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Reproduced by permission of the publisher © 2001 Vue Weekly

PAUL GROSS

Houses in motion

Music more than a hobby for actors Paul Gross and David Keeley

By DAVE JOHNSTON

25th January 2001

Paul Gross has a theory about hats. "A Mountie hat is a uniform," he explains thoughtfully. "You have authority when you put that on. But they don't feel the same. Because the brim of a Mountie hat is so flat, it forces you to hold your head straight. But you can cock your head with a cowboy hat. I'd rather wear the cowboy hat." Gross should know a thing or two about the subject. After all, the Calgary-born actor spent a good part of the past decade portraying RCMP Const. Benton Fraser on the popular television series due South. Behind the camera, however, Gross has quietly nursed a passion for country music. Last year, he and fellow actor David Keeley released an independent album of original songs called Two Houses.

Gross has always dabbled in music, ever since he studied classical guitar as a youth. He grew up listening to folk records, particularly Gordon Lightfoot. Gross put down the instrument when the more masculine pursuit of football presented itself in high school. It wasn't until Gross began his studies in the University of Alberta's B.F.A. acting program that he rediscovered his other passion.

"When you're working in theatre school, you're not really performing," Gross says, "because they try to get you not to think about that so much so you can concentrate on the mechanics of what you're doing. We all started getting into each other's kitchens and singing because you could connect with an audience. It's also a whale of fun. Struggling through the tortured corridors of something like Hamlet isn't fun. It's enriching, ennobling and satisfying ultimately, but it's not a barrel of laughs to go into work and die every day."

The "to be" brothers?

Ironically, he and Keeley spent last summer recording Give the Dog a Bone, the follow-up to Two Houses, while they were performing at the Stratford Festival in a production of Hamlet. Gross portrayed the doomed Dane opposite Keeley's Horatio, but offstage they surrendered their rapiers and prop skulls for guitars and microphones. "Theatre moves at a much more gentlemanly pace," Gross says. "You get up, get ready, you work hard for a few hours, then it's over. There was enough time in the day to get other things done."

Finding time to play for an audience is nowadays more difficult than ever. Keeley is currently performing in a Toronto production of the ABBA musical, Mamma Mia!, while Gross has been busy developing film and television projects with his production company, Whizz Bang [sic]. "It's been pretty hard to carve out enough time to play," sighs Gross. "It would be lovely if we could find time to set two months aside and run around and play, for no other reason than to feel like we've taken a whack at it."

The pair were recently invited to perform in South Africa. The trip took on a surreal quality when they arrived, says Gross. "We got into a truck, and suddenly one of our songs came on the radio. I couldn't believe it. Here in Johannesburg, of all places."

Tired acting

Originally, the pair never intended to perform live at all-their musical endeavours were never supposed to go beyond a publishing deal they had hoped to find in Nashville. After recording several demos and shopping them around, however, they were encouraged by due South's music producer, Jack Lenz, to just cut an album themselves. Gross and Keeley juggled professional commitments to find studio time and worked on creating their own distribution.

"I would finish a day of shooting [due South], and then run to the studio and be there until three in the morning," Gross recalls. "I acquired the skill of falling asleep while standing up, like a horse." Although Gross admits Two Houses isn't the perfect showcase for their work, it does hold a wealth of memories. One song, 32 Down the Robert MacKenzie, was originally written for an episode of due South, when the show failed to get the rights to use a similar Gordon Lightfoot song. In the end, Gross and Keeley were able to recruit Jay Semko of the Northern Pikes and local stompers Captain Tractor to turn the track into an honest sea shanty. Also, fiddler Melanie Doane makes several contributions throughout the album. In the end, Gross enjoys the creative outlet music has given him. To him, this isn't a novelty. "It's provided a different facet of my career," he says lightly. "In some ways, it's no different from acting - they're all little stories with their own narrative, and some songs have a character that you have to embody. I guess you could call it a hobby that's gotten out of control, but not really."

Paul Gross and David Keeley

United Way Benefit Concert, Winspear Centre, Mon Jan 29, 8pm

Reproduced by permission of the publisher © 2001 Vue Weekly