By Angela Pressland
"My ambition is to one day be driving a truck out on my parents' ranch and hear one of my songs on the radio. My life could be complete."
"He writes, he acts, he produces and now he sings . . ." It's becoming a familiar introduction to a man with an impressive list of credits to his name. But as Paul is quick to point out, music is not a new venture for him. He feels the decision to release an album with fellow actor, songwriter and friend, David Keeley, might have been a 'dicey' one, had it not been for the benefit of his past musical experience.
Early days . . .
As a teenager, he played classical guitar - an instrument he studied for five or six years. An invitation to play at a special concert in Washington filled him with such dread that he decided to go to holiday camp instead! He subsequently gave up playing guitar for three years, deeming football to be a lot better for his nerves! He was also prevented from playing for a while due to a broken finger.
When Paul began working as an actor he took up music again. He co-wrote the music and lyrics used in his sci-fi rock musical, Thunder, Perfect Mind, along with Laura Burton and Randy Waldie. The show, which ran for some months at the McLaughlin Planetarium in Toronto, taught Paul an interesting lesson. Just before the show's opening, he said:
"It is so extraordinary what sound can do. I have found that I can cut huge chunks of dialogue because music can get you to the mood much more quickly."
And to hear some of that music, please visit Paul's parents' website. Here you can listen to two of the songs from the musical, including The Unknown Soldier sung by Paul himself. And if you, too, think Paul sounds like Bruce Springsteen at times, here's what Paul had to say about that during an on-line chat hosted by Chatelaine.com in September 2000.
"I'm sure I did sound like the Boss since I listened to him endlessly in those days."
During this chat Paul also confirmed that there were no plans to restage Thunder, Perfect Mind although discussions have taken place with Jack Lenz with a view to "doing something with it", possibly producing an animated version:
"When we made it the technology was really in its infancy and that's why it ended up in the planetarium. It might work better in an updated version with digital effects."
In the 1980s/early 90s Toronto, Paul had his own band - The Bonemen. (Nothing sinister in that name he assures us! It most likely refers to that vast dinosaur graveyard located in the Alberta Badlands where his parents, Renie and Bob Gross, have made their home.) He wrote the songs for the band whose members also included Laura Burton and, once or twice, David Keeley. You can find more information about The Bonemen - as well as the lyrics to one of their songs, Cry - on the music page of Renie and Bob Gross's Badlands Books website.
Country boy . . .
It was four or five years ago when Paul was filming XXX's and OOO's in Nashville that he found himself 'running around at night listening to all these great songwriters'. He speaks with admiration for the band BR5-49, once dubbing them 'the best band in the world', and recalling how he visited Robert's Western Wear (a boot shop/bar in Nashville ) which is home to the band and where they perform live in the storefront window. What he witnessed in Nashville fired his enthusiasm for music once again - although song writing had remained a hobby, something he enjoyed doing and which he found simpler and less onerous than writing screenplays. Nashville also opened his eyes to a new kind of country music the likes of which was simply not heard on mainstream radio. Until then, Paul had listened to pretty much anything but admitted a fondness for Canadian folk-type music - Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell. In 1996, prior to his hosting the Canadian Country Music Awards, he was quoted in The Calgary Sun as saying: "I am a country fan. It's the last bastion of melody. That's all I really listen to."
Inspired by what he'd heard in Nashville and with tales of this 'extraordinary, absolutely amazing, exciting music', Paul returned from his travels and visited David Keeley. He played Ride Forever for him and, as David recalled during the 1997 Pamela Wallin interview, 'We fell on the floor and started writing songs'. But the songs they wrote were unlike the reinvented country music of Nashville. David explained how they were written more from a Canadian perspective - 'more complex and more poetic'.
D I Y. . . .
Armed with a demo tape (produced by Jack Lenz, who also produced the music on due South) comprising nineteen songs out of the twenty-five available, the two returned to Nashville in the hope of securing a publishing deal. It was Jack Lenz who proposed they should record the songs for themselves but Paul and David thought this suggestion was quite hilarious and headed south in search of the deal, regardless. They left Nashville without agreeing to any deals and it was only as they drove back across the border into Canada that they finally decided to go ahead and make the CD themselves.
Paul was reluctant to sign up with any major record label in Canada 'because a lot of friends of mine are musicians and they have all these horror stories'. He decided to do it independently and in September 1997, approximately eighteen months after Paul and David had gone in search of the publishing deal (Paul's punishing schedule on the set of due South left little time to work on the CD), Two Houses was released in Canada. It was to become HMV's number one independent record there.
So, just what can you expect to hear on this CD? When Paul is asked what type of music it is he replies, jokingly, 'country, rock, folk, hip-hop, swing, classical, jazz.' Can't you just see the perplexed and breathless shelf stacker in your local record store? In more serious mode he has defined it as 'country rock'. As for the songs themselves, Paul poetically describes the lyrics as being 'fragments of anyone's life - love, disappointment, disillusionment'.
The original CD contained the ten songs detailed below:
Essentially Paul's song, he wrote this with an image in his mind of old, doddery cowboys in spurs and chaps saddling up and riding until they dropped.
He sang the song when he presented the 1995 Gemini Awards, accompanied by a chorus of real Mounties who had auditioned for the show and had come from places such as Winnipeg, Ottawa, Toronto and Regina to take part.
The original lyrics set the scene in North Dakota - 'it sounded good to sing'. But North Dakota became Alberta when the song was adapted for an episode of due South (All the Queen's Horses) and chorused, so memorably, by a hi-jacked trainload of singing pseudo-Mounties until the effects of the terrorist's gas rendered them unconscious - you had to be there to appreciate it!
Clearly a versatile song, it was re-jigged again and sung by Paul, David and a chorus of - you've guessed it - Mounties at the 1998 Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa!
Paul admits that this is his favourite track from the CD. It's a song they had great fun writing; trading lines, bouncing ideas off each other, laughing a lot and finally finishing it as they were actually recording it!
When Paul hosted the 1997 Canadian Country Music Awards he found himself wrapping up the proceedings a little early and, conveniently, being asked to 'stretch'! Along with David Keeley as well as Terri Clark and Paul Brandt ('Not a bad back-up band!') he played Voodoo to a delighted audience.
The picture on the right comes from the video of Voodoo that was shown on rotation on Country Music Television (CMT) in Canada.
Desert and Rain
This is David's favourite song which came about after he and Paul took in a 'writers night' in Franklin, Tennessee. David was especially taken with one writer - Allen Shamblin. 'His use of metaphor was profound yet so simple. Desert and Rain, which is loosely based on my wife and my relationship, came out of that evening'.
A song born out of a summer, several years before the release of the CD, when Paul spent a lot of time in Stratford. While Paul's wife (award winning actress Martha Burns) was working at the Stratford Festival, Paul and David were given the opportunity to do a lot of writing.
Feeling lonely and confined to an eerie, run-down hotel in Nashville, Paul wrote this beautifully touching song in the early hours of the morning during 'an amazing Tennessee Storm'.
Promise us the Night
David listened to a lot of Marty Robbins as a kid. He had the rhythm for Promise us the Night in his head and the 'tune literally fell out of me!' Although Paul's reaction to it was one of hysteria - 'You should be embarrassed' he laughed - the song remains a firm favourite with David's mum!
Another song inspired by feelings of homesickness. This time Paul was filming at the Pinewood Studios in the UK and yearning for the Rocky Mountains. He called David on the phone who, on hearing it, teased him about the simplicity of the chorus. Paul knew in his head that it had a 'great feel' and later it came together well in the recording studio.
The song was a favourite with Paul's children too - they liked the chorus! As Paul once told the Canadian House and Home magazine:
"Hannah plays the flute, Jack hits the piano and I play guitar".
Man on a Bicycle
Paul says he has no idea what this song is about, although his father (ex-army, residing near the banks of the Red Deer River, but not given to wandering about in a state of undress and carrying a fishing pole) was more than a little suspicious that it may have been written about him! Paul believes there should have been a caveat on the CD: 'The following song has absolutely nothing to do with my father!'
Papa's Front Porch
A song about a battered wife who runs back to the safe haven of her father's porch. David has spoken of how it is also about forgiveness and coming through the other side (from the male perspective). Although Jack Lenz wasn't comfortable with the song's unhappy ending, David felt it was inconclusive and listeners should be left to make up their own minds.
After the War
David Keeley once commented that when Paul called him and began to sing the words to this song, he handed the phone to his wife, Laura, who 'began crying immediately'. To find out what inspired the song, go to our Passchendaele page.
In March 1998 Paul and David released a CD single entitled:
32 Down on the Robert Mackensie
This song was written specifically for an episode of due South (Mountie on the Bounty); a huge, swashbuckling extravaganza of piracy on the Great Lakes and a sinking freighter. Gordon Lightfoot had written and recorded a song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, about a vessel that sank in Lake Superior in 1975 with the loss of twenty-nine lives. Paul wanted to use this song for due South but Gordon, understandably, wouldn't release the rights unless the families of the men who had died gave their permission for the song to be used. Paul was reluctant to pursue this and cause them unnecessary distress. He explains: "I ended up talking to a woman from Ohio whose only son had drowned on the boat. It was a very difficult conversation. For the first time I felt that horrifying collision of real life and entertainment." So, along with Jay Semko, he put pen to paper and 32 Down on the Robert Mackensie came to be. A video was made of the band performing this song, interspersed with clips of the action from Mountie on the Bounty.
Although this song was not featured on the original Two Houses CD, it was included when the album was released in South Africa and the UK.
Launching Two Houses overseas
It was April 1998 that saw the release of Two Houses in South Africa. It has subsequently achieved sales of
"I certainly don't want to be like Bryan Adams and have to play in gigantic stadiums. I think that would be daunting . I think playing in nice clubs is fun".
That's fine by us - just so long as he doesn't get stage fright and head off to summer camp again! Although when he was teased about that by Peter Gzowski (former CBC Morningside host), he did make a mental note to 'show up to concert next time'. Which was, undoubtedly, a great relief for the Gross and Keeley fans who attended their concert at the Winspear Centre, Edmonton, in January 2001.
Partners in rhyme
"We have no marketing strategy which probably accounts for why we aren't in the top ten. Our music is largely a hobby, or at least it's a personal pursuit. If one of the songs breaks out, that would be great but there's no tactical plan for it. Perhaps we should adopt one ...?" - Paul Gross, Chatelaine.com, September 2000
Two Houses was launched in the UK in July 1998 with 32 Down on the Robert Mackensie released as a single in August. Paul and David appeared on various television and radio shows to promote the CD but no live gigs took place. Maybe next time ...
The UK CD single of Robert Mackensie also included a song called Family Matters. It's certainly very different to the songs from Two Houses and what a pity that it was tucked away like this. Unfortunately the single was deleted from UK catalogues in the spring of 1999 and can no longer be obtained. But don't despair ... it has since been included on Paul and David's new CD, Love and Carnage, available from Live Unity. A limited number of autographed copies are also available from Badlands Books.
On 29th November 1998 the Holiday Heroes CD, benefiting the Special Olympics and featuring Santa Drives a Pickup sung by Paul Gross and David Keeley, was released in Canada and Tennessee.
On 20th December 1998, Lenz announced that the new pressing of the Two Houses CD would include 32 Down on the Robert Mackensie and a bonus single disc of Santa Drives a Pick-Up.
The Two Houses video
In August 1999 Lenz Entertainment released a Gross and Keeley music video which includes the following:
Santa Drives a Pick-Up (watch on YouTube)
32 Down on the Robert Mackensie
Papa's Front Porch
The video also contains footage of Paul and David's Canada Day performance of Ride Forever and their TNN interview in Nashville.
In December 1999, Paul and David released an enhanced single of their seasonal 'novelty song', Santa Drives a Pick-up. The CD includes the video for the single as well as a bonus video of 32 Down, bios of Paul, David and Santa (I knew he was real!), photos from the video shoot and vocal clips of Paul and David talking about the tracks on their first CD, Two Houses.
A second, limited edition, Gross and Keeley album was released in January 2001, entitled Give the Dog a Bone. The commercial version came out later the same year and was retitled Songs of Love and Carnage.
Some autographed Gross and Keeley merchandise has, until recently, been available from Badlands Books (run by Paul's Dad) but last we heard a house renovation was taking priority and all the signs are that they are not currently responding to order requests.
You can find out more about Gross and Keeley via our links page.
And finally ...
You'll be pleased to hear that during an on-line chat hosted by Chatelaine.com, Paul confirmed that his dream of hearing his music being played on the radio while driving around his parents' ranch has finally come true. Well, almost ...
"I was driving to the dump and the Robert Mackenzie came on. Very exciting. Much more exciting than the dump".