It’s a typical day for Walk Off the Earth, so the Ontario, Canada band is working on multiple songs, filming a video and making another song that will be used during hockey broadcasts—a sort of “Hockey Night in Canada,” vocalist-instrumentalist Sarah Blackwood says.
Blackwood, her husband, Gianni Luminati, Joel Cassady and Ryan Marshall (who left the band, at least temporarily, the week before Christmas) are home, but they keep up the same general workload even when they’re on tour with a mobile studio and a producer who travels with the band. They write, record and even film videos on the bus, Blackwood explains.
“We’ve never spent thousands and thousands of dollars on finding the perfect spot with the perfect sound,” she says. “We can make music anywhere, and that’s our jam.”
Walk Off the Earth powered through 2019 after cofounding member Mike “Beard Man” Taylor died suddenly of natural causes on Dec. 30, 2018. The keyboardist, who left behind not only the band but a wife and two teenage children, had a massive fan following. The rest of the band didn’t know if continuing without him was an option, but after talking to his family, they decided to soldier on.
“His brother’s wife is actually one of my best friends. The band aside, we already have that connection,” Blackwood says. “You need to be there for the people that don’t get to have him anymore.”
Walk Off the Earth is one of the most popular bands in Canada, having made the transition from vital online sensation with unique covers reimagining others’ songs—like its rendition of five people playing one guitar to Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know”—to the Billboard charts. They won the 2016 Juno Award in Canada for Group of the Year, have worked with everyone from Snoop Dogg to Steve Aoki, their songs have been certified multi-platinum in their native country and new album HERE WE GO! debuted at No. 6 on Billboard’s Top Albums Chart.
The path from Taylor’s sudden passing to the album was not an easy one.
“I can’t believe it’s already been a year, to be honest. It’s all happened so fast,” Blackwood says. “Losing somebody close to you is never easy. It’s very unpredictable; the rollercoaster you’re going to experience in regular life—not to mention how much of a legend [Taylor] was and how many fans he has across the world. For the past year we’ve been sharing this experience with the fans and going through this together with a lot of different people and a lot of different aspects and different pieces of his life.”
Walk Off the Earth has spent the previous few years releasing many one-off singles independently. Having previously been signed to a major label, the band grew tired of the album creation approach, which meant that songs were already old to the members by the time they were released. Eventually, the singles mindset began to catch on for other artists as well.
“If we write a song on Friday, and we think it’s absolutely wonderful, let’s put it out on Tuesday,” Blackwood explains. “Because we’ve been independent for so long, we don’t have to try to go through all those loopholes with the label to try and make that happen.”
At the same time, the band members decided to give fans a larger body of work for a busy 2020 of touring. They had many unreleased demos available to them as well.
“We wanted to bring more of a story to the stage,” she says.
HERE WE GO! is the band’s first full-length record since 2015’s Sing It All Away, and some of its songs have been in development for as much as two years. Asked what it was like to write and record without the late Taylor, Blackwood points out that wasn’t the case for the majority of the songs. Taylor either knew about or recorded parts for numerous cuts.
“He is a part of this record,” she says, explaining how the order of the songs tells the story of the band’s year since his death.
Starting with about 50 songs at or near the demo stage, Blackwood, Nicassio, Cassady and Marshall rewrote parts on many of them, then took stock of the ones that most resonated with them in light of their loss and outlook and added a few newer tracks.
The first taste Walk Off the Earth released from the album was the touching tribute “Mike’s Song,” the proceeds of which went to buy instruments for children in need through MusiCounts, the keyboardist’s favorite charity. Though the song begins sorrowfully, it turns to an uplifting and hopeful outlook, with the band singing, “Even if the day don’t break/ It’s gonna be OK.”
That’s the message of the album as a whole. Rather than dwelling on sorrow, it doubles down on striving for happiness and moving negativity aside. That begins with opener “I’ll Be There,” one of the songs written in 2019, which Blackwood describes as being about the people in your life who lift you up even in difficult times. The dramatic accompanying video, which tracks the life of a big brother and his younger sister from her birth to their highs and lows, climaxing in a drug overdose, stars Blackwood and her actual older brother.
“My brother is not a drug addict by any means, but everyone has different stories in their families, and different experiences,” Blackwood says. “This one was close to us in many ways, and it was important to us to relay a message of kindness and love and support. Because I think, especially with mental health right now … there’s just not enough being done, and there’s such a stigma attached to it. That it’s not a real thing. It really is, and people need to be more supportive of each other in those situations.”
Similarly, the sax-led title track is about circling the wagons with the help of the people most important in your life, and the EDM-tinged “Dreamers” is about finding the change you need in life if you’re not in a place of contentment.
As artists, Blackwood and her bandmates always want to be next to other creatives ready to achieve difficult dreams, so that together they can accomplish what they’re after.
“I don’t want to feel like I didn’t fulfill everything in my life, so put me with the people I think are going to get me to where I need to be,” she says.
With the very difficult year now in the past, Walk Off the Earth is still looking forward and striving to use the time the members have wisely.
“Right now, I think, all of us are very focused on finding the things in our lives that we truly love and focusing on that,” Blackwood says, perhaps hinting at Marshall’s imminent departure.
“If anything, we’ve learned that life is a very precious gift, and it can be a lot shorter than we expect it to be. Whatever you’re doing in life, try to be passionate, try to find love and be happy.”
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.