Tim Baker went from music outsider to insider utterly unprepared. As the front man for Hey Rosetta!, the Canadian artist spent less of his youth sneaking into concerts and more of it learning how to breathe from his diaphragm and sing Italian arias. Since then, his band has drawn genre categorizations ranging from grunge to baroque rock to orchestral folk, building on the traditional four-piece setup with piano and strings. If a mature musical upbringing wasn’t enough, Baker matches it with a scholarly penchant for literature and writing, resulting in the band’s latest and most lyrically conceptual album, Seeds. Prior to Hey Rosetta!’s performance Saturday night at Johnny Brenda’s, The Key spoke with Baker about going from college poet to professional musician, the band’s overly romanticized biography, and why he will do his best to keep the word “saw” out of his song lyrics.

The Key: What was your writing experience like as a student?

Tim Baker: I was actually going to study piano performance, but I changed back just before I went to the university. I ended up going to Concordia in Montreal, which has a great creative writing program, so I ended up studying sociology and creative writing there. I’m really glad that I did, actually. I feel like I learned more useful things for what I’m doing now, doing more with creative writing and poetry. It’s more than I would have known doing just musical rules and being at the piano.

TK: Did that literary background influence your songwriting?

TB: I think it definitely did, undeniably. I’m not sure of specific examples, really. It was one of the first forms I had to write for other people to look at and touch it. A lot of people write poems and write prose to themselves, and not in the disciplined way where everybody is going to judge it. At the university, you always write for the other people in the class and everyone would read and critique it. I think that was really helpful to think of readers and have the discipline to write and find that balance between discipline and being open minded and open to receive inspiration, or the words, or whatever it is that happens in that kind of process. I can’t think of specific examples, but I did have one professor who had only one rule in the very first class. He said, “You can’t ever use the word ‘saw’ in a poem. It makes for bad poetry.” And that’s always stuck with me because I thought it was kind of funny, and I have since read certain people’s poems, and he had a point. We also studied a lot of great writing, and that can never fail to have an impact on your own work.

TK: How did you begin playing music and singing? Your recordings sound like you have had proper vocal training for a long time, as opposed to a lot of other musicians.

TB: I guess every kid ends up singing in elementary school choirs stuff. I sang in choirs for years until my voice changed and I was like 14 or 15 or something. We toured North America and overseas and England, and I think that was a fairly strong influence for me. A lot of discipline learned—not just how to sing, but how to work and practice. We used to sing most songs in other languages, and I was this 8-year-old kid, memorizing how to sing different languages. In addition to that, I learned the mechanics of singing and how it worked. I got out of that in junior high school. All the while I was listening to everything everybody was listening to: a lot of Nirvana, a lot of Pearl Jam, a lot of Rage Against The Machine. I started a band, heavily copying off of the successful bands of the day. We didn’t go anywhere, but I remember that very fondly. I was in a serious band in high school. For some reason I never really took the way to sing from my choir days and used it in a band. I just wanted to sing like Kurt Cobain or whatever, so, about three years into this band, we’d be touring and I’d lose my voice all the time, and it was really stressful and I’d be holding everybody up. I started taking lessons and relearning how to sing properly and healthily. So I’ve done a few different things.

TK: Is it more nerve-wracking for you to think about singing in front of a lot of people, or to worry about songwriting and potential writer’s block?

TB: They’re very different anxieties. They act in very different ways. The sort of fear that you’re never going to write anything good again, or as you get old your inspiration dies, that the constant disappointment and you’re always on the road and you never have any time and you’re wasting your potential—it’s sort of like blocks, constant anxieties that only rise to the surface occasionally. But they always gnaw at you. The other thing, the performance, is very acute, it’s very intense. And I don’t really feel it all that much anymore. It doesn’t really have to do with singing. For a long time I found speaking on stage to be the most nerve-wracking thing. Trying to explain, you know, what a song is about or to just say something that isn’t very common or mundane or, “Thanks for coming.” We all see these amazing characters on stage who just seem like they’re from another world and you want to be a part of it. I’m just a regular person, and that doesn’t come very easily to me. I feel like the more you do it the better it gets. We’ve been at it a while now, and I don’t get that scared any more.

TK: Are there any performers you saw when you were younger who seemed to embody that otherworldly stage persona?

TB: I never went to any shows, really, until I was in a band—until I was in this band. We come from a very isolated small place, St John’s, and there’s a scene there but I didn’t know there was until we started trying to get gigs and playing around town. It just wasn’t the world that I lived in. I always feel a little nervous talking about the “scene” in St. John’s. We went directly to playing a few small shows in some venues, always slightly independent from this scene, for no reason other than the fact that we just weren’t a part of it. Not that many people travel to St John’s to perform. You get some real big names—slightly washed up big names, to put it more accurately. I never watched many live DVDs or anything. When I started performing, I didn’t really know what to do. We played in places like New York, LA or Boston, and there are 15-year-old kids coming out, and they’ve seen more than me. They’ve seen way more than me.

TK: Almost every bio about Hey Rosetta! mentions how the concept for the band came after a country-wide road trip. How did that actually happen?

TB: I think that’s sort of fodder for journalists and for bio and stuff. In reality, it was a little more boring than that. I had taken a trip, I did just graduate from university, and my girlfriend, at the time, and I did drive across North America. That was really—it just defined the period, because we didn’t really know what we wanted to do. We had these degrees, you know, these arts degrees, and we had saved money because we both had scholarships and we just wanted to see. After that had happened, I had been writing songs the whole time, and then we went out back home with no money and we had to get shitty jobs and I was always writing and I started performing. Kind of a mundane beginning.

TK: What has the transition been like, going from touring around Canada to the US and other places around the world?

TB: It’s been a blur. I can’t believe how much time has passed. I’m just sitting in a hotel hallway here, and it’s, like, the 500th hotel lobby that I’ve sit in. Think of all that money—oh, God, think of all the soap. Anyway, it’s been amazing; it’s been a steady climb. People ask me, oh, you know, “When did you know that you made it” or something, and that never really occurred, at all. At the beginning we were just playing St John’s and it was a big trek to the mainland, and on that first tour, I hated so many of the people at every venue. And the next tour was bigger, and the next one was bigger than that, and the next one had bigger rooms, and we had gone all across Canada again and again and again and again. And this last one was all big.

TK: Was it an overwhelming difference?

TB: It’s not really startling to us because it’s just been steady. We played Montreal the other night and it was 800 or 900 people, a beautiful theatre, and we had all our production, all our lights, and these canons and leaves shooting into the audience, and it was a beautiful celebration and a dreamed-up production. Then last week we played Burlington, Vermont, and there were maybe 40 people there. It was big room and it was really empty. We were like, “Wait, is this a reality check or is it a not-reality check?” We couldn’t figure it out. It’s just a totally different country, and despite everything, there’s not a whole lot of flow of information across. It’s all separate. I’ve always found both nice. It’s nice to play to a smaller crowd and it’s also nice to come back and have hundreds and hundreds of people singing along and being visibly excited and happy that you’re there.

Hey Rosetta! performs with Ivan & Aloysha and The Powder Keys at 9:15 p.m. Saturday, December 3rd, at Johnny Brenda’s; tickets the 21+ show are $10. —Marielle Mondon