Since Barenaked Ladies formed in 1988, as well as telling stories of his own, he’s been touring practically non-stop. We all know what happened next - 2020 rolled along and decimated touring plans. What could have been a jarring experience for Robertson, is instead something he’s taking it in his stride, He brought the band to his remote lake house in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada, to write and record their 13th record, Detour de Force over the course of six weeks, which ended up being a different record than they’d originally envisaged.

“We were afforded the luxury of time to re-approach what we had. So you get the really great balance of songs that are completely live and off the floor - that have the magical feeling of a single take performance - and these real production numbers, that resulted from when we could get around lockdown, get back into the studio and take advantage of a full production studio and really have fun with a couple of tracks. The record is really a great marriage of those two very different approaches.”

For a band that’s achieved multiplatinum status, massive tours and worldwide successes, they’ve earned the freedom to make exactly the kind of records they want, removed from the tumultuousness and teething problems of their earlier years. 13 albums and 33 years in, Robertson still lights up when he talks about music, sounding more excited about the process than ever.

“I love what I do. I’ve worked hard and been so lucky that I’ve achieved almost everything you could ever hope to do with a music career. So now when I write songs and when I make a record, my goal is to enjoy it, get better and entertain the guys in my band” he enthuses. “I’m trying to impress three people when I write songs, and it’s the guys in the band - so to have the support of them, to make music, to enjoy it and to have no expectation from it other than ‘Wow it’s going to be fun to play these songs live’. With this one, despite the difficulties of the pandemic and the detours that were thrown in our path was a really great process and I’m super proud of the record. 33 years into being in a band, that’s a pretty great way to feel.”

There are two elephants in the room during our conversation. The first is on me. Barenaked Ladies were the first band I ever saw live, at the Royal Albert Hall at the tender age of seven, which means I’ve passionately shoehorned them into conversations when I’ve had a couple of drinks, artfully sniffing out fellow BNL fans and forcefully telling anyone who’s unfortunate enough to have been cornered, that to me they’re criminally overlooked and more than just ‘that band who sang “One Week.” I tell Robertson that they’ve written some of the most poignant, honest and heart-breaking songs about relationships and life that I can think of, like “Break Your Heart” or “When I Fall”. Once we get that out of the way, I’m graciously invited to bring my dad with me to their next Royal Albert Hall show, 21 years after their last.

The second elephant is that Robertson is completely surrounded by flashing pinball machines. His collection now amounts to 50, which he’s learned to troubleshoot and repair himself over lockdown, due to the nearest repair guy being a three-hour drive away. He explains that dabbling in pinball tech-wizarding activates the technical side of his brain. He’s also learned how to edit videos and use Pro Tools, to become more self-sufficient in virtual performances over lockdown to fill the void of not touring, which turned out to be surprisingly fun.

“There’s a lot about being in a band that’s very glamourous and cool but you do get enough of it at some point, and that point was a long time ago for me. Doing these virtual specials, it was just the guys in a room, in a studio or on a stage playing songs we’d performed together for years, or new songs, and it was so much fun. It reminded me of everything that’s not extraneous to the process - being in a band is awesome. It recharged my batteries, I was like ‘I can do this for another ten years’, because at the core of it I love it and all the other stuff is just noise.”

With childhood concerts and pinball machines out the way, we get into the songs that have soundtracked Robertson’s life and career. Along the way we take in crying to a song on an airport runway and partaking in the only joint he’s ever smoked in his life at the behest of Willie Nelson.

What ultimately binds Robertson’s Nine Songs together is songwriting however, is a love of storytelling in songs and a deep understanding of the musicality behind them. The beauty of taking something that sounds simple but is actually deeply complex and difficult to perform and recreate, that he describes as songs that “inspired me, informed my writing process, and changed me as an artist.”

“Limelight” by Rush

“For every Canadian band, all roads lead to Rush. I think the first record I really obsessed over was Rush’s live record Exit Stage Left, which came out when I was probably 11 years old. I was playing guitar all the time and then along came this band that had really challenging songs to learn. The song’s also about being in a rock band. It’s a little rumination on performing for people, fame, and the difference between the grind of touring and the glamour of performance and I was very intrigued by it.

“Rush is a band that teaches you to play your instrument, their songs are difficult and there are multiple time signatures throughout a single song. You learn a lot learning to play Rush songs, so I chose to highlight “Limelight” because it was really the beginning for me of ‘This is what I want to do, this is all I want to do. I want to write interesting songs, I want to be in a rock band, and I want to tour for a living.’ It was a dream at the time that I didn’t understand at all, because of course being a fan of music and being a professional musician are such disparate worlds. I didn’t understand anything about it, but I knew I wanted to do it.

“I still love that song. When I was 10, 11, 12, I loved every Rush record. My high school band played twenty-seven Rush songs; we were insane. We were almost a Rush cover band, but we also played The Police, Peter Gabriel, The Who, Led Zeppelin and a bunch of others. There’s not a lot from that period of my life that has stuck with me the way that that Rush song has, and “Limelight” is one of those songs that I still love.

“It was really cool to find out recently that it’s one of Alex Lifeson’s favourite guitar solos that he ever played, because it’s always been one of my favourite guitar solos. It’s so lyrical and beautiful, it’s a solo that you could sing. It’s not an acrobatic guitar solo, it’s a very musical one and I’ve always loved it for that.”

“Solsbury Hill” by Peter Gabriel

“I heard “Shock the Monkey” first and I thought of Peter Gabriel as this avant-garde, new wave, early electronic artist, because “Shock the Monkey” was so new sounding at the time. It was really cutting edge and disarming sonically - really unlike any traditional rock that I was listening to - and again, I got into Gabriel through his live record, Plays Live.

“It’s kind of a cool way to get into a band, because generally on a live record they’re playing you what they think are their greatest songs from their past records. Those songs led me to his past records and “Solsbury Hill”, a beautiful song, an incredible guitar intro and I played that song in my high school band too.

“It tells the story of somebody leaving something so incredible. I had no idea he was the guy from Genesis, I had no idea. I was a 12-year-old kid at that point, so to me Peter Gabriel was a brand-new solo artist. I had no idea he had left one of the biggest bands in the world to become one of the biggest solo artists in the world. It’s about him leaving Genesis and going out on his own, and I really loved the bravery in that song, and the honesty in him just saying ‘I just had to go, my heart told me to go elsewhere.’”

“He could have stuck around, continued to be in one of the biggest bands in the world and continue to collect ridiculous wealth, but his heart and his art told him he had to go elsewhere. Even as a kid I admired that ‘Follow your heart’ aesthetic, and “Solsbury Hill” so beautifully captures the need to push yourself artistically.”

“Four Seasons in One Day” by Crowded House

“I first saw Crowded House when I was probably 17 or 18, at the big prestigious theatre in Toronto called Roy Thomson Hall. Anyone who plays there has such deference to the setting - it’s quite posh and luxurious - and they were so silly all night. It was a huge inspiration for me to see a band who were performing at such a high level, singing so beautifully, singing such incredible, emotional songs, and yet their approach was very spontaneous and humorous.

“It ended up putting a massive imprint on how I would then approach my shows forever, because I thought, ‘You can be very serious about the music while not being that serious in the performance’, and Crowded House were the first band I ever saw do that. Later on, I saw that in They Might Be Giants as well, but it was a huge inspiration to me, and to say nothing of his lyrical prowess and his sense of melody.

“For any guitar players out there, “Four Seasons in One Day” is so deceptive. It seems simple but it’s really, really tricky. Learning the way he’s weaving around this Em over F# over D to G, B7, sometimes it sounds like this cyclical loop but it takes little turns and different little ear candy constantly, that as a guitar player I think ‘That song’s going to be easy to play.’ Then you try to play it and it never goes where you expect it to go.

“So hats off to Neil Finn for the hundred songs he’s written that are sneaky difficult. I think that’s the greatest thing you can do as a writer - write something that sounds simple, but under the surface there’s a layer of complexity that is not telegraphed to the listener. It’s doing something subconsciously that is deeply interesting, but it’s not calling so much attention to itself that it’s overt. I love simplicity, and even more than simplicity, I love complexity that sounds like simplicity.”

“If I Had a Boat” by Lyle Lovett

“Lyle Lovett is one of my favourite songwriters of all time, he’s such a great lyricist and such a great writer. I named my son after Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson and a character from a book, A Prayer for Owen Meany, so he got a real mouthful of a name, but he goes by Lyle.

“He’s such an atypical country artist. He’s known as a country artist but people think of pickup trucks, old dogs and dusty dirt roads when they think of country songs, and artists like Lyle Lovett and Willie Nelson write about emotional struggles and personal journeys that are so far beyond what could be pigeonholed as a country writer.

“I love songs of his like “She’s Already Made Up Her Mind”, he writes these oil paintings of emotional journeys that are so nuanced and so specific and I learned a lot from listening to his songs. He doesn’t do a lot of exposition in his lyrical writing. It’s like you’re dropped into a conversation and you have to figure out the context of the conversation by the little nuances in the word choices and I love it. There’s a lot of exploring to do. “If I Had A Boat” is so sweet and simple. It’s another one of those sneaky chord progressions that sounds repetitive, but it’s actually got a lot of different turns in it. It’s a beautiful little song about appreciating simple things.

“There are not that many songs that I learn to play - particularly since I’ve been a professional musician - but every once in a while a song comes along that I go ‘I need to learn how to play that song’, because when I’m sitting around a campfire with friends and family I don’t want to play the hits of Barenaked Ladies, I want to play songs that I love. My kids are sick of my songs, they’ve heard them every day of their lives, so I learned to play things like “If I Had A Boat”, because that’s what I want to play to entertain people.

“Years after “If I Had A Boat” Lyle did a double collection of songs by his favourite Texan singer/songwriters. I remember reading the Rolling Stone interview about it and he said, ‘If I was at a party and someone handed me a guitar, these are the songs that I would play.’ And I’ve always loved this line - he said ‘If you don’t like these songs, then I probably won’t like you”. That perfectly encapsulates that how as a songwriter you deeply identify with songwriting, and when you hear something in a song if someone else doesn’t appreciate that they’re not on the same wavelength as you.”

“Everywhere I Go” by Willie Nelson

“I could have picked thirty Willie Nelson songs that I love. The man is incredible, he’s one of my favourite writers of all time.

“We got to do Farm Aid with Willie Nelson twenty years ago and I got to hang out on Willie’s tour bus after we played a massive stadium show in Washington DC. I was so excited to meet him. I wanted to ask him about particular songs and I’m such a nerdy Willie Nelson fan I could ask him really specific questions about why he chose certain lines. I not only have all of his records, but I also have demos for songs that ended up being recorded by other artists. I go deep with Willie Nelson.

“So I get on Willie Nelson’s tour bus. He smokes pot from the moment he gets up until the moment he goes to bed, so he’s fried by late afternoon and I’m asking him about songs he wrote forty-five years ago. Immediately he’s telling me every musician that was on the session, he’s telling me about where he was when the opening line of a song came to him. He was so lucid, so specific and so generous with his time and with illuminating aspects of the creative process to me, spotting right away that I’m coming from a place as a writer that I clearly admire his writing.

“For me it was like climbing the mountain and finding the serene monk, sitting cross-legged, chanting. Here, I had a couple of minutes with Willie Nelson and I wanted to find the wisdom immediately. And he just fucking imparted it, line after line after line he just spun the gold of these stories. I’ll never forget it, it was such a great moment.

“I’ve been a total straight edge guy my whole life. I don’t drink and I’ve never done any drugs, so there I am on Willie Nelson’s tour bus and he goes to pass me a joint. I’m about to say ‘Um, no thanks Willie. I don’t smoke’, but I thought ‘Do I want to be on my deathbed and say, ‘I never smoked a joint?’’ or do I want to think ‘I smoked a joint with Willie Nelson?’ and I chose that.

“I chose “Everywhere I Go” because one of my favourite Willie Nelson records of all time is a record that he did with Dan Lanois called Teatro. It’s basically a live performance from the Teatro theatre and it’s got Emmylou Harris on back-ups and a real all-star band of musicians. It’s Willie playing a bunch of Dan Lanois’ favourite Willie Nelson songs.

“The versions on that record are so beautiful that I would say if you don’t think you’re a Willie Nelson fan, get Teatro and check out that record, because it will draw you into his music and his lyrics in particular. “Everywhere I Go” is a beautiful song - ‘I take you with me, everywhere I go, right next to my heart at every show’, and he’s talking about a crumpled old photograph that he keeps in the breast pocket of his shirt, to always have the people he loves next his heart. It really resonated with me as a touring artist.”

“Way With Words” by Bahamas

“Bahamas, [Afie Jurvanen] came out of this really cool scene in Toronto from the Broken Social Scene and Leslie Feist. They’re a generation past Barenaked Ladies, they took the club scene by storm 20 years after we did, but they were friends of all the people that I knew. So I knew parts of all of the various groups but I didn’t know Afie and I didn’t know Bahamas. I saw Afie playing backing up Leslie Feist at a benefit show and I thought ‘That guy’s really cool, he’s a very inventive guitar player.’ It was actually Tyler [Stewart] who played his second record to me and I was immediately hooked.

“Way with Words” has James Gadson on drums, Pino Palladino on bass - super heavy players - and Afie’s got such a unique voice and such a cool way with words. It’s funny, but he does have a really interesting turn of phrase, and this song hooked me right away. It’s so groovy, and honestly it felt like it was about me breaking up with Steve Page.

“The song encapsulated a breakup for me and that line, ‘I had a way with words for a while, now you call it substance over style’, it really landed with me, it resonated with me and I’ve since become a massive fan. I went backwards through his records and really stuck with him as he’s moved forward and evolved. My son has just started in a band and he’s a massive Bahamas fan and he is a huge influence on my son’s writing and performance.

“It’s funny, I text back and forward with Afie all the time and I was sending him these terrible memes that I was generating based on a song on his new record, just to make him laugh. I kept pulling pictures from the internet and doing stupid puns with his lyrics, and he kept them all, compiled them and turned them into a music video for the song. He didn’t even tell me, he uploaded it and credited me as the director. He’s a very funny guy and an amazing artist.”

“Gonna Move” by Paul Pena

“I’m a huge R&B fan, and speaking of James Gadson on drums, I love all the Bill Withers stuff that James Gadson played on. I’m a big fan of a lot of the early R&B and soul stuff, but this record in particular, Paul Pena’s New Train, is one of my favourite records of all time.

“The way I came upon this record was through an amazing documentary called Genghis Blues which is about Paul Pena late in his career and life, when he’s a blind, impoverished, diabetic blues singer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He wrote “Jet Airliner”, one of Steve Miller’s biggest songs of all time but he sold the publishing for $400. That song generated millions of dollars over the years, but Paul Pena never saw a dime from it aside from the $400.

Genghis Blues is about Paul Pena travelling to Northern Mongolia to compete in the tri-annual Tuvan Throat Singing competition. It’s the weirdest, greatest movie and it won all sorts of awards and kicked off the re-release of Paul’s record, New Train, which I’d never heard of and it had been out of print at that time for twenty years. I bought the record and it became one of my favourite records of all time.

“Then twenty years after that - forty years after the record was made - I played a show in Ottawa, Ontario and was on my way home. My wife was driving, I put on that record and it made me think of The Persuasions, an old school, soul a cappella group who we’d made a record with. I sent it to them and said ‘Hey guys, here’s this little-known artist Paul Pena who I love. He made this obscure record that was out of print for many years, it made me think of you guys, so I wanted to send it to you and let you know I’m thinking of you.’

“They wrote back and said ‘Ed, that’s us singing all the backup vocals on Paul’s record.’ I had no idea! I sent them a record that they sang on, thinking I was being thoughtful.”

“Chosen” by Rose Cousins

“Rose Cousins is an artist that I am ashamed to say I knew nothing about, and she had been working away making beautiful records. A friend of mine, Luke Doucet, produced one of her records and I’d never heard of it, I actually came across Rose because of a track that she sang on, on a Donovan Woods record. And she sang on “Never Have I Loved Like This” by Matt Epp, which is a beautiful song, and I thought ‘Who is this singing? She has such a beautiful voice’.

“I didn’t do anything about it, but my friend Danny Michel has a show on YouTube called Dan’s Space Van where he has different artists on and they perform a song in the back of his ridiculous red velvet ‘80s stretch van. I’ve done the show before and lots of my friends have. Anyway, he had Rose on, I found her really charming and funny and then she played a song that dropped my jaw. I thought ‘Oh my god, I have to go find out more about this incredible artist.’

“I downloaded her album Natural Conclusions and I put on the first track as I boarded a flight. I don’t remember where I was going, but here’s what I do know. I was sitting on the tarmac at Toronto’s Pearson Airport, listening to this track “Chosen” with tears streaming down my cheeks, because I felt so understood, like she had incapsulated something about insecurity and feeling unworthy.

"I don’t think there’s a lot of performers who get into doing this because they’re super secure, but there’s some element of insecurity that makes you crave attention and acceptance - whatever that is. When the lines ‘I rose with wings but now I’m flightless / someone is calling a statue in my likeness / I’ll never live up to the portrait I’m just posing / and I don’t know if I have what it takes to be chosen’, my heart just about stopped. Here’s the most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard, with a beautiful lyrical delivery and she’s completely connected to that imposter feeling or whatever it is that so many people struggle with, feeling unworthy or feeling undeserving.

“She just slayed me. I immediately texted Donovan Woods and said ‘Why the fuck didn’t anyone tell me about Rose Cousins? I’m on an Air Canada flight in business class, there’s a hundred people walking past me and I’m just bawling”. And he wrote me back like, ‘Oh yeah, crying while boarding a flight is my bread and butter.’”

“Grew Apart” by Donovan Woods

“Grew Apart” is such a banger and Donovan Woods is really known for these lush story-songs. “Our Friend Bobby” is one that comes to mind. He does a great job of giving you a really detailed picture of a relationship or a setting that’s kind of like Lyle Lovett, it drops you into the setting without a lot of explanation but you feel like you’re there. It’s almost like a short film. Then, every once in a while, he drops these fucking bangers, like “Burn That Bridge” and “Grew Apart”, that have all of that lyrical insight that you would expect from him but is also a stone cold jam.

"Grew Apart" is all of those stupid things that people say to avoid talking about how heartbroken they are. How a relationship is over and they don’t want to face how much they’ve invested into it, so they say these throwaway lines like ‘We’re both better off’ and ‘She just wasn’t the one, I don’t hold it against her’ blah blah blah. All this stuff in order to avoid saying ‘My heart is broken. I don’t know if I can move on and if I see her with another person I’m gonna lose my mind’, because that’s a very difficult place to be in.

“I think “Grew Apart” is so raw in admitting that when we’re using all these clichéd lines, we’re avoiding getting in touch with how hurt we are, because there’s nothing scarier than being vulnerable.”

Detour de Force is out now