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When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Toronto-based musician Nick Durocher figured it was best to head home to Ottawa and stay with his folks, waiting out the global health crisis in the west-end suburb where he grew up and nurtured a teenager’s dream: “Be a rock star.”
At 25, it definitely wasn’t Plan A to return to his old basement bedroom in Stittsville. He’d been taking a serious run at a music career in Canada’s largest city — assembling a solid band behind his lead vocals, writing songs for a planned EP, building a network of backers in the industry and prepping for an anticipated string of live shows at venues in and around the GTA.
Durocher had also invented a glittery, flamboyant stage persona — TALK — and honed a muscular vocal style equally suited to hard-driving guitar bangers and softer, atmospheric ballads.
A former bass player in a country band, he was once stuck in the shadows plucking notes and singing backup in a flannel shirt. It turns out the big guy’s got serious frontman pipes and a powerful stage presence.
But COVID came and Durocher was suddenly eastbound on the 401, hitching a ride back to where he’d endured some earlier up-and-down years in the nation’s capital searching for his place in the music business.
“I had a friend who works in banking or something, and he said, ‘Everything is going shut down — if you’re getting out of the city, get out now,’ ” Durocher recalls of the rush out of Toronto. “That night, I literally went home, packed a bag and hopped in the car with a buddy who was also leaving. I got back to my parents’ place and spent a whole lot of time in that bedroom over the next six months.”
Though he felt a crushing sense of pandemic isolation and inertia — “I was very frustrated,” he says — Durocher worked odd jobs as a sound engineer while trying to make the best of things musically, back in the basement where he’d begun composing tunes as a teen: “I decided I was going to use this opportunity to write as many great songs as I can.”
And one night when he couldn’t sleep, something like magic happened.
An odd lyric got into Durocher’s head — “run away to Mars” — and he began voicing a simple melody that seemed to click. He recorded the refrain on his iPhone.
“I was, like, ‘Oh, that’s really good . . . This could be something,’ ” he remembers thinking. “You kind of get a feeling. And I started playing guitar on the corner of the bed.”
Inspired by scenes from one of his favourite movies, the dystopian 2014 adventure flick Interstellar, he worked out the chorus of a space-themed song infused with the same kind of spooky, lonely, vulnerable vibe as David Bowie’s Space Oddity or Rocketman by Elton John, one of Durocher’s musical idols.
What if I run away to Mars?
Would you find me in the stars?
Would you miss me in the end
If I run out of oxygen
When I run away to Mars?
Connor Riddell, a close friend from Durocher’s high school days and the man he describes as the “guitar god” now at the heart of his band, grew up a few streets away in Stittsville. The two got together in the basement of Riddell’s parents’ house to record a demo of Run Away to Mars, which Durocher says was “pretty close” to the more polished, professionally produced version of the song finally released in June 2021.
What happened next will probably become a textbook lesson on how to create a hit song in the age of social media. After a decent public reception in its first few months garnered Run Away to Mars about 400,000 streams worldwide, Durocher and another Stittsville buddy — Drew Yorke-Slater, the band’s marketing manager and digital strategist — decided to give the tune a second serious push this summer via TikTok, a full year after the initial release.
“I never really felt like the song got the chance that it deserved,” says Durocher. “I was really confident, just based off the feedback I was getting from people that are close to me, people I share stuff with. I think it didn’t get in front of enough people to kind of snowball, that first time.”
Snippets of TALK belting out the chorus began attracting thousands of likes and shares, then tens of thousands. Within a few months, Run Away to Mars had surpassed 30 million total streams on Spotify, iTunes and other services, hitting No. 1 on the viral chart — the key measure of a song’s surging popularity — in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, South Africa, Ireland and, in late August, the all-important U.S. market.
“As soon as it went viral again — like viral in a bigger way — I felt very validated,” says Durocher. “I feel at peace, like this should have happened the first time.”
The song’s evocative, charmingly low-budget video has helped the cause. It features TALK in a 1950s-style spacesuit, helmet and visor — sometimes drifting through space, sometimes strumming his guitar on the edge of a lake, sometimes shown on an old TV situated in a soccer stadium, then on Mars, or maybe an asteroid.
It makes no sense, but no matter; it works as an eerie, campy visual backdrop to a hauntingly beautiful ballad.
Durocher has been interviewed recently by several U.S. music publications and radio station DJs. And the band has been pushing TikTok and Instagram posts about two newer songs that showcase TALK’s stadium-worthy rocker’s voice — Train and Hollywood — even as Run Away to Mars continues to rake in glowing reviews.
Canadian music critic Alan Cross gave a recent one, urging audiences in TALK’s home country to make Mars a priority listen: “Even though this is only his debut single,” Cross wrote, “he’s already achieved significant attention in the U.S., having scored the #1 most-added song to American alt-rock radio a couple of weeks back. And no wonder. The chorus for this one is killer.”
Meanwhile, Durocher/TALK has moved to Hollywood with the band, signed a deal with industry giant Capitol Records to produce a full-length album and launch a tour, and had the thrill of hearing his emotion-drenched cover version of The Fray’s How to Save a Life played on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
Finally, just a few weeks ago, TALK landed an Oct. 13 gig at the Troubadour, the legendary Sunset Boulevard nightclub where generations of singer-songwriters have been launched to stardom and Sir Elton famously performed his first U.S. show in 1970.
There’s a line in Run Away to Mars in which Durocher — not his glitzy alter ego, it seems, but the young dreamer spinning his wheels in Stittsville during a COVID lockdown — sings: “I skip stones and wonder/How long ’til I’m discovered . . .”
He can stop wondering now.
Weirdly, I wrote about Nick 22 years ago, when he was five. In October 2000, I was a Citizen reporter walking across the pre-amalgamation city for a series of stories exploring how residents of what was then the region of Ottawa-Carleton felt about merging into a single “mega-city.”
Nick’s mother and father — teacher Cindy Beauchamp and corporate video producer Sandy Durocher — had been lobbying Goulbourn Township council for traffic calming measures on their once-quiet street in Stittsville. Hockey fans had figured out they could cut through the village to avoid Queensway chaos on their way to Ottawa Senators games at the nearby Corel Centre.
Nick’s parents and his 11-year-old brother Benjamin were concerned that impulsive little Nick might get hurt crossing John Street to get to his friend Sean’s place, or just playing out front near the road. A video showed Ben with an arm around his little brother, pleading with Goulbourn councillors to block off the end of the street before amalgamation kicked in on Jan. 1, 2001, when the family would be forced to restart their long battle with the new City of Ottawa.
“I have a younger brother named Nicholas,” Ben says in the video. “I get worried about him when we go outside to play in our front yard. I’m worried he’ll run for a ball and get hit by a car before I can stop him.”
Adventurous, headstrong. Easily distracted, a bit hard to predict. Nick showed early signs of the restless, impetuous, fun-loving rock ’n’ roller he was destined to become.
He begged his parents (successfully) for a drum kit and lessons before he was six. Piano, guitar and banjo lessons would follow.
For a long time, though, hockey seriously competed for his time. He was a star goaltender with the Stittsville Stallions, playing until the end of high school.
“I just loved hockey,” says Durocher, on the phone from his new place in Los Angeles during a day off between recording sessions for the album.
“There were a lot of times when I didn’t get along with people at school,” he says. “There was bullying and stuff in my childhood, and hockey was different. Everyone was friends. I think it was a really important social part of my life.”
He was even featured in an Ottawa Sun story in 2008 for a precocious act of kindness. Nick — who posted five shutouts en route to a Pee Wee division championship at the prestigious Bell Capital Cup that year — made a point of giving one of his player-of-the-game trophies to a diminutive teammate who was never in the limelight.
“Mike played really hard so I thought he should have it,” Nick told a Sun scribe in a story headlined “Goalie’s a real MVP.” “He wrote me a thank-you letter which was better than the trophy anyways.”
Brother Ben, as it happens, became a theatre star at the Canterbury arts high school in Ottawa before embarking on a successful career in New York as a Broadway actor, puppeteer and puppet maker with shows such as Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock and Avenue Q.
Mom and Dad say they always knew Ben was bound for the stage and a spotlight.
“With Nick, it was never quite so clear-cut,” says Beauchamp. “Now I wonder how long he’d wanted to be a singer-songwriter.”
By his late teenage years, hockey and music “were kind of colliding” for Nick, recalls Sandy Durocher. “He was playing in the country band at that point.”
The idea that music could become the focus of his life took a while to solidify.
When he was about 15, Nick was strumming his guitar in the hallway at school and got some encouragement he still remembers.
“I had a teacher in Grade 10 at South Carleton High School named Jennifer Britton, who kind of pushed me,” he recalls. “She’s like, ‘Can you sing?’ And I was, like, ‘Probably, I don’t know.’ I knew I could sing. But I wasn’t singing for people, right? And she’s like, ‘What are you doing? You need to do this, you need to sing!’ Yeah. And so, I did. I did the whole glee club thing.”
By 16, he remembers, “I was always: ‘Be a rock star.’ I remember lying awake and thinking about that. But I kept it under wraps.”
Nick joined the school’s competition choir, Storm Surge, run by Britton. Then there were some coffee shop acoustic shows along Main Street in Stittsville, a few local gigs with a short-lived rock band called the Rogues that Nick formed later in high school.
At a regional “Battle of the Bands” competition, Nick met Riddell and the two became best friends — and eventually musical collaborators.
That partnership led Durocher to a promising run as the bass player alongside Riddell’s lead guitar in a country act that toured Ontario in the mid-2010s, playing Boots & Hearts, Bluesfest, the Havelock Jamboree and some other noteworthy events.
But that scene and those tunes weren’t really firing Durocher’s musical passions.
“Playing the same four notes over and over again, I get really bored — I guess my brain travels a little bit,” he says of his time backing Carleton Place native Jordan McIntosh, a Canadian Country Music Association “Rising Star” award nominee in 2015.
“So, I made a lot of mistakes . . . I got let go.”
The experience overall was a good one, though, says Durocher. He learned a lot about the business. He acquired a taste for performing in front of big crowds. He even got to play the role of a cheating boyfriend in the video for McIntosh’s 2014 single That Girl — holding his head in his hands, flashing a pained look of regret, his heart breaking inside (yep) a flannel shirt.
For a while, Durocher believed that those few years on the country music circuit had brought him to the end of his journey as a professional musician.
His LinkedIn page — untouched for years now, but still up on the web — declared a new direction in his life: “I decided to part ways with music as a profession and focus all my energy on growing businesses through social media and e-commerce stores.”
With companies like global giant Shopify re-energizing the city’s high-tech economy, it seemed like a sensible move for a young Ottawa man. A lot of people in their twenties were thinking the same thing at the time.
“Once I finished playing in that country band, I thought that was the furthest I would get. I was, like, ‘Oh, well, I’ve been playing festivals. This was my shot, and it’s gone now.’ Right? That’s what I’ll tell all my friends about: ‘Those were the good times . . .’ That was the only time I really questioned it, like, ‘Well, I made it all the way here and I couldn’t do anything with it. So it must not be meant to be.’ ”
But life with a “regular job” — he remembers trying his hand at online retail, then a stint working at Best Buy — was drudgery for Durocher. And the lure of music was still strong.
He took another round of guitar lessons, this time with Dan Hay of the well-known, local folk-rock band Amos The Transparent, who had previously taught Riddell.
Durocher says he realized then that he was never going to master guitar-playing enough to become a serious pro: “Honestly, I wasn’t really good at guitar. My hands are too big. I’ve got big fingers, big hands,” he says. “I wasn’t meant to be a lead guitar player. I was meant to find Connor to do that for me.”
But those sessions with Hay got him thinking more seriously about his singing and songwriting. Hay connected Durocher to another Amos The Transparent band member, Jonathan Chandler, who shared his knowledge about crafting songs. “That ended with Jon being one of my first mentors — like, real mentors — in terms of writing,” says Durocher.
Soon afterwards, he settled in Toronto and re-connected with Riddell. They began working on songs together. And as a plan to form their own band started taking shape, they drew in mutual friend Carter Peak — formerly the drummer in McIntosh’s band — and Waylon Glintz, a bass player from Niagara.
The pandemic stalled their momentum, but the success of Run Away to Mars has changed everything for TALK and his bandmates.
Meanwhile, Durocher’s parents are bursting with pride. In an interview at their home on a quiet crescent in Stittsville, it’s clear they’re still trying to comprehend their son’s skyrocketing fortunes.
“It’s so different from when I grew up,” Sandy says of TALK’s digital rise to stardom. “You know, hits would be on the radio, and you’d end up buying a record . . .”
Beauchamp recalls the couple’s bewilderment when they travelled to Toronto to see TALK and his band perform their first live show last December at the Garrison club, six months before Run Away to Mars would explode in global popularity.
“It was surprising to us when Nick decided to become a frontman,” she says. “He was a bass player, right?”
Then they heard the warmup band and got worried the opening act would upstage the headliners: “We looked at each other and said, wow, they’re really good. Oh, my God.”
When TALK hit the stage, they stopped worrying.
“I didn’t realize — holy sh*t — the singing, the persona, the way he carried himself, the way he moved his shoulders, the way he carried his guitar,” recalls Beauchamp. “The whole thing was, like — how did that happen? When did that happen?”
TALK was still flying under the radar when he played a small show in Ottawa in April. But in July, the band performed at Quebec City’s annual summer music festival before a crowd of 70,000.
Durocher thinks the frenzied reaction they got from a legion of new fans in Quebec, just when he and Yorke-Slater were launching their TikTok campaign, ignited Run Away to Mars as a viral sensation.
“It really came from that big show in Quebec,” he says. “That’s where it all started.”
There’s a TikTok post from late July that captures the dream-come-true elation of the moment: Durocher collapsing in tears in front of Toronto’s Eaton Centre as a towering digital image of TALK — Spotify’s featured artist of the day — flashes on the mall’s massive outdoor screen.
Run Away to Mars plays over the video and a line of text appears: “This song has done so much for me.”
“It was the one thing I’d always wanted,” Durocher says, explaining that for years he’d imagined seeing himself on a billboard. Then it actually happened.
“It was just a big release of emotions,” he recalls. “All my friends were there. My girlfriend was there. It was just very overwhelming.”
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