by carl wilson

Republic of Melody

RoS: From left, Jonny Dovercourt (gtr-vox), Maggie MacDonald (vox), Kate McGee (bass), Katarina Gligorijevic-Collins (bass), Evan Davies (drums-mayhem). Photo by whom-else-but Aperture Enzyme.

Caught the Republic of Safety set at kool teen-feminist mag Shameless's party at the Gladstone yesterday afternoon. (Not a difficult catch, since I currently live at the Gladstone.) Besides Evan's ever-expanding capacities as between-song raconteur (his Hallowe'en "scary stories" about Olestra, tinted contact lenses and chicken fingers were fantastic), the great development is that frontlady Maggie has begun to sing actual tunes through entire songs, rather than just doing her riot-grrrl-rap-yelling (which is beloved but risks a queasy combination of sexiness and monotony over a whole set). And it turns out she can carry them. It's a great leap in self-assurance from her musical start with the Hidden Cameras to her Barcelona Pavilion days to now. (See the Shameless interview w/her this month, or my profile from the spring.) You're Only Lonely is a superb new song, with its stop-yer-sobbin' sentiments arrestingly conveyed.

Weekend Review Column

Our first indie-rock prime minister?

1,104 words
19 March 2005
The Globe and Mail, R9

‘You know who's having the best sex? The people who pay the highest taxes!”

In some looser-hipped Canadian future, it might become a campaign slogan. For now it's rock 'n' roll stage patter, part of a stream of shouted provocations from the lips of Maggie MacDonald, lead vocalist of the Republic of Safety, a woman who never needs to resort to “How ya doin', Toronto?” to command attention.

Republic of Safety, which launches its debut Passport EP tonight, is a kind of political punk band the world hasn't heard before — one that agitates not for revolutionary utopias, but for a very Canadian moderation.

Then again, the typical punk singer isn't a former NDP candidate for the provincial legislature, as MacDonald was in 1999 in her hometown of Cornwall, Ont. She was just out of her teens, in a Fugazi T-shirt and Doc Martens, and ran respectably against an Ontario Conservative cabinet minister. She's worked as a party organizer through subsequent campaigns.

Being a musician was one of the few goals the young writer and activist “never dared dream about,” but she gained confidence after being recruited by friends to play crowd animator in successful Toronto indie bands The Hidden Cameras and Barcelona Pavilion. And she knew what she would sing about: “All I ever think about is politics and sex,” she laughs.

That suited Jonathan Bunce, better known locally as Wavelength music-series organizer Jonny Dovercourt, who was happy to give his high-school pen pal free reign as long as he could underscore her thoughts with scuzzy pinball guitar riffs. Add twin basses, drums and the conceit of a fantasy nation that both parodies and celebrates the Canadian identity, and you've got the Republic of Safety.

MacDonald continues to tour with the Cameras, and has also formed an all-female trio called the Dating Service. She is surprised by the music scene's embrace, but shouldn't be. Gregarious but self-effacing socially (I've known her casually for several years), she's a fury in the floodlights — howling, dancing, stage-diving and generally exhorting audiences to drop all cool pretenses and join her in the dizziness of the moment.

What's odd is hearing this rock 'n' roll energy channelled into not-so-rock 'n' roll subjects such as jobs, resources, trade and social democracy. One can only imagine what foreigners would make of it. But in the afterlife of the several deaths of rock, perhaps it's Canada's turn to scream, not for riots in the street but for a renewal of communal values. Laying waste to society's structures? Neo-conservative politicians are on top of it, thanks.

So, unlike past rock rabble-rousers such as DOA or the Clash, this group has for a logo not an anarchy symbol, but a safety belt. Which is both funnier and, frankly, more challenging.

“You can get up on stage and say ‘Smash the state!',” says MacDonald, “but the people in the audience aren't going to go smash the state. What's the state? It's an abstract concept. But if you talk about methods of demanding a more representative government, or concrete problems like keeping Canada out of missile defence — these are possible goals, but urgent possible goals.”

MacDonald comes by her homespun radicalism naturally, having grown up in a U.S. border town as the daughter of a feminist, union-activist school teacher and a soft-spoken bartender father with a bent for Bob Dylan. She saw Cornwall's factories and jobs move south and leave behind PCB-contaminated brownfields and a suspicious cancer cluster. While she studied her share of political theory at the University of Toronto, the stakes for her are gut-level.

And it's the immediacy that makes it rock. “It's important to turn our eyes to the world as it is and as it ought to be tomorrow, and I don't mean 10 years from now. I mean when you wake up in 24 hours.”

In the anti-free-trade Get Your Horses Back, the band proclaims: “North of the nation of fear/ We have a responsibility/ To build a republic of safety.” This corny Canadian image of order and security sounds peculiar rattled around by thorny guitar and drum lines.

“I've always wanted,” says MacDonald, “to communicate these ideas in a way that doesn't just take away mental energy [as politics can], but gives people an excitement.”

Where politics produces platitudes, rock demands sex appeal, and Republic of Safety cries out as brazenly for better orgasms as for the welfare state.

“One thing I like to say is, there can be no lust for a better world without lust! So we need to promote lust.

“People are repressing their feelings and afraid of their desires, so afraid that they don't know what they are. But when they're invited to feel sexual, they're invited to express desire, and then you can say, well, what else do you desire? You also desire, for everyone, something better.”

Toronto music fans like to joke that MacDonald will end up as the first indie-rock prime minister. She doesn't rule out an eventual return to the electoral fray, though she knows her saucy stage history could raise criticism.

“I write lyrics that have swear words in them. And I make jokes at rock shows that I wouldn't say to a general audience of families and voters. . . . But I don't sing vacuous words. Even if I'm sometimes saying things that are contradictory and complicated, I can explain and stand behind what I'm saying. And I think that's something that is lacking in politics. People's mouths are open, but what's coming out?

“When you poll Canadians, the most memorable, most popular prime minister that we've had — and I'm not saying that he was perfect or that he was right — but the one people care about most was Trudeau. He swore, he was weird, people thought he was gay, he had a funny flower, he did pirouettes, he took risks and he was wild. And people liked him for that.

“So if someone that has a rock 'n' roll background comes into politics, having serious concerns, that's a good thing. I would vote for me — and I'm pretty skeptical.”

To which I can only add: Me too.

For outtakes from this interview, see The Maggie Tapes.

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Zoilus by Carl Wilson