Early Years and Demo Tapes

Steven Page, the son of teacher Victor Page and Joanne Simmons, and Ed Robertson, the youngest of five children born to Earl Robertson and his wife Wilma Shannon, met while attending Churchill Heights Public School in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough and became friends at Scarborough Music Camp, where they were both counselors. Page first performed in a group named Scary Movie Breakfast with high school friend Geoff Pounsett. Robertson was a Rush fan who honed his stage skills with a teenage rock band that was variously named Rude Awakening, Three Guys From Barrie and The Rage.

They debuted as Barenaked Ladies (a gag name they came up with while attending a Bob Dylan concert) at a food-bank benefit at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square in 1988. During their first year of live shows, they mixed original material with songs by Talking Heads, Madonna and the Proclaimers while becoming known for their quick wit, comic stage presence and fun-loving innocence. “I think we certainly felt a little bit naïve trying to burst onto the Toronto club scene,” Robertson would later say. “So I think rather than try and get hip fast we kind of celebrated our naivete and said, ‘Okay, we don’t live down here, we just drove down here from Scarborough in our moms’ cars,’ and kind of celebrated that fact rather than try and get hip fast.”

In 1989, Page and Robertson released their first demo tape, Buck Naked. After touring nationally with Seán Cullen’s comedy troupe Corky and The Juice Pigs, Page and Robertson enlisted multi-instrumentalist Jim Creeggan and his keyboard-playing brother, Andrew, whom they had met at music camp. Together the four-piece released the cassette tape, Barenaked Lunch (1990).

Barenaked Ladies EP, aka The Yellow Tape (1991)

A five-piece lineup of BNL came together in 1991 with the addition of drummer Tyler Stewart, who became a fan of the band after seeing them perform at a buskers’ festival. “It was like these guys were part of a circus,” he later said, “because they totally had the same ethic: entertain every second you’re in front of people.” In March 1991, Robertson, Page, Stewart and Jim Creeggan performed “Be My Yoko Ono” in the Speakers’ Corner public-access video booth at the MuchMusic building in downtown Toronto. The clip, which aired on MuchMusic and CityTV, became popular and helped grow the band’s fan based. As Ed Robertson told CBC Music in 2013, “We went in and said, ‘Hi, we’re Barenaked Ladies, we can't afford to make a video, so here we go’… I remember the floor director contacted Steve and I, and said ‘You guys are the first ones to use this as a blatant marketing device’… And they played the crap out of it.”

In 1991, the Barenaked Ladies released a self-titled, five-track cassette EP — also called The Yellow Tape due to its bright yellow cover — which featured early fan favourites “Brian Wilson,” “Be My Yoko Ono” and “If I Had $1,000,000.” The songs earned national airplay, beginning with heavy support from Brampton modern-rock station CFNY-FM, whose Discovery-to-Disk grant program awarded the band $100,000 to record a full album.

A showcase at New York’s New Music Seminar in July 1991 generated US label interest, and after the City of Toronto banned the group from a city-sponsored concert on the grounds that some might find its name offensive, BNL manager Nigel Best parlayed the controversy into maximum publicity. “At the time we were just told we couldn't be on the bill,” Robertson said in 2013, “so we just played in Hamilton instead. I thought it was a non-issue, but then we got a call from the Toronto Sun, and it ran third page. Then the Toronto Star called and it ran front page. We went from selling 400 indie cassettes a week to 14,000 cassettes overnight.” The cassette became the first independent release to be certified platinumin Canada for sales of more than 100,000 copies.

Also in 1991, BNL contributed a cover of Bruce Cockburn’s “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” to the tribute album Kick at the Darkness (1991). Their version was a radio hit in Canada and its video went into high rotation on MuchMusic, eventually earning the band two 1992 MuchMusic Video Awards: the VideoFACT Award and People’s Choice: Best Group.

Gordon (1992)

In April 1992, BNL signed (on the front steps of Scarborough City Hall) a world-wide deal with New York-based Sire Records. Gordon (1992), produced in Toronto by Michael Phillip-Wojewoda, was released in July. It spent eight weeks at number one on the Canadian albums chart, sold more than 500,000 copies in its first year of release and yielded four hit singles: “Enid,” “What A Good Boy” and new versions of “If I Had $1000000” and “Brian Wilson.” The album’s commercial impact in the United States was more modest — it was certified gold there in August 1998 — though critics were quick to champion the band; the New York Times’ Jon Pareles wrote, “it’s not easy being hyperactive, brooding and whimsical all at once, but the Barenaked Ladies do just that, balancing breezy melodies with unsentimental songwriting.” In 2013, LA Weekly’s Andy Hermann wrote, “Amidst the clenched-jaw rock singers of the day, Gordon was a breath of fresh air: a harmony-rich, mostly acoustic, wildly inventive goof of a record.”

The BNL received four Juno Award nominations in 1993: Canadian Entertainer of the Year, Single of the Year (“Enid”), Album of the Year (Gordon), and Group of the Year, which they won. By 2000, Gordon achieved a rare diamond certification in Canada for sales of more than 1 million copies. In 2015, CBC Music named “Brian Wilson” one of the 50 Best Songs of the 1990s, and in 2017 Gordon was named one of the 25 Best Canadian Debut Albums by CBC Music.

Maybe You Should Drive (1994) and Born on a Pirate Ship (1996)

Gordon was a tough act to follow. The more introspective Maybe You Should Drive (1994), produced by k.d. lang collaborator Ben Mink, was met with something of a public backlash at home. Both it and Born on a Pirate Ship (1995) sold relatively poorly despite the solid airplay given “Jane” and “Shoe Box,” their respective lead singles. The group’s popularity as a live attraction was undiminished, however, and the concert recording Rock Spectacle (1996) surprisingly earned gold-level sales (500,000 units) in the US. “The Old Apartment,” with a music video directed by Beverly Hills 90210 actor and BNL fan Jason Priestley, became the band’s first US Top 40 single.

Following the release of Maybe You Should Drive, Andrew Creeggan left the band to pursue further education in music and was replaced by Kevin Hearn. In 1994, BNL were nominated for Canadian Entertainer of the Year at the Juno Awards, and in 1995 they were nominated for Group of the Year.

Stunt (1998)

Seemingly out of left field, Stunt (1998) became a Top 10 album in the US on the heels of the No. 1 Billboard single “One Week.” A publicity blitz secured slots for the band to perform on such high-profile American programs as The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Saturday Night Live. Stunt sold 4 million copies in North America, and BNL played to their biggest-ever audiences while performing with Blues Traveler and Ben Harper on the US HORDE festival tour. Jason Priestley directed the “rockumentary” Barenaked In America, which features cameos by talk-show hosts Conan O’Brien and Jon Stewart. A second single, “It’s All Been Done,” also reached the US Top 20.

Stunt peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart on 25 July 1998 and the single “One Week” was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group, as well as Billboard Music Awards for Best Clip (Alternative/Modern Rock) and Maximum Vision Award. In 2007, “One Week” was ranked No. 72 on VH1’s list of the 100 Greatest Songs of the 90s. At the 1999 Juno Awards, the band took home three awards: Best Pop Album (Stunt), Best Group and Best Single (“One Week”).

However, the success of Stunt, and particularly the pop culture potpourri of “One Week,” only served to harden the opinions of some that BNL were more of a novelty act than a serious band. As Popmatters’ Mike Joseph wrote in 2006, “The success of Barenaked Ladies’ breakthrough 1998 album, Stunt, stuck them with a tag that they’ve been working since to get rid of – that of a joke band.” Andy Hermann of LA Weekly echoed the sentiment in 2013, noting that “Barenaked Ladies are one of those '90s bands that, like Spin Doctors and Hootie & the Blowfish, inspire a kind of overzealous hatred that seems totally out of proportion to whatever musical crimes they may have committed.”

Maroon (2000)

Missing from the band’s line-up following the Stunt recording sessions was keyboardist Kevin Hearn, who was diagnosed with leukemia and spent two years in a successful battle against cancer. He was replaced for touring purposes by Chris Brown, formerly of the Toronto group Bourbon Tabernacle Choir. Hearn was back for Maroon (2000), helmed by superstar American producer Don Was (Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, The Rolling Stones).

While it didn’t match the success of Stunt, Maroon was certified platinum in both the US and Canada, and included such popular singles as “Pinch Me,” “Too Little Too Late” and “Falling for the First Time.” The album reached No. 5 on the Billboard 200 chart and “Pinch Me” was nominated for a Grammy for Best Performance by a Duo or Group in 1999. In 2001, BNL won three Juno Awards: Best Pop Album (Maroon), Best Album (Maroon) and Best Group. They also released the compilation album Disc One: All Their Greatest Hits (1991–2001), which was certified double platinum in Canada in August 2002. Also that year, BNL performed at the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah, and hosted the Juno Awards in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Everything to Everyone (2003)

After taking a break from touring in 2002 and much of 2003, BNL released their sixth full-length album, Everything to Everyone (2003). The album includes more politically focused lyrics and produced two notable singles: “Celebrity” and “Another Postcard.” The latter track peaked at No. 82 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and was included in the 2008 animated film Space Chimp.

The band’s festive spirit, which first emerged when Robertson wrote “Green Christmas” for the How The Grinch Stole Christmas soundtrack in 2000, continued with the Christmas album Barenaked For The Holidays (2004), recorded at Page’s studio, Fresh Baked Woods, north of Toronto. The album, which includes collaborations with Michael Bublé and Sarah McLachlan, was certified gold in Canada and peaked at No. 64 on the Billboard 200 chart.

BNL were nominated for Group of the Year and Pop Album of the year (Everything to Everyone) at the 2004 Juno Awards. The Barenaked Truth, a documentary on the band,was nominated for Music DVD of the Year at the 2005 Juno Awards, and in 2006 they were nominated for Group of the Year.

Barenaked Ladies are Me (2006) and Barenaked Ladies are Men (2007)

The Barenaked Ladies’ seventh studio album, Barenaked Ladies are Me, was released independently in September 2006 after the band decided not to re-sign with major label Reprise. Barenaked Ladies are Me, which features guitarist Kim Mitchell on the closing track, “Wind It Up,” received lukewarm reviews. Rolling Stone called it “dad rock” and “a snoozer,” while Popmatters was more favourable, calling it “simple, melodic, slightly quirky pop-rock.” The 13-track album reached No. 17 on the Billboard 200 chart and No. 7 on the Billboard Canadian Albums chart. It was followed in February 2007 by the 16-track companion album, Barenaked Ladies are Men. All the songs on both records were recorded during the same sessions in late-2005 and early-2006.

"The Big Bang Theory Theme"

In 2007, during a BNL concert in Los Angeles, Robertson improvised a song about cosmological theory inspired by scientist Simon Singh’s book Big Bang. Television producers and BNL fans Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady were in attendance that night and later phoned Robertson to ask if he would write the theme song for their new CBS sitcom, The Big Bang Theory. A full-length version of the song, entitled “The Big Bang Theory Theme” was recorded in 2007 and released as a single in 2010.

In 2015, Page sued Robertson over “The Big Bang Theory Theme,” claiming that he was owed 20 per cent of the song’s total profits, which was estimated to be more than $1 million. The case was postponed the following year.

Snacktime (2008)

BNL released a children’s album, Snacktime (2008), which reached No. 10 on the Billboard Canadian Albums chart and No. 61 on the Billboard 200 chart. “The Canadian Snacktime Trilogy I: Snacktime” (a reference to the Gordon Lightfoot song “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”) includes The Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie, Rush’s Geddy Lee, Lightfoot and others telling listeners about their favourite snack items. Snacktime won a Juno Award for Children’s Album of the Year in 2009.

Steven Page’s Departure

While October 2008 marked the twentieth anniversary of the first BNL performance, that year was an unsteady one for the band. In July, Page, who divorced from his wife in 2007, was arrested for cocaine possession with his girlfriend in Fayetteville, New York. The charges were dropped in 2009 after Page agreed to undergo substance abuse treatment and to stay clean for six months. In August 2008, Robertson crashed his plane north of Bancroft, Ontario. Robertson and his three passengers were uninjured.

In February 2009, Steven Page left BNL by “mutual agreement.” Robertson later told CBC Music, “[Parting ways with Page] was a scary change to undertake, but once we took it, everything started falling into place and moving in the right direction. It was a move a long time in the works but everyone was afraid to make it. I’m glad we did though.” For his part, Page told The Canadian Press in 2010 that, “although I was sad and so on when we split... I've never had a day where I thought: ‘I wish I was still in the band’… I wouldn't ever be averse to getting together to do a few songs or a show together one time, or something like that, especially if there was a cause we all believed in. That would be great. But I'm not looking to be a full-time member again.”

However, Page also expressed displeasure at the band’s decision to continue under the same name, and took issue with “You Run Away,” the lead single off the band’s first album without him, which he saw as a thinly-veiled personal attack against him.

Steven Page Solo Career

Page released his first solo album, a collaboration with co-writer Stephen Duffy called The Vanity Project, in 2005. After his departure from BNL, Page embarked on a permanent solo career and in 2010 collaborated with the Art of Time Ensemble for an album of cover songs entitled A Singer Must Die, after the Leonard Cohen song. Also in 2010, Page released the solo album Page One, which reached No. 6 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Albums chart.

In 2011, Page released the single “A Different Sort of Solitude,” which was recorded for the Canadian film French Immersion. The song received a Genie Award nomination for Best Original Song in 2012.

Page’s third solo album of original material, Heal Thyself Pt. 1: Instinct, was released in 2016. Exclaim! magazine gave the record a rating of 9/10 and called Page “in peak form, traversing the space between self-healing and artistic creation.”

2010 to Present

In 2010, BNL performed at the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver and released All in Good Time, their first album without Page, which peaked at No. 3 on Billboard’s Canadian Albums chart and No. 23 on the Billboard 200 chart. The next year, the band released a compilation album, Hits from Yesterday & the Day Before (2011), which includes “The Big Bang Theory Theme” and the band’s singles from 1997 to 2010. They released another compilation album, Stop Us If You’ve Heard This One Before (2012), which includes rare recordings from 1992 to 2003.

In February 2013, BNL participated in the “first space-to-earth musical collaboration” with Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, aboard the International Space Station, and the Toronto high school choir, Wexford Gleeks. Together they performed a song commissioned by the CBC and the Canadian Space Agency, “I.S.S. (Is Somebody Singing).”

Also that year, BNL released their tenth studio album, Grinning Streak (2013). The album peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard 200 chart and No. 12 on the Billboard Canadian Albums chart. In 2014, they released the EP The Long Weekend, which features acoustic and live versions of songs from Grinning Streak.

In 2015, BNL released Silverball, which reached No. 3 on Billboard’s Canadian Albums chart. While touring the album, the band played a show at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado, which was recorded and released as BNL Rocks Red Rocks (2016) the following year.

In 2017, BNL released two albums: Ladies and Gentlemen: Barenaked Ladies and Persuasions,and Fake Nudes. The former is a collaboration between BNL and the New York a cappella group The Persuasions and includes reworked versions of BNL’s songs. Fake Nudes, the band’s twelfth studio album of original material, includes collaborations with Jim Cuddy of Blue Rodeo, Alan Doyle of Great Big Sea and Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq.

During the 2018 Juno Awards, the Barenaked Ladies lineup of Ed Robertson, Steven Page, Jim Creeggan, Kevin Hearn and Tyler Stewart was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. It was the first time Page had appeared with the band since leaving the group and it was billed as a “one-time special appearance.”

Ships and Dip Cruises

The Barenaked Ladies have headlined a series of popular music festivals and fan events aboard cruise ships, organized by Sixthman Festivals at Sea and called Ships and Dip or The Rock Boat. The first Ships and Dip event was held 15 to 17 January 2007 aboard a Carnival Cruise from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, through the Caribbean. It featured live performances from BNL and supporting acts and meet-and-greet events with fans. The second event, called Ships and Dip III, was held 27 January to 1 February 2008 and included Great Big Sea. The third event, called Ships and Dip V, was held 1 to 6 February 2009 and featured some returning acts as well as Sarah McLachlan. The fourth event, called Ships and Dip 4, was held aboard a Norwegian Cruise Line voyage from Miami, Florida, from 6 to 11 February 2011. It was the first cruise without Steven Page.

The event continued under the moniker The Rock Boat, held 24 to 28 January 2015 from Miami to Cozumel, Mexico. The lineup included BNL and 20 other bands including Michael Franti and Spearhead. The Rock Boat XVIII, held 30 January to 4 February 2018 from New Orleans, Louisiana to Cozumel, featured BNL with such opening acts as Alan Doyle, Elliott Brood and Choir! Choir! Choir!.

Solo projects

In addition to Page’s solo work, numerous members of BNL have participated in a variety of side projects. Tyler Stewart’s band, Don’t Talk Dance, featuring Bourbon Tabernacle Choir’s Chris Brown and Big Sugar’s Gordie Johnson, released a self-titled album in 1995. Jim Creeggan contributed to Sarah McLachlan’s Surfacing (1997), and has recorded four albums with his brother Andy and Ian McLauchlan as The Brothers Creeggan.

Kevin Hearn was a member of Toronto’s The Look People, which released four albums before they broke up in 1993. Hearn has released three solo albums: Mothball Mint (1997), Cloud Maintenance (2011) and Days in Frames (2014). His group Kevin Hearn and Thin Buckle have released four albums: H-Wing (2001), Night Light (2004), The Miracle Mile (2006) and Havana Winter (2009). H-Wing was named after the wing in Princess Margaret Hospital where Hearn stayed while battling Leukemia and where he began to write the album. Hearn is also a member of The Cousins, a duo with his cousin, actor and comedian Harland Williams. The pair have released two albums, The Love Song Years (2004) and Rattlesnake Love (2017).Hearn joined the Rheostatics for their album Music Inspired by the Group of Seven (1995). Although the band broke up in 2007, Hearn joined the Rheostatics for reunion shows in 2015 and 2016.

Awards

Juno Awards

  • Group of the Year (1993)
  • Best Single (“One Week”) (1999)
  • Best Pop Album (Stunt) (1999)
  • Best Group (1999, 2001)
  • Best Pop Album (Maroon) (2001)
  • Best Album (Maroon) (2001)
  • Children’s Album of the Year (Snacktime!) (2009)
  • Canadian Music Hall of Fame (2018)

MuchMusic Video Awards

  • VideoFACT Award (“Lovers in a Dangerous Time”) (1992)
  • People’s Choice: Best Group (1992, 1993)
  • Best Canadian Band Interactive Press Kit (Maybe You Should Drive) (1995)

Billboard Music Awards

  • Best Clip (Alternative/Modern Rock) (“One Week”) (1998)
  • Maximum Vision Award (“One Week”) (1998)