Notes from the Road
by Catherine MacLellan
This past September, I had the opportunity to be part of Music PEI’s Artist Exchange program. Founded last year between Music PEI and the English Folk Dance and Song Society, the program arranges for a British songwriter to travel to the Island to work on songwriting with a local musician. I was the local and Mr Sam Carter of London was the UK part.
When I agreed to this, it was a decision mixed with fear, interest and curiosity. As the time drew nearer, I wondered if Sam and I would even like each other, let alone be able to write together! How do two absolute strangers bond quick enough to trust each other in the vulnerable space of songwriting? I shoved my fears aside and went to pick Sam up in Charlottetown.
I always like a challenge, and I love pushing myself in places where I don’t necessarily feel at home. Co-writing is one of those places. Both Sam and I seem to be people who let inspiration come to us, we don’t go tracking it down. In a situation like this, though, you really can’t wait for it to find you.
The first day was spent mostly talking about ideas and visions for what we could do. Sam had also dug up a traditional song about leaving England for the new world and ending up in Cape Breton (When First I Came To Caledonia.) We arranged that and suddenly had one song we could sing together. That was basically day one.
Before I went to bed that night, I started digging through old Island stories on Dutch Thompson’s website, islandvoices.ca. This was an idea John Connolly had given me, as there are hundreds of interviews from Islanders about the old days, before electricity and tractors. It is so amazing to think how fast the world has changed in the last 100 years.
I took notes, but didn’t really draw specifically from any one interview in particular. The next morning I woke up with all of that in mind and wrote the first line of a song: “It’s all changed, it’s all changed. How the river runs to the sea, how the rains fall on me, it’s all changed, it’s all changed.”
I put on the coffee, picked up Sam again (who was now staying at The Dunk with the lovely Hal Mills) and we got to work. It’s amazing how with just one little idea a whole song can take shape. It was slow and steady on this second day, but we finished this song and we also got to know each other’s techniques and strengths.
We had just one more day and a goal of finishing another song together. Sam and I both liked the idea of keeping on the path of the old days, but the next song became more of a made up story of a guy who leaves the Island to find work and comes back years later in search of the love he left behind.
I found the most interesting thing about writing with Sam is that we both would never have written these songs on our own, they are quite different from what either of us would write solo. Also, by the third day we were really rolling and I wonder how many songs could have been born with just a few more days.
We toured around the Maritimes singing these and our own songs and in the fall of 2013 I’ll return to England to meet up with Sam again to tour a bit of England (and perhaps to write more songs as well). These few days were a great chance for me to focus purely on the craft of songwriting. The artist exchange is a wonderful project and I hope it can continue well into the future.