In early March, when singer-songwriter Billy Raffoul found out his tour dates got called off due to coronavirus, he packed up his car and drove from his home in Nashville north to Canada.
The Canadian native wasn’t trying to break quarantine or flee the country. At the time, shelter-in-place orders were still days away. The impromptu road trip was to get his drummer, a fellow Canadian who doesn’t have permanent residency in the United States, back home before things got worse on either side of the border.
“It didn’t seem smart to put him on a plane,” Raffoul said recently. “So I’m like, ‘You know what, I’m just gonna drive you home.'”
The decision turned out to be a good one; the day after he arrived, the U.S.-Canada border was shut down. Raffoul quarantined himself in his hometown, the small farming town of Leamington, Ontario—tomato capital of Canada and the nation’s southernmost point, as he points out—at his girlfriend’s parents’ house.
His father, fellow singer-songwriter Jody Raffoul, lives nearby, but his girlfriend’s family’s house seemed like a better situation.
“I’m the oldest of five and the youngest is 6 years old,” he said. “I thought it was probably smarter to hang with my girlfriend’s family for the time being.”
Once things settled down, it occurred to him that he was supposed to be playing a show.
“I thought, I’m gonna do a show online for the people in Nashville, since that would’ve been our next show, had it not been canceled,” Raffoul said. “It kinda just snowballed from there. It was fun so we’re like, ‘let’s do it again for the next show!'”
In lieu of his next show he played the shed. Then the basement, followed by the attic. His manager recommended putting the “dates” on a poster, and that was the start of an idea. The poster went on a T-shirt, and once Raffoul started selling merch, the Social Distancing Tour was officially born. A series of shows isn’t a tour until you can buy a T-shirt, after all.
“It’s a really convenient tour schedule; fuel-efficient,” Raffoul said, joking.
In all, Raffoul played 12 shows in various places in and around the house, from the bathroom to an extremely cold treehouse, leading up to an April 3 release party for his latest EP, A Few More Hours at YYZ, pronounced “why why zed” because both Raffoul and Toronto’s Pearson International Airport for which it’s named are Canadian.
The EP’s title track is about another dark moment in history: the 2017 Las Vegas shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival at which a gunman in a hotel window killed 58 people and wounded another 413 with an AR-15 assault rifle. While Raffoul was in the airport complaining to his dad on the phone about a flight delay, the terminal’s TVs were suddenly blanketed by news of the shooting and the quickly increasing count of casualties.
He wrote “A Few More Hours at YYZ” right then during the delay, inspired by the idea that everything could come to an end at any time. The song is about gun violence, but it’s also about reaching out and rebuilding bridges with those close to you, especially family. It’s a lesson with even more immediate and direct meaning now than when he wrote it.
“Part of it is how quickly things can change,” he said. “We just got a reminder of that.”
Fortunately, the EP isn’t entirely sad songs about tragedy. There’s more than enough going on in the world to bring you down. “Without Falling in Love” and “Swimming in the Deep End” are especially fun—he points out—with poppier production and more playful tone.
In addition, thanks to his work with electronic artists, most notably Kygo and Avicii, some of his recent work has taken on aspects of dance music. While his songwriting style may not seem like an obvious match for EDM, and didn’t seem like it to Raffoul himself at first, it does work.
“I co-wrote a song with some friends for my own record, ‘I See You.’ This is before I had anything out,” he said. “And their manager said, ‘This sounds like something that’s in Kygo’s wheelhouse.’ And it didn’t sound anything like it but he saw a road map for how it could have a drop and it could be turned into a dance song. So we said, ‘Hey, what the hell,’ and within 48 hours we had Kygo’s production of it.”
Raffoul is looking forward to announcing the rescheduled tour dates and getting back on the road to properly tour for this EP. He hopes to play the cities he had to cancel, then play the cities he got to before everything was shut down again since by the time it’s safe it will probably have been quite a while. He’s also working on a full-length record.
But for the time being, he, along with most of the rest of the world, is sheltering in place to keep himself and everyone else safe. He’s spending a lot of time writing new songs via video call, which is a new experience for him. And the second leg of the Social Distancing Tour is underway. He’ll be returning to some fan-favorite venues and hits some new spots around the house.
“The attic was fun, and the treehouse, even though it was cold,” he said. “I’m looking forward to getting back in there for another show.”
Follow editor Daniel J. Willis at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.