Putting a face to the name

MIKE ROSS

, Last Updated: 2:50 PM ET

Tom Barlow is in the enviable position of having a hit song on the radio without the public having a clue what he looks like - until his picture gets plastered in the newspaper, of course.

Sorry to blow your cover, man.

The singer quotes Bill Murray, who loves making movies but hates being a movie star: "If you're really dying to be rich and famous, try being rich first and see if that covers it."

Barlow has no problem with fame, though, and advises musicians who do to perhaps consider another line of work. Barlow - the band and the man are named the same - is up for two Juno Awards this Sunday. There's new group of the year, a designation the bandleader understands even though he'd already made four albums with the ska-punk band Think Tank Fish.

Then there's the big surprise: pop album of the year.

Barlow says, "I think 10 years ago if you told me I'd be nominated for pop anything I would've fallen over laughing. But now I'm really happy to be there - in a category with Sarah McLachlan and Barenaked Ladies. It's flattering."

Barlow isn't your ordinary pop band. It's managed to combine the talking rock 'n' roll thing pioneered by Lou Reed (the birth of white rap, also used to great if fleeting effect by one Shawn Mullins) with hip-hop, Dylanesque folk and a social conscience - all in the same song! The aforementioned radio hit Barlow has earned all the Juno attention for is called Walk Away. It's a touching tune that deals with life's "little miracles." The first verse is about woman suffering from an eating disorder.

Barlow was surprised the topic actually found an audience, "In a song where you start talking about a girl sticking her finger down her throat, you don't really think you're going to get a ton of adult radio spins, but it went to No. 2 in the country and I was shocked. I didn't think that song would go much further than the basement."

A call from a friend inspired the song.

"She told me, 'I didn't do it today,' meaning she didn't throw up today. It was a small victory for her, but at the same time a miraculous victory. Then I started thinking about all these tiny miracles that go on in the world that go unreported. For a drug addict to say no to drugs - that's a miracle. For a woman who's suffering domestic abuse at home to leave - the amount of courage it takes for that is miraculous. So we tried to write a song that put these miracles in their appropriate light."

Barlow says he always tries to write from the heart, but not before thinking it through first.

"I think it's equal parts heart and brain," he says. "I try to look at what's touching my heart in a social context. And you don't pick the things you're going to write about, even in the broadest sense. Your subjects pick you. If you start picking them I think you run the risk of sounding overly didactic or unnatural."

As for the hip-hop influence heard on Walk Away and variously on the rest of the band's self-titled debut album, Barlow says he was turned on to the music with Public Enemy's 1989 track, Fight the Power.

"I loved hip hop because I thought it was the new folk music," Barlow says. "Rock 'n' roll in '89 was really in a state of decay - this was a couple of years before Nirvana - rock 'n' roll was over. It was about the hair and the Spandex and the makeup. And here was this music from the street: NWA, Public Enemy, talking about poverty and violence. I thought: these guys are the new Bob Dylans. Not the guy with the acoustic guitar.

"Now it's a whole new thing, of course. Hip hop is a parody of itself and people are starting to write songs on acoustic guitars again."

Then of course there are artists who can do both - like Barlow. However, musical genre is irrelevant, he insists.

"A lot of people make music almost a tribal thing. You have punk rock over here and Celine Dion over there. And for me, that's just the envelope. You can mail the same letter in any colour envelope you want. The essence of the song is what's important."

Also watch for Barlow at tomorrow's Juno Cup hockey game, performing tomorrow night at the Powerplant for Juno Fest and signing autographs at Saturday's Fan Fare at West Edmonton Mall.

At this rate, Barlow won't be anonymous for long.


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