What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, the saying goes. In the case of Sam Corbett, the cancer that didn’t kill him made him both stronger and vastly more creative as a songwriter, lyricist, and musician. And he has NUTANA, his towering debut solo album, to prove it. Best known as drummer and co-founder of JUNO Award-winning rock bruisers The Sheepdogs, Corbett conceived of the NUTANA project in 2018 while undergoing treatment for testicular cancer. At age 34. While his wife Ashley was pregnant for the first time. Talk about harrowing. And yet NUTANA, named for the neighbourhood in Saskatoon where Corbett grew up, isn’t doom and gloom. Far from it. Rather, the album’s 10 dazzling original songs and two captivating covers—a faithful read of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Cod’ine” and a gender-bending take on Tame Impala’s “’Cause I’m A Man”—hit all the retro, loose-limbed, and melodic notes one expects from a Sheepdog, albeit with lyrics that frequently deliver a wallop. “When I was diagnosed in summer 2018, we had to cancel a couple of shows so I could have surgery,” Corbett says candidly. “I had some follow-up tests, and the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes. I had to back out of a couple of Sheepdogs tours to get the treatment. That was a very hard decision because I’ve been in the band from the beginning in 2004. I’d never not played a Sheepdogs show. “The radiation treatments made me very sick and weak; I couldn’t even play the drums. But I could play the piano, and I started writing a bunch of melodies and songs that later became this album. It’s what I worked on when the guys were on tour, and I was recovering at home. I wrote the lyrics later when we were on tour in Europe.” Recording of NUTANA, the album—which features a marquee roster of guests including Jim Bowskill (Blue Rodeo), Chris Mason (The Deep Dark Woods), Clayton Linthicum (Kacy and Clayton),Shamus Currie (The Sheepdogs, BROS), and former Sheepdogs guitarist Leot Hanson, among others—began in earnest in early 2020. “I was in the studio on a Wednesday and on Thursday the JUNOs that were to have been held in Saskatoon got cancelled because of COVID,” recalls Corbett, who adds drums, percussion, keyboards, and lead vocals. “That’s an indicator of how long I have been working on this. I’m very excited to finally have it come out.” That excitement is destined to spread when Sheepdogs fans and discerning rock lovers catch wind of tracks like jangly, simmering, serpentine album opener “You Belong” which explores the notion of what Corbett calls “imposter syndrome” as a wailing sax elevates the chorus. “I think a lot of successful people wonder, ‘Do I deserve this?’ For me, there always seems to be so many amazing musicians out there,” Corbett allows. “But the song reinforces the idea that I do belong here, and that I do have something to say.” The wildly atmospheric, bass-heavy “Garden” finds Corbett going for a JJ Cale vibe. “That was probably the hardest song to record. At one point it sounded so bad, I was going to scrap it,” he says. “Luckily the guys I had in the studio, Jim and Chris specifically, helped to rescue it.”On the gently countrified, pedal steel-goosed “Stage V,” Corbett confronts his physical ordeal. “It’s a medley of five songs that roughly cover the five stages of grief. Also, for cancer there is no stage V, so what comes after a stage IV diagnosis? I’d like to be able to reach people who’ve also dealt with cancer and hopefully they identify with it.”

“‘That Would Be All’ is about trying to make a deal, in my case maybe to get some more time on this planet. ‘Ave H Blue’ is the street I live on in Saskatoon. When the guys were on tour and I was at home, I didn’t know what to do. That’s when I started writing these songs. So, they are both about treatment. ”Perhaps surprisingly given their conversational feel, the lyrics on NUTANA proved somewhat more challenging. “I didn’t have a ton of experience writing lyrics and I wanted them to be meaningful but not sappy or saccharine. That said, ‘By Your Side’ was about the idea that I might not be alive when my girls were growing up.“When I was first diagnosed, I understood that testicular cancer had a high survival rate. But I didn’t know yet if it had spread throughout my body, so that was weighing heavily on my mind. At the same time, I wanted the songs to have some nuance. A lot of the songwriting I like is open to interpretation and I wanted to create some of that. Sometimes the most personal stuff can also b ethe most universal.”Which may explain why the covers Corbett includes on NUTANA seem very much his own. Though released in 1964 as a defiant anti-drug battle cry, Sainte-Marie’s “Cod’ine” scans here as a thoughtful rumination on a push-pull scenario that could apply to almost anything.“I have always been drawn to the melody of that song,” Corbett says of the hit written by his fellow Saskatchewan native. “We’ve been lucky enough to play with Buffy and she was very gracious. I always wondered what the song would sound like if The Deep Dark Woods covered it. Luckily, I had their former bass player Chris playing on it.” Elsewhere, Corbett upends Tame Impala’s ferociously catchy, 80s-style “’Cause I’m A Man” by having wife Ashley sing tweaked lyrics, resulting in the dreamy, decelerated “He’s a Man” presented here. “Leon Russell is one of my favourite songwriters ever, but his albums also always had very interesting covers. I wanted to do that as well. I thought it would be cool to have the synth part played by pedal steel and to summon a ‘Stand by Your Man’ vibe by having a female singing it. “You don’t have to change the lyrics very much to make it from a woman’s perspective. Plus, I loved it when the Beatles had their wives singing on their solo records. Ashley is also a better singer than Yoko Ono and Linda for sure,” Corbett chuckles. “I think the music will appeal to Sheepdogs fans. It’s maybe a bit softer but still in the same territory of 70s-influenced rock with maybe some folk-rock,” Corbett says.“I hope to get it in people’s ears, because I think they’ll like it, the feedback I’ve gotten so far has been really strong” Corbett says. “I think this record also makes me a better member of The Sheepdogs with extra experience of writing, playing instruments other than drums, and singing lead .It’s also good for the overall image of the band,” he says, perhaps referencing their famed 2011 Rolling Stone magazine cover despite being unsigned at the time. “We look more diverse, and less like some dumb rockers who just got lucky.”




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