Despite what the lyrics on last year’s Sing It All Away might suggest, life couldn’t be more wonderful for Walk Off the Earth, which started as a YouTube sensation and has since proven itself to be much more.
This past spring the Burlington, Ontario–born quintet waltzed away from the 2016 Juno Awards with group-of-the-year honours. That win was at least partly traceable to Sing It All Away. A hook-heavy, unabashedly anthemic triumph, the record cemented Walk Off the Earth’s status as equals of folk-pop heavy hitters like Of Monsters and Men, the Head and the Heart, and Mumford & Sons.
What’s surprising is that, by conventional thinking, the group’s 15 minutes should have been up a half-hour after its 2012 viral-video hit of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know”. (Currently sitting at 6.5 million views, the proudly DIY clip famously has all five members of the band playing the song on a single guitar.) But the story hasn’t ended there. Instead, to listen to the critically lauded Sing It All Away is to marvel not only at Walk Off the Earth’s ability to mix and match genres at will, but also at how its sole reason for existing seems to be to inspire.
One of Walk Off the Earth’s great tricks is the way that the band can take a downbeat line like “You’ve seen the darkest skies I know,” from “Home We’ll Go”, and then turn it into something wonderfully bright-eyed and life-affirming. That, says singer and multi-instrumentalist Sarah Blackwood, is completely intentional.
“One of the biggest struggles human beings go through is trying to find positivity in life everyday,” the Toronto-based frontwoman says, speaking from Nashville, where she’s on a songwriting retreat with a couple of friends. “And that’s what we write songs about. We write songs about breaking through the negative space and finding the positive space in whatever situation you happen to be in. Some of the lyrics are dark, because we’re struggling with things every day. No matter how rich or poor you are, no matter what country you live in or what situation you’re in in a relationship, people are always struggling with something, whether it’s big or small.”
Blackwood knows about the importance of staying positive while waiting for something better to come along. Before Walk Off the Earth, she was playing with Toronto psychobilly stalwarts Creepshow, starting out as a replacement for her sister, who was pregnant, and eventually becoming a full-time member of the group circa 2008. Looking back on that period, she has no regrets, but admits that she was on a different wavelength than her bandmates when it came to ambition. She found a kindred soul in a musician and multi-instrumentalist named Gianni Nicassio, who today is not only her bandmate in Walk Off the Earth, but also her partner in raising two small children.
“I finished my time with Creepshow because I wanted to move on and do more,” Blackwood says. “I really wanted Creepshow to write a Tragic Kingdom [No Doubt’s breakthrough] and become a huge, successful pop band. That’s the goal. I don’t care what anyone says as a musician—their ultimate goal is to do that. Otherwise, it gets to the point where you’re doing the grind, and it gets exhausting. If you don’t get on top of things, you’ll be stuck on the same plateau for the rest of your career, until you have to stop doing music, and then start doing some job you don’t like.
“When I saw what Gianni was doing with Walk Off the Earth,” she continues, “I really knew it was something that was going to be bigger than what I was doing with Creepshow, or at least be on the right path. So I jumped in and was like, ‘Hey man, I wanna be involved. I wanna be in your videos. Let’s do something really cool.’ I was done with the eight months of van tours and sleeping on people’s floors with Creepshow. I wanted something more. And I knew that Walk Off the Earth had the potential to explode.”
That explosion occurred, first with the Gotye cover, and then through a follow-up viral video that had Walk Off the Earth performing Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble” a cappella with accompaniment by beatboxer KRNFX. The early danger was that Walk Off the Earth was going to be known only for its cleverly executed covers, as it tackled works by artists as varied as Wiz Khalifa, LMFAO, and Adele. But counterbalancing whatever worries that caused was the fact that Blackwood’s music career took off without her having to spend countless hours in a tour van.
“We worked our asses off—we shot a whole bunch of videos, and started gaining a pretty decent following on YouTube,” she relates. “We were having so much fun while gaining a bigger audience than we ever would have touring. One video kind of resonated with everyone, and that was it.”
Except, of course, that wasn’t it. As Walk Off the Earth piled up its YouTube views, record labels began doggedly pursuing the group, and Sony eventually signed it to a deal. With 2013’s hastily assembled R.E.V.O., Blackwood and her multi-instrumentalist bandmates—Ryan Marshall, Mike Taylor, and Joel Cassady—proved equally adept at writing originals, which soon went gold in the U.S.
“It was funny,” Blackwood says, “because in the indie world that I was from, people were like, ‘You’re going to be known as a cover band, and that’s a stupid idea.’ That wasn’t the point. It was more that if you do a song that everyone in the world loves, and do it in a way that everyone in the world is going to love, everyone in the world is going to watch and share it. And then you can show them everything else that you’re capable of doing.”
Blackwood and her bandmates were careful to take their time with a follow-up. Making the record stronger, she suggests, were the months the band spent touring and gelling as a live act for R.E.V.O. If anything, Walk Off the Earth ended up even more self-assured on Sing It All Away, pretty much mastering whatever style it chose to tackle. “Boomerang” updates Peter Gabriel prog-pop for the Spotify generation, “We Got Love” gives golden Americana an injection of ’70s jazz, and “Home We’ll Go” dives headfirst into the EDM pool with Steve Aoki onboard.
Binding the songs together are all-hands-on-deck choruses that make it impossible to resist the urge to sing along. And to feel down, no matter how dark the lyrics might be.
More than anything, Blackwood suggests, she and her bandmates are looking for assurance that they aren’t alone during the bad times. So when she sings “Life is hard and the living’s rough” in the sun-splashed “I’ll Be Waiting”, it’s important to keep in mind that the next line is “These are the times when you gotta stand up.”
“Generalizing those struggles, putting them into words in a song, you can really inspire people,” Blackwood says. “That’s what music is—something that’s really meant to connect people. To let them know what they’re going through has happened to other people, and that they are going to get through it. So, yeah, a lot of lyrics are things like ‘Don’t let your head hang low—you’ve seen dark skies. But you’ve got to let your heart go.’ ”
Walk Off the Earth headlines the Richmond World Festival at Minoru Park on Saturday (September 3).