Performing in arenas for tens of thousands of fans doesn't phase Steven Page, lead singer/guitarist for Barenaked Ladies. But playing alone in front of a few hundred people - armed with only an acoustic guitar - he feels, well, naked.
"It's much more nerve wracking for me," Page said last week in a phone interview from his Toronto-area home. "I'm much more ostentatious and showy in a big place. Singing is a fairly intimate thing, and in a small venue you feel modest - it's like they're seeing you naked."
Page promises to be clothed when he appears at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Tower Records in Mountain View, though his free show will be stripped down. It will be just Page and his guitar.
This will be Page's only Bay Area stop on a record store and radio show tour to promote his side project. Known as The Vanity Project, Page collaborated with English musician Stephen Duffy on 11 of the 12 pop songs comprising the self-titled album.
While Page's work with Barenaked Ladies is well known - the Canadian band has sold more than 12 million records - mainstream music fans may not be familiar with Duffy. The closest he came to having a hit in the U.S. was "Kiss Me" in 1985. Duffy is probably more famous for being an original member of Duran Duran (leaving before the band hit it big) and writing/producing for Robbie Williams, one of the biggest acts in the U.K.
"Stephen was my hero as a teenager and my all-time favorite songwriter and musician," Page, 35, said. "It was my dream to make a record with him one day."
At 15, Page wrote Duffy a letter of admiration. Duffy wrote back. Before long, a friendship formed and Page visited Duffy in London.
"I'm not a good salesman; I don't know how it happened," Page said. "There must have been something in the letters I wrote that was worth responding to."
Working with Duffy on The Vanity Project "was very natural," according to Page.
"As friends, we have so much in common; we have a lot of the same interests - books, music," Page said. "We're buddies."
One thing they disagreed on: calling it The Vanity Project.
"It was a joke name that I put up on the wall of the studio," Page said. "I tried a bunch of names and always came back to it. But Stephen didn't like it."
Duffy thought the name was too lighthearted, akin to Barenaked Ladies or Scary Movie Breakfast, the band Page and Ed Robertson formed as teens before starting BNL in 1988.
"But I had to be honest about being myself," Page said. "And a lot of the record is about vanity, especially the personal songs."
The album was released in June, the first offering from Flagship Recordings. Page's friend Marc Nathan, who helped BNL land its first U.S. record deal, founded the independent label.
The Vanity Project disc was a long time in the making, with a few of the songs dating back to 1999. Page said the bulk of it was recorded in 2002 in a country-farmhouse-turned-studio outside of Toronto. The recording sessions were moved there after Page's home studio, located in his basement, flooded.
"I lost a few crappy keyboards," he said, "but luckily, I didn't lose any of the music."
Page and Duffy played most the music on the album, with BNL's Kevin Hearn and Page's brother Matthew also pitching in.
Some of the songs are reminiscent of BNL - which has churned out quirky pop hits like "Pinch Me," "One Week" and "Brian Wilson" - but The Vanity Project also delves into politics and lost love. Page lists "That's All, That's All," the first single, as his favorite song on the record.
"It's the most simple," he said of the love song. "I'm most proud of the lyrics; it's evocative."
The next single is the more up-tempo "Wilted Rose," which Page recently shot a video for.
Page hasn't scheduled a concert tour for The Vanity Project, preferring to wait and see if the album sales warrant it.
"If there's an appetite for it, I'd definitely consider it late in the year," he said.
So far, the reaction has been favorable. A recent show at a Chicago record shop drew nearly 500 people, with Page surmising, "the die-hard fans are anxious to see me in an intimate setting."
On Tuesday in Mountain View Page plans to play a 30-40 minute set, a mix of Vanity Project songs and BNL favorites.
The next day he's off to Portland, then Seattle. After an East Coast swing, Page returns home to start work on BNL's eighth studio album, due out next year.
Another BNL tour is almost sure to follow, allowing Page to return to the comfortable confines of the major venues - where he doesn't feel so naked.
"On the big stage," he said, "you only see the first five rows."
Tower is at 630 San Antonio Road. For more information on the show, call 941-7900. For more on The Vanity Project, visit www.vanity-project.com.