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Arkells front man Max Kerman on the healing power of music: 'We always try to lend a hand'

For Arkells' front man Max Kerman, writing a song is a lot like therapy: he digs deep to feel a moment of pure honesty — and then releases it into the world. 

Kerman joins the Sickboy podcast to talk about the emotional impact of songwriting and connecting with fans

Canadian musician Max Kerman sits on a chair wearing a tie-dye set and his hands are up with peace signs.
Max Kerman is the unstoppable front man of the party-starting rock band Arkells. (Submitted by Max Kerman)

For Arkells' front man Max Kerman, writing a song is a lot like therapy: he digs deep to feel a moment of pure honesty — and then releases it into the world. 

This week, he joined the Sickboy podcast and talked about the impact of songwriting on people's lives, and the powerful connections that can be formed with fans through music.

He shared some touching stories of fans who have reached out to the band during times of grief and challenge — and how the band has been able to be a source of support and community for them.

"We really try our best, that's sort of like the public service part of the band that I think we all take pretty seriously," Kerman said.

Here is part of that conversation between Kerman and Sickboy's three co-hosts — Taylor MacGillivary, Jeremie Saunders and Brian Stever.

Brian Stever: I'm curious to dive right into it with you. How does music aid you in sort of navigating your emotional spectrum?

Max Kerman: You know, it's funny. This is not the answer you want, but for me, you sometimes need a little bit of relief. And I find podcasts are actually that relief for me. Don't get me wrong. Music is a huge part of my life and I've leaned on music in all kinds of ways — and I do lean on it during difficult times. But I will say — and I have a podcast with a couple of friends called The Best Hang — and I think of that warm, familiar voice that offers a little bit of levity that you hear in your favorite podcast as something that is truly comforting.

But anyway — sorry — to answer your question though... I've had lots of walks home from the bar when you're in that sort of contemplative state and I was actually — I'm not going to lie — literally a week ago, I [was] thinking about my life and what I want to do next and I was listening to the song When I Closed My Eyes by Joel Plaskett. It's such a beautiful song. And I was walking through Trinity Bellwoods Park and I was just having a cry to myself and it was a beautiful moment. Not in a hysterical kind of way, not in a like, you're out of your mind wasted — I'm not talking about that. I'm just talking about that sort of perfect sweet spot where you're in your feels in truly a profound way. And so yeah, there's lots of songs like that. And the song that always gets me is The Book of Love — the Peter Gabriel version. 

Stever: I love that because, like, I'm a huge proponent of going to therapy and I find that therapy always gets me to that space where I'm feeling all the feels and feeling that, like, just having that deep emotional cry. But the only other experience that I can compare to that is listening to music and just allowing myself to really fully feel the feelings that I'm feeling in those moments and it's so therapeutic.

Kerman: Yeah, I like getting contemplative. Those kinds of tears, those ones that are not a sadness, but they're like out of gratitude. I get them a lot thinking about my family. You know, you just think about how lucky you are to have your parents and your siblings there. And thinking about your parents' sacrifice and thinking of your parents as real people who have struggled through their own problems. And any time that's sort of like depicted in movies or in television, that just destroys me. Immediately.

Stever: Max, obviously, you write amazing songs that people listen to and experience some of these same sorts of experiences that we're talking about. And I'm wondering: do people reach out to you and share these types of profound experiences that they're having? And like, how does that affect you when you hear that?

Kerman: Mmhmm, yeah. Well, a couple of things. 

First, back to your therapy point. I'm going to therapy, and I always feel that moment of sort of, like pure sort of honesty. It always makes you want to pick up the phone and call a bunch of people. And just because it feels so at ease and raw in a great way. So I encourage that, if anybody is looking for some kind of release, it's really been helpful for me. 

And to your question, I mean, it's kind of a two-step process because there's the writing of the song. I've been writing a lot lately and that in itself is very therapeutic. And when you're in the right zone, it really is just kind of you and the words and you're trying to figure out the puzzle of what the song with the shape of the thing will look like. And when you land on a lyric or something that you're quite proud of, like I landed on something last night at one in the morning, I'm like, 'Oh, thank God.' And I listened to it again this morning and I was like, 'Oh, that's actually making me emotional.' At times we can be a little detached from it because there's so much of an entrepreneurial, like business side of the band and like a promotional side of it. But at the heart of it, it starts from that very pure feeling. And I think if in order for me to want to show an idea to the rest of the guys in the band, it needs to kind of pass that, 'Is it really punching me in the gut?' test. 

The second part of it is, you put it out and the greatest gift of all is just finding out where these songs land in people's lives. And we get so many DMs and emails, just people sharing their stories with us…. It's like, it could be something as sort of fun as, 'I listened to Knocking At The Door before I wrote my med school exam and it pumped me up,' and then there's really sweet, romantic songs like Quitting You for instance, or And Then Some. We get about ten emails every Monday morning in the summer from fans being like, 'Here's our first dance and here's your song that we danced to,' which is amazing to be a part of someone's day in that way. And then we get lots of emails from people that are going through rehab or have just lost a loved one — and our music was the soundtrack to that. So like, yeah, and that's just the most humbling thing ever, right? Just knowing that this thing that we made in earnest, in a very sort of solemn place, is landing somewhere completely different.

A sea of people hold up lights as a small group of people holding instruments walk out into the crowd.
Thousands of Arkells fans packed Tim Hortons Field for the long-awaited return of the Hamilton band in June 2022. The show, which was originally set for June 2020 before the pandemic hit, followed the success of the 2018 inaugural edition of The Rally. Kerman said the show felt like "Christmas." (Eva Salinas/CBC)

Jeremie Saunders: Do you remember one of the very first times that you got that kind of feedback that you were like, 'Oh, shit. What we're doing is touching people, like this is crazy?'

Kerman: Oh God, my memory is so bad. There's been many of these sorts of instances.

There's a nurse who was having a hard time during the pandemic and she was overworked and she just lost her mother and she had to drive from, I think, GTA to Ottawa and she listened to our song Making Due like, the whole trip. And you're like, 'Oh my God.' That was the song that kind of propelled her to get home. 

Recently we had our videographer, Corey, who's been with us for a very long time. He lost a childhood friend of his, and she was in the hospital and she wanted to be married before she passed. And so she got all dolled up and she looked beautiful. She put on a wedding dress, and she and her husband danced to Quitting You. I don't know if they did it outside the hospital or if they were able to go home for the day. And the photos were just incredible. And then they ended up making our Ottawa show, which happened in November. And they danced to Quitting You … we set them up [on the] side stage. And we just found out that she passed away a couple weeks ago. But yeah, I mean, that's shit. That is like just seeing if I can cry, just thinking about it. 

But yeah … we had really adorable moms or dads reach out going like, 'My kid is going through a really hard time, suffers from depression. Could you send just a video note, or can we arrange a little meet and greet before a show?' And we really try our best, that's sort of like the public service part of the band that I think we all take pretty seriously. 

You know, my mom's a high school teacher and my dad's a social worker. Like, all the people that I respect in life are helpers. Like, I kind of roll my eyes at most other jobs, you know? But yeah, the people that are on the front lines, nurses, community workers, it's like those are the people [who you] are like, 'Oh my God, you just live every day in service of other people.' So if we can be helpful in that way, we always try to lend a hand because there is a bit of duty, I think, we've found. We didn't go into the job thinking that this would be like a public service kind of job but there is a part of what we do that totally feels like that sometimes.

We always try to lend a hand because there is a bit of duty, I think, we've found. We didn't go into the job thinking that this would be like a public service kind of job but there is a part of what we do that totally feels like that sometimes.- Max Kerman, Arkells front man

Taylor MacGillivary: I imagine that when you're sitting down and you're writing and you're drawing upon whatever it is you call upon, past experiences, emotions, whatever it is that sort of fuels the writing process... What is that feeling like to put something out there and then to realize, 'Holy shit, this is something that so many people — something that felt so deeply personal — is also resonating with thousands and thousands of other people out there'?

Kerman: Yeah, it's funny. 

You're trying to do this thing as a songwriter, generally speaking. Like the art form of it is like 'What is a thing that a lot of people can relate to, but how are you talking about it in a very specific way?' That's always kind of the goal, whether you're talking about love or triumph or sadness or anything, but you sort of try to identify details.

We have a song that came out last year called Strong. It's about a friend of ours that went to McMaster University. Her name is Dr. Barbara Tatham and her story is incredible. She [was a] beautiful young woman and she was about to go to Africa — I forget, I want to say Tanzania — to open medical clinics there. And then she got word that there was a cancerous issue on her head. And then that sort of started the journey for the next, I want to say a year and a half. I'm getting some of these details sort of wrong. But she went to McMaster with me and she had to sort of, you know, really think about what her life was going to be like because this was a terminal illness. We had a lot of mutual friends and then we reconnected kind of in her final summer and she was having a great time. She was traveling a lot. She was going to lots of concerts. She bought the season's pass for Budweiser Stage. And I just had these amazing memories of just looking at this person who's, like, lost all of her hair but still radiant and beautiful and smiling and sort of leading the charge. 

She was a true leader, right? Like if you're a family doctor and you're a person who's, like, picking up and going across the ocean to try to help other people, you're that kind of person. Yeah. And she has three younger sisters that I've come to know really well now. And her boyfriend at the time and her family. And so I wrote about that experience. So the song is called Strong and it was just sort of identifying … how do we get through this thing together? You know, just thinking about how painful it would be for her parents to have to see her, their daughter, pass and her sisters and they're a really close knit bunch. And it was the most profoundly sad thing anybody can experience. And you wouldn't wish that upon anyone, of course, but just seeing the way they were able to manage all of it, it was just incredible. It was the most beautiful show of strength and dignity and grace and generosity.

So anyway, we put out that song and it's kind of like a pretty sad piano ballad. And it's been nice to see people connect with it. If you look in the YouTube comments, you see a lot of people going, 'I know Barbara,' or, 'I knew Barbara and this is a great depiction of her,' or 'This song reminds me of somebody who just passed.' And so to be able to provide a bit of that soundtrack for other people that, as you say, everyone goes through some version of this at some point of their life, to be able to provide a soundtrack for that … it's a very humbling thing. 

Stever: In terms of your relationship with that experience, I think a lot about the comparisons to therapy, like sitting with a moment or an experience and like meditating on it and trying to work through what that experience means to you. I'm curious what sort of parallels there are between the writing process, specifically when you're like writing about a moment like that, and your experiences with therapy. 

Kerman: Yeah, well, actually one of the things that's been great for me lately with therapy, is just writing things out, just having a chance to get it off. That's one thing that Cherise has encouraged me to do, which is like, you know, 'Journalling is helpful.' 

She was like, you know … 'You could try writing a song about it.' And sometimes people like songwriters are just better communicating that way. And at first, I was like, I really rolled my eyes about it. I'm like, 'Cherise, I'm not going to write a fucking song. That's my job. Can we keep this about therapy for a second?' But then now there's like so many — I kind of came around to the idea and like, every night there's a new song. And it's been really great for me. 

I feel like a lot of life in general is just about, just sort of feeling useful and feeling like you did something. I feel like that just helps my sort of contentment or like my happiness index, which is just, 'Did I do something about it?' And there's a lot of situations where it's like, you can't do anything about it, right? Whether that's in a breakup or in sickness or whatever, but it's like, how can you cope? How can you deal with it? And so for me, writing has been helpful. Writing imaginary letters has been helpful. Writing songs has been helpful, like just getting it out there. Because when it's all inside, it's just like there's a pressure in your system that doesn't need to be there if there's another outlet for it.

17-year-old Kaitlin Coghlin of Brantford Ont. got to meet members of the band Arkells ahead of their show in Hamilton in June 2018. The meeting came after they reached out to the teen who a few months ago needed some emotional support. (Nicole Callander)

Saunders: Over the years, can you recall any legitimate relationships that you've built with fans... Where there's like real life connections that you create with fans that kind of build over the span of the career, and they sort of just are always kind of like in the back of your mind or there's just something there that makes like a relationship tangible outside of 'We're the band, you're the fan,' and that's sort of where it ends?

Kerman: Yeah, I feel like that's our entire career. It's like not being this sort of on a pedestal rock and roll band. Like the guys in the band are just so — and then myself included — so normal. And we also know how it's all made so nothing seems glamorous to us. It's like, 'Oh, like we know how much schlepping around it takes to kind of get the thing off the ground.' And even when it looks like things are going amazingly, it's actually probably not going as amazingly as you think behind the curtain, you know. It's like we just know how hard it is. And we love it, like we're so grateful for the job, but for that reason, we try our best to give everybody time and we have lots of stories of friends we've made along the way that continue to come out to shows.

There's this couple in Columbus that saw us in 2010, [when we] opened for Tokyo Police Club in this little basement bar, and we text, we still are in touch and they've since moved to Florida and they're super nice. I remember when they came to see us at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas the next year, and we pulled up in a van and we're like hauling our amps onto the stage … and then Maria was just like — at the end, we did like four shows in two days and then they had to kind of get going — and she like stuck like $300 in my shirt pocket, just [saying] 'And make sure you boys eat okay.' 

Saunders, MacGillivary and Stever: Awww. 

Five men pose for a photo while smiling.
Eight-time JUNO Award-winning rock group Arkells received the 2022 Allan Slaight Music Impact Honour. (Canada's Walk of Fame)

Kerman: But I mean … we've been lucky enough to help with lots of proposals. There was a couple on stage [in] Ottawa. This fella Fabian wanted to propose to his boyfriend during My Heart's Always Yours. I was like, 'I'm gonna get you up on stage, and we should just do it on stage.' And they were amazing and totally surprised — the boyfriend — because I was like, 'We need somebody to get the mood right, we need some dancers,' like that was sort of like the conceit. And then he proposed and it was just an amazing moment.

We're always kind of looking for moments of delight. That's kind of like my job, it's just looking around like, 'What are fun ways to feel connected with other people?' And we're lucky that we've had a lot of them.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mehek Mazhar

Journalist

Mehek Mazhar is an associate producer with CBC Radio Digital and CBC Podcasts in Toronto. She writes action-packed stories, from the urgent to the utterly strange. She has also worked with CBC Radio's As It Happens and The Current. Mehek is originally from Hamilton, Ont. You can reach her at mehek.mazhar@cbc.ca

This Q&A was edited for length & clarity.

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