Peter Katz is a JUNO-nominated and Canadian Screen Award-nominated singer-songwriter and recently crowned Best Male Vocalist in the NOW Magazine Best-Of-Toronto reader’s poll.
Over the past decade, Peter has seen his albums debut at #1 on the iTunes singer-songwriter charts; he’s shared the stage and studio with the likes of Academy Award Winner Glen Hansard (Once, The Swell Season), Juno Award-Winners The Good Lovelies, Polaris-Prize nominated Melissa McCelland (Whitehorse) and the Legendary Garth Hudson from The Band. He’s toured all over the world, regularly playing to capacity crowds, and has managed to build an impressive fan-base of loyal listeners, selling over 25,000 copies of his discs mostly from the stage, one show at a time.
I've been a fan of Peter's for years and I've lost count of how many times I've seen him perform live. In addition to appreciating his music, I've always admired his way with words. I was thrilled when he agreed to answer some questions for me.
1. How did you get to where you are as a singer-songwriter?
Really feels like one day at a time, like watching a baby grow, at some point you look at them and realize that they’re older, no longer a baby, no longer a kid, but you didn’t really see the changes. I started playing open mics, I was going to 4 per week at the beginning. Slowly but surely I built up a repertoire of songs, and finally had enough to play my first show supporting my friend at his show at the Free Times Cafe. From there I booked my own headlining show there, and just slowly but surely built it up. I feel like the first 5-6 years of touring it was mostly bad shows to not a lot of people, and it seemed like it would always be that way, but persistence paid off and I’ve caught myself in the past couple of years realizing that the shows I get to play all the time now would have been my wildest dreams back in those days. It’s funny though, because I feel so far away from ‘making it’, and there’s so much that I feel like I haven’t achieved, and it’s still a tremendous slog. But… I make a living playing music, I get to ‘do my thing’ onstage every night, and every show I play, people have come to listen to me. That’s pretty cool.
2. What is your typical day like?
I don’t think I have a typical day. Every day feels like chaos and no day is ever the same. There are sort of ‘seasons’ though I find. When I’m on tour it’s just go go go, but you’re also kind of in a bubble which has a certain rhythm and ‘alternate-reality’ to it that I like. Really, the best part of touring is playing the shows every night. Sometimes you’ve had a crazy long drive, or you’re SO exhausted trying to set up and sound-check, but as soon as it’s showtime, I just come alive and find the energy. I’ve played over 1000 shows and I still want to be up there every night. Other seasons are grant-writing and admin/accounting periods where I’m basically strapped to my computer for a few weeks trying to get all the business side of things in order and get the funding in place to pull it all off. Sometimes this season overlaps with touring and that’s when I’m really in over my head. On my full-band tour in 2015 I had all kinds of back-end stuff to make the finances work of such a huge tour, I was doing grants and accounting admin backstage often 5 minutes before showtime, then I’d run out onstage, do my show, and then was back to it in the hotel after. That was a crazy time, but not too dissimilar from the pace these days too. I also have some writing seasons, I’m always writing, that never stops, but I like going to LA for 2 weeks or booking a bunch of sessions in Toronto, and just immersing myself in writing for a couple of weeks. A certain momentum develops and it kind of changes the constitution of my brain. I love being in that mode. I tend to ignore all email/admin/everything when I’m in that zone, just allow for total creativity and mental exploration. Long answer, but that’s the truth, no day is alike, my bed-time varies dramatically day to day.
3. Who or what inspires you?
So many things. People who do what they do well, whatever that may be. I just like to see people in their element. I’m especially inspired by the people I work with out in Alberta when I do mentoring work with teenagers. They’re some of the most amazing people on the face of this earth. And the kids are incredibly inspiring too, I love watching them achieve things that they thought they couldn’t. I love the look of pride on their faces and the meaningful seeds that I see getting planted in those moments. I’m also inspired by nature. I like being humbled by it. I was on the plane 2 days ago and the Northern Lights were dancing outside the window. It stopped me dead in my tracks and actually made me cry it was so peaceful and beautiful. I like being reminded that my little world is so tiny compared to everything around me, I’m not actually that significant, I’m part of something bigger that will continue without me, that’s inspiring.
4. Anyone who has ever seen you perform live knows about your love for the CBC. When did this love affair start and why is the CBC so important to you?
Well, when you’re a travelling musician in Canada, you spend a LOT of time driving, and there’s no better companion than the CBC. Back in the days before podcasts and smartphones, I used to have a littlepaper guide in my car that would tell me all the frequencies across the country, and as I drove, I would lose signal and then find it again in the next area. I ended up writing a lot of songs based on CBC stories, their producers are basically curating the most interesting stories out there for you. You just have to tune in, they’ve done the hard work for you!
5. What have been some highs in your music career?
The best part of my music career, hands down, is the quality of the people that I get to interact with on a daily basis. The musicians I play with, the people who put on the shows, the people who come to the shows and share their stories with me… It’s an embarrassment of riches when I think of the people I get to interact with and the quality of the conversations/experiences I get to have. My music career has been my ticket to all of that. Other highs would be playing and recording with Glen Hansard (I decided to be a musician the first time I saw him play), my album release at the Harbourfront Centre presented by Massey Hall, getting nominated for a Juno (never thought that would happen), writing the song ‘Beauty’ with Jadea Kelly on her new record and then seeing it on national television synced up to footage of Terry Fox. That made me weep so hard, was so so proud of that. Other highs also come from hearing stories of people walking down the aisle to my songs, or playing it in the birthing room as their baby was born, or turning to my song in times of deep need (I’ve had people tell me that hearing my song saved their life, crazy). Basically all those moments where I find out that my songs have found a meaningful place in people’s lives, that’s incredible to me. There’s a long list. Every night, onstage, with a mountain of my own songs in my pocket ready to play just the right thing for just the right moment, that’s a high every time.
6. Do you ever get discouraged working in the music industry?
Every day. I’m not kidding, I have some kind of panic attack every day. There’s so much self-doubt running through my veins, so much uncertainty about how to keep this all going, about the dwindling prospects of income now that everyone is streaming music essentially for free, now that venues are closing, etc. etc. And I think about getting older and how much energy I have to put into this thing to keep it going, and how will I sustain that, and will my voice hold up, and will I be healthy, and am I good enough, and and and and…
7. What skills or personal attributes do you think are most important to being successful in the music industry?
Reckless hope and ambition. You have to kill yourself for it I think, it has to be the only thing that can make you happy, or you should do something else. It can’t just be something you enjoy, it has to be an unshakable MUST. You also have to be WAY more business savvy than you would think. You have to wear many hats, the shows are just a tiny piece of what goes on. You’re basically the captain of a sinking ship, so you have to learn to be ok in that role, the work never stops.
8. Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?
I used to have more, but I wonder these days if I’m qualified. I would say, first and foremost, put everything you’ve got into making something great. Forget about labels and managers and agents and all of that, and pick up your instrument, and your pen, and make amazing art. You’re not going to be amazing at the beginning so just throw yourself at it until you are. If you can make something really compelling, it makes all the other pieces so much easier. Make great art. Also, when everything else goes to hell, the thing that will give you the energy to fight another day is that you love what you’ve made. Even on those nights where there’s no one in the audience, you have to still love playing that song you wrote and find pride and satisfaction in that. Sometimes I sit on my couch and play a song of mine that I’ve played 500 times. I still get that feeling of ‘wow, I made this’. That’s an important feeling I think to keep you in it.
9. You’ve toured around the world. Is there anywhere that you'd like to perform that you haven't as yet?
Definitely! I’d really love to go to Australia and to more of Asia as well. Also think it would be cool to go to more ‘non-western’ places. I feel like I generally tour to pretty westernized places, there’s a whole other world out there that I’m missing out on. Maybe I’ll just travel to those places for fun if music won’t take me there.
10. What's next for you?
Well, I’m currently on a plane flying home from a showcase I just played for a bunch of performing arts centre presenters in Saskatoon. I presented my new duo version of my show, backed up by my good friend and long-time drummer Benjamin Rollo. On Saturday we’ll start about a month of touring taking that show across Canada, then I fly out to Niagara Falls to play for 4000 youth at a student leadership conference, and I’ll also be speaking there (I’ve been getting into keynote speaking, kind of a new thing that I’m really enjoying as an extension of my career). The day after that I’ll be touring in Quebec again on and off for another month with a writing trip to LA in the middle. Early 2017 I’ll be releasing my French EP as well as recording my next album, I’ve got 30 new songs written so far, and I’ve got dates booked until April 2017 with more coming in, so the train rolls on.
Photo from Peter Katz Facebook page.
Interview by Glodeane Brown.