Caged Wild Strawberries?

Robert Ballantyne
Ken and Roberta Harrison of the Wild Strawberries at a Winnipeg music store showcase in 2000 Robert Ballantyne

Breaking up is hard to do. Just ask Canadian pop-rock duo Wild Strawberries.

After spending five years on Vancouver's Nettwerk label, Wild Strawberries left the company and reclaimed their independent recording roots. This includes starting their own label and promoting their latest album Twist themselves, allowing Universal Music to handle just the manufacturing and distribution.

This husband-and-wife band is in a transition period right now. While managing almost every aspect of their recording careers themselves, they're also keeping up a gruelling pace on their current Canadian tour. Every stop means a concert, an HMV in-store appearance, and tending to perpetual tour-mate Georgia, their two-and-a-half year old daughter.

"It's tons of work," says Roberta of their new independence. "I kind of hope that it slows down, but I also don't, because if it slows down it means that we're not doing our jobs."

Twist is the duo's most upbeat album in years, and their creative joy is evident in every one of the hook-laden, intelligent pop tracks. It's a start contrast to their last disc, 1998's Quiver.

"I hated the process of making Quiver," says Ken. "We were fighting with our record company all the time. But I loved the end result. I don't have any regrets about it."

It's a touchy subject for Roberta, too. "Every time we sent a song to Nettwerk," Roberta says, "it was like, 'Well can't you sound more like this? You know, whatever's at the top of the charts this week?' And it would change a lot. The feedback we were getting wasn't consistent. It just always seemed to be about what was at the top of Billboard. Which is fine, but I just find that a lot of derivative music comes out of situations like that."

"We think the problem with record companies isn't even necessarily in the marketing," Roberta adds. "It's in the A & R, when people that aren't necessarily very musical step in and try to change the artist's vision."

It's easy to understand the Strawberries' decision to strike out on their own, considering the heavy financial debt brought on by A & R suggestions.

"A & R was established as a process to hook songwriters up with singers and find songs for singers," Ken explains. "[But it] has turned into this kind of weird anxiety machine. Now it's about getting remixes for songs from whoever's hot or just had a hit — which is totally antithetical to what we, as musicians, want to do. We want to make something that's unique. We don't want something to sound like the Boomtang Boys' last remix of, you know, fill-in-the-artist."

Ken is referring to the Boomtang Boys' remix of the Strawberries' single "Pretty Lip," which cost the band "the same amount of money we spent recording our record over six months." According to Ken, Nettwerk insisted that the song would not succeed as a single without the remix. The remix process took one day to complete. The result was Quiver's second flop single.

It all contributes to Ken's argument against A & R, which, he explains, the real reasons the Strawberries struggled in a traditional music industry setup. "A & R is death to art," he says.

In the early 1990s, Wild Strawberries also faced problems with their distributor A&M Records. "You're starting to wonder if it's just us, right?" Roberta shouts in mock outrage. "Is that what you're saying?!"

The band's problems with A&M was one of the reasons that drove them into the arms of Nettwerk. "We thought Nettwerk was the right answer," says Roberta. "We thought instead of signing with a big, evil record company that we could go with a cool company that cares about music. And while that worked for a while… I don't know if we changed or if they changed. I think partly their mandate changed and it was more about money and commercial success."

Their new disc is selling well, already equaling the sales of Quiver. The Strawberries are no longer caged by record label paradigms and are facing the future on their own terms.

"I think now is the first time in five or six years that we've really had an opportunity to do whatever the hell we want musically," Roberta says. "I hope we get to take ourselves up on that."

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About Robert J. Ballantyne

Robert J.Ballantyne is a senior editor at Popjournalism and Creative Director at Artsculture.ca. Previously, he was a journalist at the CBC on a number of news programs including the fifth estate, Marketplace and The National. He also worked as a staff writer at the Toronto Star.

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