I had never met JR DiGS, but had heard rumblings of his existence. I was always really impressed by his annual Acoustic Christmas event that involved many local artists getting together to raise money for charity. I sat down with him to learn more about the event and his wily self.
Do you consider yourself an artist?
Absolutely not. And if I asked my mom, she would agree that I’m not at all an artist. But I suppose everybody has got a little bit of art in them and [an idea of] how they want to express it. I write songs that I don’t play for anybody and I showed you a poster that I made. So, I suppose that’s art too.
I don’t draw, and that’s what people would most think makes an artist. But what makes an artist now is a pretty big place. Is Britney Spears an artist? Hell, you can even be a pizza artist now.
An aspiring artist — that’s what I am still. You have artists, and then you have aspiring art- ists. I am the latter. And still aspiring. I’m going to get there one these days, I promise. By the 14th annual Acoustic Christmas concert, I’m going to officially be an artist. That’s my goal.
Well, that means you’ve got seven years. You told me an interesting story about the original Acoustic Christmas where you wanted to do something decent and pick up a guitar…
Well, I was pretending to want to be someone decent. The truth is, I was in a conversation about seven years ago around this time, and I was talking to somebody from City Kidz about how their donations were down and how difficult it was, and how it was getting harder and harder. And I seemed to care. And I seemed to be interested in what they were talking about. The truth is, I was just trying to figure out where the bar was and how the rest of my night was going to unfold. I walked away feeling like I am that guy who acts like they care. Sometimes in life you have to not just seem to be interested. Just do it. It’s as simple as that.
I realized if I just went and found a stage to stand on at Christmas, learned to play a couple of chords, told a couple of stories and put a hat out, and seven people showed up and each threw in a toonie, that would be $14 I could give to City Kids and then I could stop pretending like I cared about that conversation. So, I asked Brodie at the Casbah if he had a stage available. The 23rd was the only night available, so I took it. The next night I ran into Tom Wilson, who’s a buddy of mine. I was telling him that I was going to do this, and I asked him if he could teach me how to play a G chord and maybe a C chord so maybe I could actually perform. He said, “Well, why don’t I just come and perform with you and we can do it together?” I said that would be great.
Next thing I know, Mike Trebilcock from The Killjoys and Tomi Swick and a whole bunch of other people joined in and we turned it into a concert that sold out. We raised a bunch more money than I expected to.
Then the next year we did it again and it got even bigger. I put a little effort into it, probably made a poster or something. And it sold out again. And all of a sudden it was like, “This is a thing!” And then the next year I had gotten to know Max Kerman from the Arkells a little bit better. (It’s all just friends of mine — nobody’s really been a part of this that I don’t know personally. It’s just that kind of gathering. I know most of the people who show up every year now.)
So he, being Max Kerman, joined in. And he was brilliant and he brought another dynamic to the show. And all of a sudden it had turned into this really cool bunch of people, where Max Kerman is Hamilton’s favourite son, and Tom Wilson is the grandfather of Hamilton rock ’n’ roll, and I am the weird uncle in this family who has the ability to call everybody and make sure we get together and throw a party.
Is there any Christmas element to it? Is it Christmas music?
Absolutely! I dress up as an elf, or in an old Christmas sweater. I encourage all the bands to play a Christmas song and they usually do. And I always have a bad rendition of Silent Night that the crowd loves. But it’s a holiday show. I don’t know if it’s so much a Christmas show as just this great gathering of friends and family every year kicking off their holiday season.
So where is it this year?
Last year it was at The Casbah it sold out within a couple days. All of a sudden, these people who’d been coming every year were contacting me wondering how they could get tickets. It became clear that it wasn’t right to exclude people who had been coming for years just because they didn’t see my tweet one night that tickets were going on sale. So, Brodie and I decided that we needed to move the concert to a bigger venue. We went to the Bay City Music Hall where we could sell an extra 200 tickets, so that’s where it’s going to be this year. We’re looking forward to turning the venue into a winter wonderland. David Murkovich helps me out and we do this incredible set design and we’ve always turned the Casbah into something amazing and festive like it’s never been before. It’s just like throwing a party — everybody that throws a party at their house wants to do stuff that makes people happy and makes them remember the party. That’s what we’ve been doing every year.
Who is going to be performing?
As remarkable as it is, the lineup just keeps getting better and better and this Christmas, joining Tom Wilson, Max Kerman and me are Colin and John Angus of the Trews as well as the Dinner Belles, Elliott Brood and Terra Lightfoot. I will be tweeting from @jrdigs about any other last minute lineup additions and folks can go to jrdigs.com to find out about the forty tickets we hold back every year and release in the days before the concert.
What are you going to do with the money you raise this year?
Well, I can tell you that in past years I’ve given the money — always for personal reasons — to different charities. Ronald McDonald House was one my family used when my brother had cancer when he was little and my mom stayed at Ronald McDonald house in Toronto. So that was important to my family and it was great to give back to them. Someone close to me passed away at the Carpenter Hospice last year so I wanted to give back to that beautiful place.
This year, we’re going to be giving some money to the Ladybird Animal Sanctuary. I love what they’re doing — it’s a foundation organized by musicians, so there’s something great about that.
And we have a special plan for some of the other money that people will find out about soon enough and we hope will be something that inspires people this Christmas. We hope there’s a ripple effect that fits in with what’s happening in Hamilton now with people trying new and interesting things. We’re definitely going to be giving back to the community.
How much are tickets?
We kept tickets at $40. People have said that we should raise ticket prices, but it’s not a rich person concert. It’s just a bunch of us getting together and having a party. Sure, we want to raise money but we also do not want to exclude anybody. It’s not that kind of party. And even $40 for some people is a lot. So, I will not go beyond that price for tickets — we’re just going to find other ways to raise money through sponsors or donations. Some of the artists sign guitars that we raffle off.
Can I ask you some random questions now?
Okay. There’s a zombie apocalypse. Where in Hamilton do you go for safety?
I would definitely spend time on a boat in the harbour. Zombies have a tough time swimming with that dragging leg of theirs. It would give me lots of time to think about rebuilding Hamilton but this time starting from the waterfront. Too bad it’s going to take a Zombie apocalypse to finally get our waterfront looking as amazing as it should.
If you were stranded on an island and could only bring three animals, what would you bring?
I would take my dog, Emma, for sure, because she’s my best friend and life would not be the same without her. Then, I’m going to take a big eagle because it’s just awesome if you can train an eagle to sit on your shoulder. I love people in posters that look all rough and disheveled but have a strong, big eagle on their shoulder — just in case I need to make a poster. I would look cool. And I would probably take a mouse, because the eagle at some point is going to think I’m a jerk if I don’t feed it.
You’re going to take it one mouse?
Well, you said I could only take three! I’m going to hang out with my dog every day. I’m not going to train the eagle to sit on my shoulder all the time — he’ll hunt for me and stuff. But I’ll always have the mouse to be like, “I’ll feed you.” But I’ll never actually feed the mouse to the eagle. It’ll be the carrot to keep the eagle my friend. And I’ll get close to the mouse as well, so it’ll be hard the day I actually do have to feed my pet mouse to the eagle. But that’s life. Sometimes you’ve got to feed the mouse to the eagle.
What is your guilty pleasure?
I probably have lots of them and I can’t remember any of them, but the most recent one is binging on the show Nashville. I love it. And then I talk to my mom about what happened because I’m four seasons behind and she loves it. I’m super into country music right now, so that’s also a guilty pleasure of mine. I just moved to the country.
Have you been eating a lot of peaches?
Peaches? No. Why, do people in the country eat a lot of peaches?
Don’t you remember the song? *sings* “Movin’ to the country, gonna eat a lot of peaches …”
Oh! By The Presidents of The United States of America! Those peaches are not really free though, right? Nothing ever is.
If you could have any career in the world that isn’t what you’re doing right now, what would it be?
Well, the entire time I had my so-called career in Canadian television I always wished I was doing something else. I think I always wished I was a rock star, which is why I hang out with all these musicians — I secretly want to be them. I think I would like to be a record producer. I’m too old now to be Justin Bieber, who’s very cute. I’m still cute — at least I have good hair. I want people to understand that. If you meet me in person, you’ll understand I have the best hair. For almost 13 years I had the best hair on Canadian television. Not to have too much moxie here, but if you can tweet me and tell me one person who has better hair…
Mark Furukawa (who was sitting down the bar from us): Justin Trudeau. He has better hair.
No. Justin Trudeau does not have as good hair as me. Give me a break — there’s no way Justin Trudeau’s hair is as good as mine. Good, but not even close. Be sincere. Can you think of anyone who has better hair? Let’s even make it in Hamilton, because this is for urbanicity Magazine.
*takes hat off to show off hair*
Do you want to touch it? Do you want to hold it?
*Mark touches hair.*
Mark: It is pretty soft and full. I take it back — Justin Trudeau’s got nothing on you.
Yeah! So can you think of anyone in Hamilton who has better hair than me?
Mark: No one in this room, for sure. (There were four of us in the room)
(Writer’s note: His hair is actually fabulous.)