a soulful Americana trip into light and darkness.........country/folk/roots/rock with 10 chapters through the everyday grooves of life, love, loss, and joy........sometimes rough, sometimes silky smooth.......but ultimately serenity!!!
Jay Semko is known internationally as singer/bassist with multiple JUNO Award nominees and Western Canadian Music Hall of Fame members The Northern Pikes, and as an award winning music composer for numerous film and TV productions, including the syndicated series, "Due South". He is considered one of Canada’s premiere singer/ songwriters, with 10 solo albums released, and has co-written and recorded with many of the best songwriters and musicians in music. Jay's new album, entitled “Never Sent”, is a collection of 10 very personal songs - snapshots of life, love and everything in between. Jay’s solo acoustic concerts are legendary for his stories and songs from his vast catalogue of music and experiences - he is a unique and amazing artist, and "Never Sent" is a unique and amazing album.
The following story was written by Sean Trembath, and printed in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix Bridges on September 22, 2017
Swimming upstream: Jay Semko's musical journey
Sean Trembath, Saskatoon StarPhoenix SEAN TREMBATH, SASKATOON STARPHOENIX Published on: September 22, 2017 | Last Updated: September 22, 2017 6:01 AM CST
Jay Semko, a member of the Northern Pikes, sits at CFCR. (Michelle Berg / Saskatoon StarPhoenix) Michelle Berg, Saskatoon StarPhoenix MICHELLE BERG / SASKATOON STARPHOENIX
Jay Semko loves making music.
As a member of Saskatoon band The Northern Pikes he has toured Canada, had hit singles on the Canadian and U.S. charts and been inducted into the Western Canadian Music Hall of Fame. As a solo artist he has released 10 albums. He has composed music for film and television, including the full run of iconic Canadian TV show Due South.
Don Schmid, drummer for the Northern Pikes, says Semko’s songwriting is what sets him apart as a musician. In particular he cites the variety of sounds and themes Semko is able to tackle.
“He’s always striving to write the best song he can write. I don’t think he’s maybe even done that yet, although I could name you probably 10 that are songs that will stand the test of time,” Schmid says.
The Pikes are celebrating the 30th anniversary of their first major label album. With it comes a three-disc re-release and the biggest tour they have done in more than two decades.
Semko is excited for the challenge of a new tour and appreciative of the life music has given him.
“I feel really blessed and really lucky to be here still.”
The Northern Pikes’ Jay Semko performs during Rock the River at the Bessborough Gardens in Saskatoon on August 21, 2016. (Michelle Berg / The StarPhoenix) MICHELLE BERG / SASKATOON STARPHOENIX ———-
Semko was born in Saskatoon City Hospital and lived in the city until Grade 1, when his family moved to Clavet. It was in Clavet he got his first experiences playing music.
He started taking piano lessons, practicing at his grandparents’ house between lessons.
“I found I could pick out tunes really easily on my own,” Semko says.
The family moved back to Saskatoon when Semko was in Grade 7. He started taking guitar lessons at the YMCA. By the time he got to high school at Evan Hardy he knew he wanted to be in a band. Unfortunately he found his guitar playing wasn’t up to the level of many of the other kids his age.
“I wasn’t all that great. Then I realized every band needs a bass player,” he says.
Semko dedicated himself to bass, sitting in his room and playing along to records. He started jamming with friends and eventually playing some gigs at school dances.
When high school ended he worked a string of unexciting jobs. He knew that music was what he really wanted to be doing. In the summer of 1979 he says he “dialed it in.”
He and some friends founded The Idols. They played covers, like all the other young bands doing the Saskatchewan circuit, but stood apart from the crowd by doing songs that weren’t on mainstream radio. They covered The Police, Squeeze and Joe Jackson.
“They were kind of billed as Saskatoon’s first New Wave band. The jumped around a bit more than normal, dressed oddly and played songs I’d never heard on commercial radio,” Schmid, who was playing in a band called Main Street at the time, says.
The Idols built a local following, but had a tumultuous run. They broke up and got back together a few times. By 1983 Semko was having trouble with a wrist injury and depression. He spent some time in a psych ward in Saskatoon.
The decision to start the Northern Pikes was partially inspired by tragedy. A Saskatoon band named Dear Friends, featuring some of Semko’s friends from the local scene, crashed their van while on tour. Three of them died, including Neil Morgan, who had played in The Idols. The crash brought home how quickly things can change.
Semko reconnected with Bryan Potvin, a local guitarist he had seen play in a group called Doris Day. They made a plan. They would start a new band and work hard, playing six or more nights a week around Saskatchewan. They would be careful with the money they made. Every dollar they could save would go toward recording time. The goal was to eventually produce an album good enough to be picked up for distribution by a major label.
Jay Semko (Michelle Berg / Saskatoon StarPhoenix) MICHELLE BERG / SASKATOON STARPHOENIX The original lineup was Semko, Potvin, Merl Bryck and Glen Hollingshead. They didn’t have a full time drummer at first. Semko says it was “a rotating cast” behind the kit.
They released their first album, an eponymous EP, in 1984. In an age before the Internet, the band had to resort to old fashioned methods of getting their sound out.
“We mailed it out everywhere,” Semko says.
They sent copies of the album to every college and commercial radio station they could find an address for. Semko says he had to go to the library to research the addresses.
Before long they started hearing back. College radio DJs were loving the record. They would get charts mailed from small stations around the U.S. with The Northern Pikes in the local top 10.
They made a second independent EP, Scene in North America, in 1985. Again they sent copies all over the place. By this time they were making a name for themselves. Semko says he started hearing from producers and managers.
The big break came in 1986. The Pikes were playing the annual showcase for Northwind Talent, a Saskatoon agency that represented them and about 15 other bands who would tour Saskatchewan. Doug Chappell, who was president of Virgin Records Canada, flew out for the show. He fell in love with the band. The band still didn’t have a full time drummer, but Schmid had played the showcase with them. Soon after he became an official member.
Virgin signed the Pikes in late 1986. The band started recording their first major label album in early 1987 in Toronto and Hamilton. Semko says the difference in scale of production was huge.
“It was a level up. The pressure was kind of on,” he says.
The first single off the record was Teenland, written by Semko and sung by Bryck. They shot their first real music video for the track and were soon in rotation on MuchMusic and many mainstream radio stations across Canada.
“Before we knew it we kind of had a hit single on our hands,” Semko says.
The album, Big Blue Sky, was released later that year. The second single, Things I do for Money, also did well. The album was certified gold by December.
“A lot of stuff happened all at once,” Semko says.
Having made a name for themselves, the band toured extensively for years. They opened for K.D. Lang, David Bowie and Duran Duran and headlined tours in Canada and the U.S.
Through it all they kept recording. Their second record, Secrets of the Alibi, didn’t hit quite as hard but got radio play across the country. Their third, Snow in June, would become the most popular of their career.
Snow in June features She Ain’t Pretty, Girl With a Problem and Kiss Me You Fool, three of the band’s most iconic hits. She Ain’t Pretty made the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S.
By this point the band was “touring the hell out of Canada,” Semko says. Although they were selling out shows and producing hits, he says there was no specific point where they felt they had “made it.”
“You never really had time to think about it,” Semko says.
The Pikes’ fourth major label album, Neptune, came out in 1992. It was reasonably successful in Canada, but didn’t have the reach of Snow in June. Frustration and fatigue started to set in. Semko says the band “self destructed.” In 1993, they called it quits.
“We just went hard for so many years. It was kind of a relief when it was over, to be honest,” Semko says.
Both Semko and Schmid say in hindsight they think the band should have just taken a break rather than fully close up shop. At the same time, breaking up may have been what was needed to preserve their relationships outside the band.
“We really didn’t hate each other. I think that’s the reason we did break up. We would have ended up hating each other,” Schmid says.
Jay Semko hosts a weekly radio show on CFCR in Saskatoon. (Michelle Berg / Saskatoon StarPhoenix) MICHELLE BERG / SASKATOON STARPHOENIX With the Pikes no longer together, Semko found his life in limbo.
“The band finished and I started getting depressed and I didn’t really know what I was going to do,” he says.
A new direction presented itself when he got a call from a television agent. A director named Paul Haggis was putting together a TV pilot about a Canadian Mountie teaming up with an American cop. It was called Due South. Haggis was a fan of the Pikes and wondered if Semko would be interested in making music for the show.
Semko and former bandmate Potvin collaborated on a theme song for the movie. Haggis like it so much that when the show was picked up as a series, he hired Semko as a composer.
“That really was a life changer for me,” Semko says.
Semko moved to Toronto and started writing music for the show alongside Jack Lenz and John McCarthy, two experienced composers. He ended up scoring all 68 episodes.
Meanwhile Semko was also branching out as a solo artist. He released his first album, Mouse, in 1995. Two singles, Strawberry Girl and Times Change, charted in Canada.
Film and television work kept him from his solo work for a while. Since Due South he has worked on shows for CBC, Discovery Channel, APTN and more. In 2013 his work on a reality show called Dust Up earned him a Canadian Screen Awards nomination.
Meanwhile the Pikes decided to get back together. In 1999 Virgin decided to put out a greatest hits album and approached the band about a tour to support it.
“The tour went really well,” Semko says.
Once they were gelling again as a band, they decided to get back into the studio. They released Truest Inspiration in 2001 and planned another big tour. Unfortunately the grind of life on the road brought old problems back to the surface.
“Part way through this full-out tour, we sort of figured out we’re starting to not like each other, and not like this, and we’re back in our same groove,” Semko says.
They resolved to be much more choosy with future dates. The Pikes released another album, It’s a Good Life, in 2003 and have continued to play gigs, albeit fewer of them, to this day.
In 2012 the band was inducted into the Western Canadian Music Hall of Fame, something Semko says he is very proud of. He says the band is in a good place, despite whatever conflicts they’ve had to work through.
“We are the best of friends. I’d classify our relationship as like brothers. Sometimes you get along, sometimes you don’t, but at the end of it all you’re still brothers,” he says.
He has also continued his solo career. Since 2005 Semko has released nine more solo albums. He has built a following on his ability to connect with audiences in more intimate settings.
“It has become kind of a songs and stories night when I go out and play,” he says.
The Pikes are now preparing for their biggest tour in more than 20 years. This year marks the 30th anniversary of their breakout album Big Blue Sky. To commemorate, Universal Music is releasing a triple album featuring the a remastered version of the original album, a disc of unreleased tracks and a complete live performance from the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto from 1986.
The tour will feature Semko, Schmid, Potvin and Kevin Kane from the Grapes of Wrath. They’ll travel by bus, with 29 stops planned.
When asked about the rigours of such a tour, Semko jokes about eating too many potato chips rather than getting in shape, but says he feels ready.
“I’ve been playing regularly. As long as you do that, you don’t lose your chops,” he says.
Schmid says it’s all about pacing yourself.
“It’s all about setting up a show with peaks and valley. It’s like a movie,” Schmid says. “That’s what’s great. We’re creating a show again.”
Semko’s main emotion around the tour is excitement about playing so many shows with his old bandmates.
“There’s a musical connection that cannot be denied. It just kind of clicks,” he says.
He hopes the tour is successful enough to spawn more in the future, perhaps as anniversaries of their other albums approach.
Semko’s other current project is The Songwriters, a radio show on CFCR in Saskatoon every Thursday. He and guests discuss the craft of songwriting and play examples from some favourite artists.
“It’s been fun. It’s open music. I can play anything I want,” he says.
Semko loves all the creative things he is able to do and says he just wants to keep working and sharing music with people.
“Every day is a gift. The fact I can go out there and play music, and people can dig it, that’s an incredible feeling.”
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