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The Heroes of 2020
By Ayah Victoria McKhail
Special to The Telegram
It’s been a long and winding road on the highway to health for Phill Hood. With Ontario in a state of emergency as the province struggles to contain COVID-19 and get vaccinations underway, he’s had to stop and yield a lot, but he’s no stranger to detours.
“Life is all about switching gears and finding your comfort zone within that. You may have to change lanes once in a while, or slow down, but it’s all part of the journey,” he says.
The award-winning artist, who has developed a reputation as Toronto’s “go-to guy” for East Coast Celtic music, was on tour in the U.S. last March with The Tartan Terrors, a band that blitzes stages across North America by combining the explosive energy of a rock show with their signature humour and stepdance, when a sense of impending doom punctured the air.
“That was a bit of a white-knuckle experience, as we didn’t know what to expect when we got to the border a day later. Luckily, we got home just fine, but 24 hours after that, Toronto had shut everything down. That was the end of my old life for the foreseeable future.”
Thrust from the spotlight with no gigs on the horizon, the frontman of Phill Hood and the Exclamation found a lifeline in the form of government programs, and began recruiting and teaching guitar students online, in addition to performing solo from his very own plexiglass bubble for a brief period over the summer.
The pandemic lockdown has spawned a period of creativity for him, and a new album is in the works.
“My next record will be a little more rock influenced, as The Exclamation really found a groove in that format after years of cover and wedding gigs. We’re all big fans of classic rock and Canadian rock, so those influences have crept into my writing style,” Hood says, referring to his bandmates, John William Blakeley, Charlie McKittrick and Jake Saenz.
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Born in March 1985, Hood started taking piano lessons as a child. On his 11th birthday, his friend, Rob Pittman, (who plays with St. John’s bands With Violet and Women of Rock) brought over one of the era’s most defining albums, “Dookie” by Green Day. The alternative rock masterpiece had a catalytic effect on Hood’s development as a musician, and when Pittman bought an electric guitar, Hood followed, securing a cheap, knock-off Stratocaster.
“I got straight to work and learned ‘Dookie’ in its entirety, as Rob and I gathered the troops to form our first band to play those songs live.”
Over the years, Hood’s love for the limelight continued to grow, and in 2003, he arrived in Toronto to study jazz guitar at York University. He gained recognition by hosting and performing on the open-mike circuit, getting gigs at some of city’s most popular haunts and snagging a few residencies at bars.
Some of his most memorable experiences include meeting Gene Simmons of Kiss, hearing Spirit of the West’s electrifying set buzzing through the walls of the bar they were playing in while he was strumming similar Canadian ballads to his own audience nearby, sharing a stage with former International Space Station commander Chris Hadfield while performing for NASA alumni and playing in Western Canada with singer-songwriter Jesse Daly, Cape Breton fiddler Lennan Delaney and Jarred Albright, who plays the fiddle and mandolin on The Exclamation’s debut album.
Over the years, Hood has also faced a series of challenges, and talks candidly about battling depression, and the importance of mental-health supports for musicians. He’s also had to grapple with a granuloma, which is a growth of scar tissue that obstructs his vocal cords, affecting his ability to sing — or even talk on the worst days. This has led him to adapt to new ways of playing and making music, learning to trust others more, and asking for help along the way.
Another soul-crushing experience took place in 2005. Hood had started an EP with a studio in Toronto, investing a sizable sum of money in the undertaking. The engineer/producer ended up quitting his job and took Hood’s song files with him, so days of painstaking work were lost.
With revival in mind, in 2011, Hood bought his first recording interface and condenser microphone and learned to produce. Released in 2017 — the culmination of over a decade of blood, sweat and tears — he named the album “Detour.”
“It was the perfect metaphor for my journey, with the album being the final destination.”
Blakeley, the bassist, who hails from Miramichi, N.B., notes that musically, it finds a groove somewhere in the confluence of “Big Shiny Tunes,” East Coast Celtic rock and the classic rock emanating from the likes of Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen, and reveals its binding element.
“These songs are tied together with the thread of travel and the distance, both emotional and physical, that comes with it, living and growing into yourself far from home. Merging the disparate elements of your past to make your present,” Blakeley said.
The album strikes a chord with Carmen Toth. As a child, the Montreal-born, Toronto-based singer-songwriter lived in four different cities, and St. John’s was one of them.
“I credit living there with getting my start in music, as Newfoundland’s a very culture-rich and musical province.”
Currently in pre-production for her first full-length album, she enjoys every song on “Detour.”
“There’s an emotional sincerity to the actual song content and delivery. It’s one of those albums that has layers — you hear different things every time you listen to it, and appreciate it more.”
While Hood counts The Beatles and Bruce Springsteen as having a resounding effect on him, “Detour” has garnered comparisons to Great Big Sea, and there’s a good reason why.
“The album ‘Up’ had hit the airwaves around the time my musical interests were sparked in the mid-’90s, and it was hard as a Newfoundlander not to be excited by the band. They were local heroes, and if Alan Doyle happens to be reading this, I still think ‘Fast as I Can’ is one of the best love ballads ever written.”
Acknowledging that Toronto’s once pulsating music scene faces an uncertain future as shuttered venues abound and Hood openly ponders whether large crowds and mosh pits will be a thing of the past, he’s certain the music won’t stop.
“Musicians are a resourceful bunch. You can take away every opportunity for them to perform, but they’ll still find a way to make some noise.”
With a sense of resilience and optimism, he says, “It’s not helpful to fixate on the things that are out of your control. The things that are in your control are where you’ll find purpose and happiness. Those things may look different as you face new challenges in your life, but it’s important to be able to let go sometimes, and just live your life, rather than longing for the past. To quote my song, (‘The Right Road’), ‘You can never take the wrong road, when you’re ready from the get go. You can put away your problems, and take a wander on the right road.’”