Canadian Chris Hadfield is a decorated astronaut and former military pilot, but Barenaked Ladies frontman Ed Robertson says there’s another accolade that needs to be added to his sparkling resume.
In addition to everything else, Hadfield is an impressive songwriter.
“He’s just a very high-functioning individual,” laughed Robertson in a recent telephone interview. “It’s the only way I can describe him.”
The two hooked up to co-write “I.S.S. (Is Somebody Singing?),” which will be trilled by students across the country as part of Music Monday this May, an initiative in this case meant to raise awareness of music education and the space program simultaneously.
Though they seem an unlikely duo, Hadfield and Robertson have been acquainted for over a decade, ever since the astronaut invited Robertson and the rest of the Barenaked Ladies to visit NASA’s Mission Control during a tour stop in Houston.
They hit it off and kept in touch over the years, so Robertson jumped at the chance to collaborate on “I.S.S.” At first, Robertson penned a verse and asked Hadfield to contribute some specific scientific information for a second verse — he wanted to incorporate some technical stuff, like speed and weights and the number of his command module.
He figured Hadfield would simply send him an assortment of numbers that he could use to pen more lyrics.
“Instead, he created a really poetic, laced-with-technical-info second verse,” Robertson recalled. “I was like: ‘Dude, you’re the astronaut. I’m supposed to be the songwriter.’ But it was an awesome surprise.”
Robertson was also pleasantly taken aback by Hadfield’s ability to gently sing in a higher octave, even claiming that the 53-year-old Sarnia, Ont., native has a little Gordon Lightfoot in his voice.
Hadfield recorded his guitar and vocal takes while aboard the International Space Station, and it was important to the duo that they incorporate some ambient noise from that environment — the rhythmic blip of morse code, for instance.
In fact, it was actually difficult to avoid including some degree of background noise.
“It’s noisy as hell on the space station,” Robertson said. “The background noise is huge. Just the ambience, the noise of fans and generators and stuff on the station make a heck of a lot of noise.”
Robertson’s enthusiasm for the project is clear. He’s long had a deep interest in space, and that — along with shared interests in music and aviation — is another thing he and Hadfield have in common.
“I’m a total science geek. I always have been,” said Robertson, a licensed pilot. “I’m an amateur astronomer. I have always had an interest in the night sky, in space, in science. It’s always been fascinating to me.
“I think we hit it off as pilots and science enthusiasts as much as we did musicians.”
(Between this collaboration and his writing “The Big Bang Theory”‘s scientifically detailed theme song, Robertson figures his science-geek bona fides are rock-solid. “I contend that is the most scientifically accurate television theme song since ‘The Brady Bunch,’ which is technically, absolutely factual.”)
And as much as Robertson was overjoyed at the prospect of collaborating with an active astronaut, the issue of music education is also close to his heart.
The music program at the east Toronto high-school he attended was crucial in his development.
“I wouldn’t be where I am without public school music education,” he said. “I think fundamentals are important, but I really think there needs to be four Rs: reading, writing, arithmetic and rhythm. You gotta use that other part of your brain. Studies show that kids who study music and art do better in math and science.
“And for me, and I know a lot of people, that’s the only reason we went to school, whether it was band or choir or the hockey team. It’s the extra-curricular stuff at school … that’s the reason you suffer through all the other crap.”
And Robertson hopes the song might inspire similar experiments melding music with science.
“It’s a natural, easy collaboration,” he said. “I think science and music share a sense of wonder, and a sense of reaching and striving for something. And I think there’s an awful lot of parallels between the two that could be further explored.”
On the web: cbcmusic.ca/space