. I’m such a psychic drunk in this life. I have to go out and shake hands and make other people’s dreams come true and take care of a lot of people—it felt like I didn’t have the space to emotionally put it out. And then it was Cameron from my label who was pushing for me to do it. And then it was my partner, Brendan, from Social Scene who just told me That’s a piece of work that you made, and you should put it out. My mother died a month before the first song came out. And I didn’t realize that her death was going to help me carry the weight of putting this out, that it was going to help me be able to get into the frame of mind to be able to sing the songs. I wasn’t aware I was making a record about grief. I thought I was just making a record about trying to continue. So, when that happened I realized, Okay, well, the timing of it makes me have to get behind this with a full blown honesty. And, suddenly, this record became for my mom.

That definitely makes sense. And I’m so sorry to hear that.

Thank you. I mean, I was singing about friends I lost on this record. I’ve lost a lot of friends and some close ones. And it happens with time. You don’t want it to, but it does. And I think we’re all haunted by it as you get older, and I’m not trying to be an ageist—but of course I am. I made a record called Aging. But, as you get older, you start to fear the phone. I was blessed that I was with my mom. I always speak about ghosts and spirits and being looked after and angels and all those things because I’m a dreamer. I’m a kid of cinema and fables and tales. I love imagination. I know there’s people out there that are straightforward scientists and, fine, if that’s your thing—but not me. So, the fact that she’s out there as an energy around us, I miss her, but I am so grateful to know that she’s now looking out for so many because she loves so many. I think that’s what I hold on to when I wake up and want to give her a call.

And also, you’re not really supposed to talk about this, but I like talking about her. I’ve had friends warn me Don’t talk about her, they’ll take her away from you and I thought Okay, I should maybe not speak about it. But, if you want to hear about it or people are gonna ask me about it, I like to talk about it because I feel it honors her.

I think when somebody has so much love to give, it’s impossible for any person to take that away. And thank you for talking to me about it. I appreciate it.

I’m an open book. That’s gotten me in trouble a lot, but I’ve always tried to be compassionate to the world. I certainly have tried to be a responsible empath. I don’t think I should win any awards by any means, but it is a full-time job these days to try to govern what you’re looking at, or what you’re feeling, or what you’re reading or what you’re listening to. It’s very hard, and I do believe it is a collective heartbreak that we’re all involved in right now. I think my generation and the generation under [us] has neurologically just been duped by the fact that we now have so much information coming at us that we don’t know how to filter. My nephews are in their teens, I don’t see them on social media, I don’t see them doing TikToks and all this stuff. So, I’m interested to see what these next generations are going to bring to the table in the form of communication and information and just art and community.

I’ve spoken to a lot of younger artists as well. I feel like it’s been so hard for them to disentangle the production of their art from these platforms and to be able to communicate and reach out in ways that aren’t that. It has been a real struggle for a lot of younger people, just because it’s been so dominated by those really short, sometimes horrific snippets of things. I think I still have a lot of hope, though, for sure.

I talked to an artist who’s about seven years younger than myself, and they were really speaking about how hard it is that they feel such pressure to be online. And we just looked at each other and we said Well, you don’t have to do it. You don’t have to do it. It might mean that people don’t hear your stuff, or they don’t see it.

Many of my peers and my friends have become marketers, when they’re really artists. And a lot of them are comedians, too, now. They’re online cracking jokes and then singing songs about their dead grandmothers. There’s something to it, where you just see the vulnerability and how they’re losing themselves by trying to sell themselves. And, obviously, we know some of the most successful people are the ones who are most brilliant at selling themselves. But, when you’re throwing yourself into a pile that’s no different than your buddy down the road who’s taking photos of pine cones, it starts to get a little demeaning to the ego of what you’re trying to express and your vulnerability. So, I try to tell people now Look: If you’re finding yourself really depressed by your career now, by people telling you to get on Tik Tok and get on Instagram—don’t. And if it means you do something else in life, who’s to say that that’s going to be a bad thing? Maybe you just don’t belong in how it is right now.

It is just hard because I feel like a lot of people making art have to be doing something else in order to subsist and make it livable. And then it just pushes them towards going into marketing or doing advertising and PR and stuff. It’s like that for a lot of writers I know. They write and we write as much as we can, and a lot of people have careers and day jobs in things like PR and marketing. They’re kind of on both sides of it, and it just really sucks the soul out of you.

I’ve got guys in my band Broken Social Scene. They do other jobs; I do other jobs. We all have other jobs because, when we go out, our rates haven’t changed in the last 15 years. Just follow the price of butter, let alone getting on a bus and touring around. You look at that, and then you have to gauge it. It does come down to that bumper sticker of What does it give you? Beyond the economics of it, what does it fulfill you? And, if you look at Social Scene in the last two years, we’ve done two three-week tours and a bunch of one-offs here and there. And that’s it. We can’t get to the UK, we can’t get to Europe—because we’re going to lose money. And the bands that we know that are going out there, they’re losing money. How they’re subsiding it, I don’t know. But, we have to be very cautious with how we’re moving throughout this world on a financial level, because everything’s very, very expensive. And it’s all about capitalism. That’s a different topic, I guess, and, obviously, if we get into it, then the comments will have a field day, meaning those six people will be like: What the fuck?. But it is tough. I always say don’t give up.

They really devalued music. So, when you devalue music, it’s just a ripple effect. But, fortunately, people still love to go to the shows. But then there’s a whole conversation about how much the shows are today, what the cost starts at to put on the show, what the rentals are for the venues. It seems like things will have to fall apart in the next 5-10 years for us to continue. But, unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to look good for any of us when that happens, so I’m not hoping for that. I just don’t know how we press reset.

I guess we could talk about touring. Maybe not the compensation and merch cuts, or the venue rentals, but just the joy of it—

Sorry to interrupt you. But in that line, everyone’s trying to make a living. It’s not as if there’s this big bad entity coming in. Now, maybe the percentages are too high and this and that, but there was a time where the support system was built on everyone working in this together to get people to the shows to sell the booze, to sell the merch, to get the lights, to pay for the crew. I understand that some things may have outweighed the others, but it’s very important that all those things need to coincide and be synced together. And it needs to run as a business—because it is a business. That’s my opinion on it. I don’t think you asked.

It is true, though. It all depends on one another. If you just had a band with no merch, no booze, no lights and no sound, then what are you? What do you have? You know what I mean? And if you had one of those things by itself, well, you don’t have the show. I don’t know, is there still a joy of performing and the joy of being there and seeing the people and doing the show?

Oh, yes. It’s just the best thing. As I get older, it’s harder for me to get off the road and get back into the just mundane aspect of eating food and trying to make things work and fixing things in your house. You never take for granted that the people are paying for your show when we’re in such financially dire times. In terms of Social Scene, I really do believe we’re just a fantastic band if you want to feel enlightened and just stop carrying that weight that you’re carrying for a couple hours. We don’t have money for the lights, we don’t have a huge station—all we have is our songs and us enjoying ourselves. That’s our selling point: enjoying ourselves and playing these songs.

And fortunately, for us, the audiences over the years have always come out for exactly that. They don’t need sparkles and bubbles and smoke machines and strobe lights, they just need us to be honest and to be having a good time with them. We sing this music that this big collective of us has written over the years, and we go out and we carry that weight for them for those two hours. And I’m happy about that. I’m happy that we still are able to do that. I’m just getting off the road right now. It was a very joyous occasion. It really, really was. Still, to this day, I see my peers and the amount of buses and crew and all that they have, and it puts a chip on my shoulder—but I got people who have a chip on their shoulder for what I have. So, it’s just all perspective. But, no, we’re grateful, grateful people. We don’t take it for granted. And those are the kinds of people that you want to spend your time with.

I think a lot of things have changed. The one thing that hasn’t is the people going, like you said, to put away their burdens for a few hours and just feel the freedom of it. That’s what brings me hope.

It can happen anywhere. I went to a Yusuf/Cat Stevens show when I turned 40. At the last minute, someone asked me—and I listened to him a lot when I was a kid, so I said, Okay, I’ll go. First song: I’m in tears. First song. I thought, “Why the fuck wouldn’t I go to this? Why am I not allowing myself to go to live music to feel? What happened to me? What happened to me?” Before you know it, you’re a functioning alcoholic who’s just trying to get through to the next stage of whatever’s next. And that’s fucking boring. And saying the word “boring” is also an immature thing you’re battling all the time.

But music was how we found our identities. You know, in my generation, that’s how we did it. And it had categories. You had hip hop, R&B, rock, jazz, reggae, klezmer, classical folk, alternative. And you found people through that, especially if you had different tastes in music. You had a more eclectic version of people in your life. So, I need to believe that music still represents healing to people, that it represents finding community, that it represents an identity to them more. It’s when I go to the shows that I feel that feeling again. I wouldn’t be doing this anymore if that wasn’t the case.

Madelyn Dawson is a Music Intern for Paste, hailing from New York. She currently goes to school in Connecticut. You can find her everywhere @madelyndwsn.

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