In the ‘80s, Toronto’s Platinum Blonde was known for big hair — and even bigger hits. The group’s second album, Alien Shores, was produced by Brit Eddy Offord (Yes, ELP) and launched their biggest radio single, “Crying Over You,” featuring a cameo guitar solo from Rush’s Alex Lifeson. (The album also introduced new bandmember Kenny MacLean, who died suddenly in 2008.) The Blondes have been enjoying renewed attention of late: an induction into the Canadian Music and Broadcast Industry Hall of Fame in 2010, some selected reunion shows, and cover of their track “Not in Love” by Crystal Castles. Founder/vocalist Mark Holmes reflects on what it meant to score a hit in the era of mega-hits.

Alien Shores is a bit of a concept album. Was “Crying Over You” written to be part of a narrative?

No. It was on Side A, which was all radio-friendly tracks. Side B was the concept side. It wasn’t even supposed to be for my band. I loved Madonna at the time and I wanted to send her a song that she could use. … I played it to the guys at Sony and told them I was sending it off to Madonna. And one guy said, “That’s got a hook you can hang a winter coat on.” The next day, the label and management came in and said, “That song can’t go anywhere. You have to do it.”

What was the seed of the song?
I was dicking around at home with a guitar riff, then I came up with a sort of vocal line. I went into a studio owned by Bill Petrie, where I programmed the drums, put down the bass and guitar lead and sang it. Then Kenny [MacLean] came by and he started doing backing vocals. He would always come up with funny stuff at first, then the solid stuff.

How did Kenny joining the band change your songwriting?
Kenny was in a band called The Deserters. And I listened to both of their records every day. I loved them so much. They had a really cool reggae feel. I think I based part of the sound of Platinum Blonde on them. And then Kenny became available. He loved music, he didn’t care if he was playing bass, guitar, whatever. So at first I had him playing keyboards and backing vocals. One thing led to another and he started playing bass in the band, and it was great. In “Crying Over You,” the verse guitar bits, Kenny came up with that.

In what ways did the success of this song impact you?
When you come up with a big smash like that, it cuts two ways. It’s a lot of pressure to come up with something like it again. All of a sudden all these business people come in, and all your songs have to be like that. And you’re trying to write these massive hits, which is not the way to write an album. But in the 1980s everything had to be a massive smash. Rather than having four members of the band there were 60 members of the band. … I would have done anything to get away from that. And I did. I went back to England for a while, I couldn’t stand it.

Looking back, what do you think the song says about who you were at the time?
Fearless. We’d done our first record, I knew the second record was going to be better, the technology and the studio vibe was very exciting. So Mark Holmes at that time was full of optimism. I just believed. I never had doubt that the songs I was writing would not be massive. It’s easy to write a song when you don’t have doubt. If you’re writing a song that you really believe, that’s when it will mean something to someone else.

While Mark Jowett doesn’t downplay Nettwerk One Music’s longevity or the significance of its 25th anniversary in 2009, he doesn’t play it up either. Instead, he prefers to focus on the underlying reasons for the company’s continued success, noting that every and every partnership it’s entered into represents a fresh opportunity to grow its writers’ long-term careers.

For Jowett, a co-founder of Nettwerk Music Group and now Vice-President of International A&R/Publishing for Nettwerk One Music, that mandate was of particular importance at the time of the company’s inception in 1984. “I was the guitar player for Moev, and Terry McBride was our manager,” he says. “We were signed to a San Francisco label, Go Records, that went bankrupt, and we had to figure out a different way of putting out the Moev record. Within months, we discovered Skinny Puppy and Grapes of Wrath. They didn’t have a record label, so we took out a small bank loan and formed Nettwerk to release their records as well.” Although Nettwerk’s publishing arm came into existence around the same time, the current name, Nettwerk One, wasn’t formalized until the early 2000s.

          From the beginning, the company’s roster was eclectic, a comfortable home for artists writing in dramatically different styles, ranging from Skinny Puppy to Sarah McLachlan. While Nettwerk One has grown substantially over time, it’s done so with an eye towards maintaining that diversity, signing such stylistically varied writers as Greig Nori, Great Lake Swimmers, Matt and Kim, Sinead O’Connor, Natalie Merchant and Chromeo.

Diversity is integral to the approach Nettwerk One  takes to expanding the reach of those artists and their songs  –  prompting the creation of a dedicated film and TV licensing team and joint ventures signed with partners as disparate as video game publisher/developer Electronic Arts, in 2007, and Nashville’s Revelry Music Group, in March 2011. “Nashville is extremely important in publishing, but, honestly, I don’t have a Nashville background,” says Jowett, “and neither does Blair McDonald [Co-Managing Director of Nettwerk One], so we’ve reached out and formed alliances with people who are deeply respected there and know that world very well.”

Twenty-seven years on, Nettwerk One remains true to its roots. “Whenever we signed acts we’d try to sign them simultaneously to publishing and the label. Ironically, it’s a bit like the 360 model, so I guess we’re two or three decades ahead of our time,” Jowett says, laughing. “But having the publishing rights allowed us to work with sub-publishers who could help find agents, give us advice about what labels to work with, and even help promote acts in other territories. That was a tremendous asset to us and our acts.

“Very importantly, we also try not to sign too much. Volume is important in growing your catalogue, but if you don’t have the infrastructure to support it, things get lost. So while we’re growing, we’re trying to ensure that growth is moderate, so we can maximize every opportunity for our writers.”

Victoria composer Tobin Stokes has been fielding a question most composers are never asked. “My friends keep phoning to find out what I’m going to do with a quarter of a million dollars!” laughs Stokes, referring to the $250,000 commission that City Opera Vancouver (COV) just received from the Annenberg Foundation to create a new opera based on the story of U.S. Marine veteran Christian Ellis. It’s believed to be the largest single commissioning grant in Canadian history.

Stokes will split the kitty, of course.  The grant funds the librettist as well – American-Iraqi playwright Heather Raffo, known for her award-winning play, 9 Parts of Desire. It also covers consultations with Ellis, a first reading of the libretto with hired actors, and workshops with piano and singers.

The commission is unusual for more than its size.  The part of the Annenberg Foundation responsible for the grant is the philanthropic multimedia organization Explore, whose director, filmmaker Charles Annenberg Weingarten, wants the opera to contribute to the psychological healing process for veterans.

“They asked us to base the work on the actual experiences of Ellis, who suffers post-traumatic stress disorder in consequence of his engagement at the Battle of Fallujah in 2004,” says City Opera Vancouver’s director, Charles Barber. “Annenberg sent Christian to meet with us, twice, in the fall of 2010. Over the course of several days, we came to an agreement about the particulars of his story and the prospect of broadening it to stand for many vets and  –  in a deeply compassionate way –  many Iraqis.”

Accessibility and flexibility are among COV’s priorities for the commission.  Stokes has both.

“Tobin is able to write in numerous styles and traditions,” says Barber. “The work is in a tonal, 21st Century idiom and requires some degree of allusion to the music of Iraq.”

Stokes, who was composer-in-residence for the Victoria Symphony from 2005 to 2008, had his first full-length chamber opera, Vinedressers, produced at the Belfry Theatre in Victoria in 2001. Another opera, Nootka, based on early encounters between the First Nations people of Vancouver Island and European explorers, is partly finished. He’s also working on a third, based on the life of Victoria architect Francis Rattenbury.

He hasn’t seen a word of the new libretto yet, so he’s not sure how cross-cultural his music will be.  “I want to be true to Raffo’s setting, and to my own voice,” says Stokes, who believes vocal lines should follow the words and never “interfere” with them. “But I’ve been trying to open my vocabulary to the longer lines and the ornamentation in Middle Eastern music.

“There will probably be around ten characters.” he adds, “Four in the chorus and five or six leads. One plan is to design the chorus roles so that we could incorporate veterans into the opera.”

Barber says, “It will be written in such a way as to make it possible for vets to be deeply and individually involved. If we get it right, it will serve both the professional agenda of our company and the human agenda of Annenberg.”