Barenaked Ladies' surprising serious side: 'There's a lot of political material on all our records'

Lyndsey Parker

Barenaked Ladies have sold millions of albums and have been nominated for a whopping 18 Juno Awards in their native Canada, yet they’ve struggled to be taken seriously. “The words ‘novelty act’ got thrown around a lot, because we had humor in our music,” says drummer Tyler Stewart, who admits, “Sure, we presented ourselves in a pretty goofy way at times. We defaulted to the goof whenever we could. We do that less now. But we’re also older now.”

Now, with BNL celebrating, incredibly, their 30th anniversary next year and releasing their 15th album, Fake Nudes, they’re having the last laugh — and realizing that because they were never in fashion, they never fell out of fashion. “When we were at the height of our success, we still weren’t ‘cool,’” shrugs lead singer Ed Robertson. “We had a massive record with [BNL’s fourth album] Stunt. We’ve sold 15 million records over the course of our career, but we’ve never been on the cover of Rolling Stone or any of the cool places. We’ve had this incredible career, kind of on our own terms and from our fanbase. We were never cool, we were never fashionable, we were never the hot thing. We just became super-popular for a while.”

Because of the band’s cheeky humor (and name), the more serious messages in their music often get overlooked. Even on their 1998 breakthrough album, Stunt, which spawned the lighthearted smash single “One Week,” there was “Light Up My Room,” which Robertson says was about “kind of the Love Canal notion of a place that actually becomes toxic.” He stresses, “There’s actually a lot of political material on all of our records. Some people don’t pick up on it, or those aren’t the songs that become popular off the records. But we’ve been hearing [in press reviews] for 15 records, ‘This is a much more serious record for Barenaked Ladies!’ Honestly, that material has always been there. We always carry ourselves with a sense of humor, but we always have something to say.”

One new message-minded tune on the Fake Nudes LP (the title of which is obviously a wry take on the Trump catchphrase “fake news”) is “Invisible Fence,” which Stewart says is about “building walls between people, rather than trying to understand and welcome each other. It’s about wall building. Is that really a good idea?”


Stewart then adds with his trademark dry humor, “Or, it’s about a dog and the invisible fence — you know, that thing they wear around their neck so they don’t run off your property. Take it however you want!”

The most serious — though not political — tune on the new album is “Flying Dreams,” which bandmate Kevin Hearn wrote for his 14-year-old daughter, Havana, who has special needs. “It’s an absolutely beautiful song,” says Robertson. “Havana has a ton of challenges and is an amazing young woman. Kev wrote this beautiful song, wondering what goes on in her head and hoping, as any parent would, that in her dreams she’s flying.”

Understandably, “Flying Dreams” has garnered appreciation from many other parents of special-needs children, but Stewart says, “It’s amazing, the feedback we get about not just that issue, but anything that we touch on in our songs. So many people have come up and said, ‘Hey, I lost my mom recently,’ or ‘I went through a bout of mental illness, and your songs helped me get through,’ or ‘I used to come to your concerts with my dad, and he’s no longer with us.’ You know, things like that. People take the time to go out of their way to let us know that we matter to them.”

After three decades and a couple of lineup changes, Barenaked Ladies are still going strong and touring like “madmen” — so much so, people don’t even take their funny name on a marquee literally anymore. “Honestly, I think it only happened one time,” says Robertson with a chuckle, when asked if any ticket-buying audience member has ever been disappointed to show up and not find actual unclothed women onstage. “It happened because we played in a theater that had recently converted from an adult show house. So a longtime patron I guess was unaware of the venue switch and showed up for the kind of entertainment he was used to. … That’s the only time I know of — and we’re talking, like, 27 years ago.”


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