Harperman has changed his tune

By Jacob Hoytema – 

Sitting in his kitchen waiting for his band to show up for practice, “Harperman” singer and Kitchissippi resident Tony Turner says he’s never considered himself to be very political.

“I was the sort of person that never wanted a lawn sign. I was just forced by circumstances to become political,” explains Tony. “I wrote a song because it expressed what I felt… but I wasn’t intending that it go viral and everybody in Canada would be singing along to it.”

Tony had risen to a sort of fame a few weeks before the federal election with his anti-Conservative anthem “Harperman,” which attracted hundreds of thousands of views online. He made headlines again in August when he was suspended from his job at Environment Canada because of an investigation into the possible conflict of interest posed by the song. While the investigation was underway, Tony retired, freeing him up to play the song at rallies around the country.

At the time that he was forced out of his job, Tony had been working on a project to map the migration of songbirds (somewhat appropriately) in Canada’s boreal forests. When he was suspended, his colleagues had to continue the work.

Despite not being able to contribute to the work anymore, Tony says he is proud of how it turned out in his absence.

“I called it like a ‘legacy project,’ something that will live on after I’ve left the government, and I’m confident now that it will,” Tony says, adding that the research will be the “foundation for the future conservation” of Canada’s songbirds.

Along with the songbird research, all the threads of the Harperman saga seem to be coming to an end. The election is over; Tony’s finally had a retirement party with his Environment Canada colleagues. Yet another part of his life is gaining traction: he’s playing (non-political) shows with his band, the Shirt Tearing Boys. Tony hopes fans of Harperman will give his other music a chance.

Ottawa-based singer-songwriter Tony Turner says that he hopes his “Harperman” fame will help fans discover some of his other work.
Ottawa-based singer-songwriter Tony Turner says that he hopes his “Harperman” fame will help fans discover some of his other work. Photo by Jacob Hoytema

“I was a singer-songwriter for twenty years before Harperman came around, so I would really like to be known for my other music. But what Harperman has done, it’s gotten my name out there, I’ve gotten this notoriety,” he says.

He also adds that he prefers not to play “Harperman” now that the election is over. “It doesn’t resonate the same way it did during the election,” he says. “I mean, we really all needed to kind of rally together and that song channeled people’s anger and their frustrations with the government, so I was happy to sing it loud and proud before the election, but after, it’s just kind of a memory now… it doesn’t have the same kind of meaning.”

The Shirt Tearing Boys’ politically-neutral setlist is a mix of several styles: old jazz standards, blues classics, musical theatre hits as well as a few original pieces. Tony says that while the group bobs between different genres, they try to make all of their songs danceable.

Their instrumentation is almost as diverse as their choice in genres. Apart from Tony on acoustic guitar and vocals, the band features a drummer, a violinist, a bassist, a banjo player, a slide guitarist, and a clarinetist who can also play accordion.

Despite their name, the Shirt Tearing Boys also includes two women, one of whom is bassist Ann Downey, who also appears in the Harperman video.

Ann, who has also played with high-profile acts like Sneezy Waters, says she enjoys the light-hearted mood in the group.

“You can tell we have a good time. It’s like a bunch of old friends, we enjoy playing together,” she says.

Indeed, during their practice, the group could hardly go a full song without cracking up at each other’s jokes.

The band just played a show at the Westboro Legion on December 4, and will have more shows coming up in the new year. Notably, Tony will be playing a solo act at the 2016 Ottawa Grassroots festival, where it will be seen if his Harperman fame can translate into interest in his lesser-known work.

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