“I had this question inside me, asking: What can I do? What can I do?”
Ahead of his upcoming Australian tour, musician and actor Noah Reid speaks with us from his home in Toronto. He is generous in sharing his reflections – not only about his latest album Adjustments, but also on personal topics ranging from his perception of himself as a musician, to his relationship with the Tina Turner song that helped bring his music to the masses.
Yet when he describes asking himself, “What can I do?”, it’s the COVID-19 pandemic to which he’s referring. This topic emerged as we discussed Adjustments, which was released in 2022 and captures – in Reid’s own words – “a kind of strangeness”.
“When we recorded the album, it was the first time any of us had been in a studio for a long time, so it felt like a really potent atmosphere,” explains Reid. “And I think the atmosphere moved into some of the sounds on the record.
“I really love this about it,” he adds.
Adjustments is certainly an intriguing next step in Reid’s musical path, following on from Songs From A Broken Chair (released in 2016) and Gemini (2020). While the style of Adjustments builds on Reid’s existing discography, the album also conveys fresh emotional nuances. Several songs are notably unsettling, melancholic, and haunting.
Minneapolis, for example, explores solitude, its lyrics charting the experience of being alone and walking in a new place; the individual so transient almost as if to be invisible. In Left Behind, Reid sings, “No point in trying to pretend / I think I’m being left behind again” – lyrics searing in their simple admission. Statue’s In The Stone, meanwhile, has an anthemic quality with verses like, “Put your phone down for a minute / Look around this world, you’re in it / We treat it like it’s all infinite / And we throw it all away.” It feels like a song, and an album, for this current moment in particular.
As for many musicians, the pandemic impacted not only Reid’s plans – a cancelled tour among them – but also his songwriting. When discussing how he crafts new songs, he notes how the pandemic era influenced his latest work.
“When I write a song, I don’t necessarily think about trying to communicate a particular message. I tend to feel like the most enduring ideas emerge naturally, and unforced,” says Reid. “Personally, I also find that they usually happen when I have a bit of time and space to reflect – and I had a lot of this during the pandemic.”
“It was a period of serious reflection for many of us. There were a lot of people questioning how they were engaging with, or not engaging with, the people in their lives or the cities or towns in which they happened to live. Politically, too, it was a divisive time, and plenty of deeply engrained prejudices were emerging. People were suffering. And for me during that time, I had this kind of feeling of ‘what can I do? What can I do?’
“And I remembered this line from a Nina Simone interview where she says it’s the job of the artist to reflect the times – and I felt like, well, that’s what I can do here. I can sit down and have a hard look at how I feel about my immediate surroundings, and how I feel about the next circle out from that, and about the next circle out from that, and the next circle out from that; and what I think is good and what I think is right; and throw that out there in case it’s interesting to anybody else. I think my favourite musicians have done a lot of that.”
The pandemic was also a period of great change for Reid on a personal level: he and his wife, former actress Clare Stone, welcomed their first child in 2022. Reid comments that parenthood has expanded his world. “It’s the most meaningful experience of my life, and I’m only a year into it,” he says. “There’s something very profound and hard to put your finger on about what it means – and what it means to me – but I love it. It’s hard and it’s beautiful.”
This period of change has also coincided with him becoming increasingly known around the world. Yet when asked about commercial success and whether becoming more widely known has affected how he makes music, it becomes clear the extent to which Reid values authenticity and human connection. He measures his musical achievement in terms of quality over quantity, and speaks about prioritising how people experience his music over how many of them there are.
“If there’s even just a handful of people that really connect to these songs, that’s awesome to me,” he enthuses.
This focus on connecting with others through music is perhaps reflective of how Reid sees himself above all as a communicator – arguably more so than as either a musician or an actor.
“I feel like the thing I know how to do best is to communicate a perspective, and my main instrument is my voice,” explains Reid. “I’ve had to learn how to play instruments to back up my own communication, as opposed to the other way around – and I think this is why I keep commenting about playing with more talented musicians than I am,” he notes – for he openly describes the musicians he is on the point of touring with as being more skilled than himself.
“I think musicians can really communicate effectively with an instrument, and can layer and work their understanding of a song or a feeling or a moment or a memory, through their instrument. And for me, my instrument is above all my voice and my perspective. That’s how I think about it.”
He also seems to thrive on the possibilities that can emerge during live performances, such as in his upcoming tour, Everything Is Fine. Reid does not appear precious about his music; rather, he is curious about how the musicians he tours with might bring their own spin or qualities to his songs.
“I’m concocting in my head who’s going to do what, but you never really know what it’ll be like until you’re in the room. I think a band really comes together in the room, and usually they come up with something better than what you could come up with independently, if you’re willing to go with it and not think you know everything.”
Indeed, Reid holds to the idea that creativity doesn’t end with the album version of a song. He reasons that “we’ve already got that version – so it can be nice to play around and see what else you can make of it.
“Obviously there are touchstones that need to be included that make the song the song,” he says, “but within that, I think there’s a lot of room for new texture and feeling and flavour.”
He also comments on how different audiences can affect a show. Of his upcoming tour, he says he is “curious to see what the energy is.”
“I put out two records during the [pandemic], which is maybe not the best business plan, but it was something to do – so now I’ve been looking forward to playing these songs live for far too long. And I’m looking forward to seeing what an audience brings to these songs that I don’t know about yet.”
He remarks that audiences can lead him to learn something new about his music.
“On a long tour in particular, you get new information every night about what worked the night before, what you’d like to tweak – do we change up the set list, do we throw in a cover somewhere? How do we play with it, how do we adjust it?”
He also highlights the importance of presence in performing, further evoking his emphasis on connection. “I feel like being present is as important, if not more important, than being prepared,” he says of performing. “That’s a currency, if you can tap into the moment. I’m looking forward to doing that. Some nights you’ll be more successful than others – but it’s a fun pursuit.”
A notable nuance here is that connecting with audiences is an experience different for Reid than for most musicians, given he is known in 2023 most widely for his acting, and for a specific character he played on television: namely, the loveable Patrick of the hit Canadian TV series Schitt’s Creek (2015-2020). Created by Dan and Eugene Levy, Schitt’s Creek ran for six seasons, became an international sensation, and won a plethora of awards. Its last season even broke records by sweeping all seven major comedy awards at the Emmys.
In the show, Reid – as Patrick – also plays the guitar; and, in the fourth season, the character serenades his beloved David with a cover of The Best, a song first recorded by Bonnie Tyler in 1988, which achieved worldwide recognition when covered by Tina Turner in 1989.
The popularity of Reid’s cover of the song, coupled with the popularity of the character Patrick, means that Reid is now known not only as a musician in his own right, but also as a character. This makes for a complex performance identity.
“It’s an interesting experience,” says Reid. “I definitely have the sense that most people coming to my show will know one song more than others. And that song’s not one of my own. The situation is further complicated by how I played that song as a character, too – and I’m not that character!”
He laughs. He explains that he is grateful for the song and the role; he simply hopes that those who attend his shows will also enjoy his other music.
Nevertheless, he also reiterates how glad he is that his cover of The Best had the impact it did. Indeed, the song – as well as Reid’s wholehearted portrayal of his character – meant a lot to many queer fans of Schitt’s Creek in particular, who saw in Patrick and David’s love story a gay romance characterised by depth, nuance, and joy.
“I know that song has reached a lot of people and found and touched a lot of people, and that’s a big part of how music works. You can’t manufacture that,” observes Reid. “So I’m incredibly grateful that people have found my music through that channel, and that that song has meant as much as it has to people.”
There is a generosity in how Reid describes music and what gives it its value. While simultaneously committed to an independent vision of how he wishes his songs to sound, and to pursuing this vision for its own sake, he also clearly values the way music can create meaning beyond itself, through being able to provoke thought and feeling in others. This is an impact he appears to embrace.
His comments on empathy, which emerged towards the end of our conversation as we discussed his time in New York, stand out.
“In cities, you’re surrounded by so many different people who are each the main character in their own stories. It’s kind of overwhelming, but it also inspires empathy: you see how people are living, and how hard it can be, too. Living in New York for a bit, after the pandemic: people kept saying ‘I haven’t seen the subways like this in a long time’. It felt like the people at the bottom in particular were getting really, really squashed, and nobody seemed to know what to do about it, and how to help.
“Seeing seemingly intractable poverty, and feeling powerless in the face of it, can be hard. But I think that the arts – and music especially, being an art form that seems to touch everything – these can offer a way to make sense of these kinds of feelings that people typically have to put away throughout the day, in order to do what they have to do in their own lives. I think it’s powerful how music can help us to reencounter those observations and conflicted feelings in a way that’s not so immediate, so that people can unpack those thoughts and those feelings a bit, and examine them, and maybe see something about the people and the places around them that they hadn’t seen or understood before.”
NOAH REID 2023 AUSTRALIAN TOUR
Friday 29 September – Enmore Theatre, Sydney
Saturday 30 September – Eatons Hill, Brisbane
Monday 2 October – Forum, Melbourne
Tuesday 3 October – Astor, Perth