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Notes From The Road
by Catherine MacLellan

Through my window I can see the long grass around the trees, scattered pine cones and the long autumn sun falling towards me. The apples are done, as is my garden, and now I wait the for the sound of the tractors to quiet and the beautiful blue herons to fly south.

There may be nothing sweeter than a soft autumn day, with a quiet breeze and hours to contemplate. Normally, at this time of year, I’m running the roads getting some touring done before the snow hits. This fall I’m just quietly waiting for winter, walking the woods behind my house. I should be enjoying this, but it turns out I’m going a little mad. What should I do with all this time? Sure, there are many things I could be doing: taxes, tour planning, preparing for a new record, baking pies, making jam. Instead, I’m twiddling my thumbs, procrastinating and wishing I was on the road.

Soon enough I’ll be heading out to Whitehorse for the first time and then traveling through the interior of BC and parts of Alberta for a tour, but this was the time I had set aside for making a record and I have been struggling with the reality that it is not happening. The business side of my career is winning this battle, other peoples schemes are toppling mine.

Truth be told, this happens just about every time I have made a record. I start into the project and then there is always some roadblock along the way that holds me up for weeks or months. Yet, I never learn the lesson here—everything happens in its own time, it can’t be forced.

To the seasons of the year, I may finally be adapting. Thirty years of spring, summer, winter, fall and spring again - that’s all it took to get used to it, a third of a lifetime. I find less and less I ache at the ending of summer, dread the long Canadian winter or complain about the dirty snow of springtime. The seasons turn so quickly now.

If I can manage seasonal transitions, perhaps someday I will succeed in accepting daily ones or hourly ones. Someday I may even learn to let go of my plans when it is obvious they aren’t going to happen. Will I ever truly learn to accept what is right in front of me? I daydream about things I could do, choices I could make if the circumstances were different. I need to learn how to be here, now, with the reality that is in front of me.

Shifting from a full house to a quiet one is another transition I’m working on. With Isabel in school and all my days free I have been struggling with depression and anxiety. Not so long ago I was complaining about my lack of personal time and freedom, but it is true that the grass is always greener on the other side. Perhaps the best part of my internal suffering aligned with this free time is the amount of songwriting I’ve been doing. With the album on hold for now, I’m filling my pantry with songs for fallow times.

At this time of planning, preparing for the cold winter nights that lay before us, stocking the shelves and harvesting the last of the garden and fields, there is the sense of death and (soon to be) rebirth. As I tuck the garlic into its bed for next year’s harvest, I am reminded of all that nature provides for us and how much I have to be thankful for. It is such a gratifying diversion to have something to plant in the soil when everything else is being wrenched from the earth.

Musician’s Vacation

Notes from the Road
by Catherine MacLellan

Coming home from Grand Manan—Meaghan Blanchard, Catherine MacLellan, Tanya Davis, David Scholten, Dennis Ellsworth, John Connolly.I just got back from a vacation with a bunch of friends. Mind you, it wasn’t supposed to be a vacation, really, but that’s how it turned out. So here is a recipe for the perfect holiday. Start with one musician’s dream to have a folk festival, add a beautiful location (Grand Manan, New Brunswick) with a ton of like-minded, hardworking musicians, throw in a great restaurant with free food, beautiful little cabins to stay up all night in, and the secret ingredient: everyone’s willingness to take a risk and play for free.

It was called the First Annual Island Folk Festival, organized by up and coming songstress Carly Maicher, originally a Manitoban now living in Grand Manan. Carly had this idea that she’d like to throw together an event in her new home, and what started as a seed inside her imagination sprouted into a magical weekend for all those involved.

The trip began for me with a drive with Meaghan Blanchard, Dennis Ellsworth and John Connolly from PEI to the ferry in Blacks Harbour. We started the day early with too much coffee and marched onward past Sussex and their call for hot air balloonists, laughing all the way to the ambiguous ferry line.

It felt like old times on the boat, reminding us of how we Prince Edward Islanders were so dependent on this service to connect us with the mainland. I’m sure most of us remember the meeting and greeting of seldom seen friends and neighbours on the ferry, the slow ride to the other side. Within minutes I spotted an old friend, the incredible Petunia, who taught me how to play French Whist while my fellow Islanders were outside spotting whales.

The ferry announcements guided us back to our vehicles and we were suddenly on the beautiful island of Grand Manan. A few trips past the French-style bakery (with one delicious trip inside) and we found our way to what would become our home base for the weekend, Gallaways Restaurant. We were greeted with our first of many great meals there and then ushered out into the cold and rainy September evening to begin the festival with a PEI song circle. The crowd was small but brave. The night was filled with great music from Carly, Del Barber, and then Petunia, who ended the evening with a steady flow of western swing and rockabilly. We were then led, convoy-style, to our cabin in the woods where we proceeded to play cards and laugh until the sun was almost shining.

The rest of our musician team showed up the following day with Tanya Davis, Acres and Acres, Babette Hayward, Mike Biggar, David Simard, Pat LePoidevan, Clinton Charlton, J.D. Edwards, Chris Braydon and Owen Steel. It seemed like most of my friends were all in one very beautiful place, and even those I hadn’t known were suddenly close. I think one of our favourite new discoveries was J. D. Edwards, the son of a math teacher, a good songwriter, and a far too good cribbage player. He tried to let me win, but in the end I was defeated without exception.

By the time Sunday rolled around, the sun was there to stay but we were not. We all drifted out according to the ferry schedules and said farewell to our new found friends. The three-thirty ferry stole away the entire PEI crew along with Tanya Davis and David Scholten (of Acres and Acres). We spotted more whales, watched some amazing dog tricks, had great conversations with strangers, and listened to the sweet songs of Meaghan Blanchard floating out over the ocean air. It seemed our vacation was a total success.

Back to the Garden

Notes from the Road
by Catherine MacLellan

Nina Khosla and Tim Isaac are LovestormI’ve been wasting time; a lot of it, working on my garden in bits and pieces but leaving most of the weeds, mowing my lawn when the mood hits me (which isn’t very often) and thinking about possibilities and ideas. Somehow this constitutes a job for me. Middle of August, relaxing, worrying about not doing enough but not doing anything about it.

Inherent laziness. Yet, somehow, in the midst of all that nothingness comes song after song and the beginning of the next album, the framework. That’s where my head is right now, on the next project. It’s a slow moving beast and it forms in the clouds, drifts out of the mist into reality.

I’m not ambitious in the true sense of the word, but I do have dreams and hopes that I carve into reality somehow. It seems most of my friends are the same way, be it gardening, pottery, poetry, painting, bread-making. I have so many friends who are creating a personally crafted life for themselves out of passion, creativity and imagination—sculpting out a unique way of living.

I was reminded of just how amazing this can be while performing and hanging out at Fundy National Park’s first go at a two day music event, the Rising Tide Music Festival. I met so many people with interesting lifestyles that were handmade by each of them. These are not easy lives they lead, but they are satisfying for them on so many levels. A little bit of knowledge and a lot of nerve can turn steel-door window cut outs into a full-on house. Maybe you’d like to design your own toilet and you happen to have a neighbour who is an adventurous potter! It’s apparently even possible to spend endless amounts of hard-earned money on tractors for your stubbornly unproductive blueberry farm and still love doing it.

It’s not easy working for yourself, and making life work for you. Followers of Helen and Scott Nearing, the heros and instigators of the back-to-the-land movement, know this well. It takes serious work to keep life simple, and it requires discipline as well as endless experimentation to figure out what really works for you. Quickly, I learned that bigger is not always better and the simple life can be very complicated to obtain. The one thing I have to remind myself of all the time is that life is long and I don’t have to accomplish all my goals right away. I plan to be here for a very long time—as a gardener, a home owner, a mother and a musician.

After playing at the park, my friends and I headed back to the home of Tim Isaac and Nina Khosla and spent hours and hours talking about everything under the sun. It was such a wide ranging conversation that it was hard to keep up. We talked of dreams, gardens, religions, new theories in philosophy and world power, children and the transition into teenage years, and our sense of freedom all thanks to somewhat voluntary poverty. I hadn’t had such an open and frank conversation in quite a long time and it revived my spirit and showed me that it’s not just my neighbourhood that’s full of fantastic dreamers, we are in pockets and hiding spots all around this tiny globe of ours.

The quote of the evening was this—“We’re the richest people in the world, just don’t tell anybody.”

Watch for Nina and Tim in their new band, Lovestorm, coming to the Dunk on September 11.

Sunshine Sketches

Notes from the Road
by Catherine MacLellan

At Mariposa with Murray MacLauchlan and band mates, Chris Gauthier and Remi ArsenaultIt was this July, at Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario, that I realized the similarities between Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island. Now, you may wonder how I would come to this realization in the middle of Ontario, and I was also surprised, but I think that it’s true. Isolated, rural-based living, and certainly not in the centre of anywhere. This could be said of both provinces. For me, though, the biggest crossover is something about the people.

I brought my PEI band to play with me at Mariposa, a festival named for Stephen Leacock’s fictionalized version of Orillia, where we saw many old friends and made even more new ones. For old friends, our first run in was with PEI’s Grass Mountain Hobos. These good time boys were having an impromptu country sing-along in the parking lot behind our hotel. Members of The Breakmen appeared along with Elliot Brood, Ashley MacIsaac, and many more to sing, to play and (some) to drink from a tequila gun. It was a fun beginning to a great weekend.

Morning came too soon, and we were off to the festival to perform in workshops and on the main stage. The great thing about these type of folk festivals is how bands and songwriters are thrown together on stages to see what will happen when elements combine. Our first workshop ended with a rowdy bluegrass version of Nirvana’s All Apologies, led by Madison Violet.

Our second workshop of the day was in the beer tent doing a double bill with the Grass Mountain Hobos. It was so fun and we had the crowd wrapped in our PEI-themed banter and songs. It was so easy to be there with those guys, they felt like family amidst a world of strangers, and we were sad to see them leave for home later that day.

The day ended with us playing a mainstage show with the blaring sun setting on us, my guitar burning hot. I felt so lucky to follow one of my songwriting heros, Chris Smither. He is a guy who has been around forever, his songs covered by people like Bonnie Raitt, and with a talent for grabbing the attention of a massive crowd with just his rythmic, blues guitar, his foot stomping and his beautiful lyrics. Really though, I was most lucky to be playing with my bandmates, my good old country boys—Reg Ballagh, Remi Arsenault and Chris Gauthier. Besides all the fun we have off stage, there’s something magical about the trust and the ability to be in the moment that we have found on stage with each other. I notice this with more clarity when surrounded by Canada’s best musicians and I know that my guys are on the same level.

On Sunday, after all our playing duties were over, we watched Chris Smither do a workshop with one of my favourite Canadian bands, the Deep Dark Woods. This is a Saskatchewan band with the sweetest vocals and raw, sad songs. We ended up hanging out with these guys as well as Little Miss Higgins, also from Saskatchewan. As the night stretched on and the drinks added up, we started talking about our favourite things about our respective provinces. Fishing, space, calm lifestyles, small cities, tiny towns, cheap real estate… We even discussed how PEI has ocean for wheat fields, and Saskatchewan has wheat fields for ocean. We got along so easily and understood each other on a very basic level, in a gut way, like family or at least that’s how I remembered it after 4 hours of sleep.

I guess that’s what we are all looking for, out on the road. Family. As touring musicians, we make our families out on the road, the people we see again and again and those that you bond with immediately. Thank goodness for folk festivals and for Saskatchewan.

Good Start to the Season

Notes from the Road
by Catherine MacLellan

Isabel joins her mother Catherine on stage in New LondonAs my first crop of lettuce was coming up in my garden, the first feelings of summer were washing over the Island. Beautiful, warm, sun-filled days, music-filled evenings and appearances of friends not seen since last summer. Yes, the busy season has begun.

In PEI, we started it off right with the Festival of Small Halls. For those of you who missed it, this is one of the nicest festivals I’ve been a part of. A music and dance festival held over 10 days in twenty-five different rural community halls, it focussed on bringing Island musicians to the fore as well as highlighting some amazing “from-away” folk such as Newfoundland’s The Once and Frank Ferrell of Maine.

Frank is celebrated for writing fiddle tunes, and is regarded as one of the finest North American fiddlers performing today. He performed at the opening night of the festival in New London, regaling the audience with stories and tunes with ease and obvious joy.

The lineup for that event also included songwriter John Connolly, the folk-bluegrass Saddle River String Band, traditional fiddler and pianist Troy MacGillivray, storyteller David Weale and my own band.

As you walked through the doors of the New London Community Complex, the sounds of a trio of musicians from the College of Piping were lilting through the air. It was an oversold event, and the place was buzzing. People had come from all over the Island as well as Ontario, Maine and who knows where else.

The Saddle River String Band opened the show with their rollicking old-timey sounds and I had a moment of nostalgia for the days when I had played with them. Back then we were mostly playing old folk tunes, but now Saddle River has endless amounts of brilliantly crafted original songs, some of which can be heard on their self-titled debut album.

After Frank Ferrell, I closed the opening half with my band—Reg Ballagh on drums, Remi Arensault on bass, Chris Gauthier on guitar and my daughter Isabel as dance queen and band leader. Isabel had decided at the last minute that she didn’t want to watch from the audience but would try her hand at being on stage. I was a bit worried that she would get nervous and want to go back to her grandmother, but I couldn’t have been more wrong; Isabel stole the show. She danced to every song and at one point became a bit of an exhibitionist, which I noticed too late with shock as her dress was suddenly over her head.

To open the second set, John Connolly got on stage and sang some of the nicest folk songs I’ve heard in quite some time. He had just returned from several trips, one to the Banff Centre for the Arts where he had a writing residency and another to Nashville where he recorded his upcoming album with producer Brian Ahern. Look for that in September.

I have to admit that, at that point, Isabel’s stage high really took control and I ended up chasing her around the building. I missed most of David Weale’s stories and Troy MacGillivray’s prowess on his instruments, but the whole event was a seamless success.

As busy and crazy as summertime on PEI can be, it is really what we wait for all winter long. We’ll have to start building up our stamina to get through yet another hectic season. The Festival of Small Halls gave us a good head start and I’m looking forward to a long, eventful summer.

Over the Mountains

Notes from the Road
by Catherine MacLellan

Graeme Walker of Olympic Symphonium in Canmore (photo: Catherine MacLellan)I left my fledgling garden, flew high over the Great Lakes and landed in a late spring snowstorm in Calgary, Alberta. It was an unexpected turn of events and when I met up with the Olympic Symphonium, with whom I was about to spend the next 12 days, we were told the road was closed to Edmonton and there would be no show. Ominous beginnings?

Well, we packed the rental van and headed out anyway. Our change of fortune began when the road from Calgary to Red Deer was reopened, despite there being at least 25 cars strewn about the ditches and roadsides.

Being a mom and a musician has always held it’s challenges, but the greatest hardship is having to spend chunks of time away from my little girl. Because of this, I had never toured by car the western parts of Canada any further than Calgary. It just takes too long, too much time away from home. So I was long overdue to play in some of these towns that dot the western landscape, scattered among the Rockies and along the islands and inlets of the Pacific.

Traveling with the Fredericton, New Brunswik-based Olympic Symphonium was a perfect way to explore these parts, each of the guys having friends in every nook and cranny we visited. They also happen to have friends with connections to luxury hotels and resorts like the Jasper Park Lodge and the Empress Hotel in Victoria. It felt a little like cheating. I only slept on a couple of couches, no floors, and every where we travelled looked like a fairy tale. Mountains as far as the eye can see, glaciers, elk, bears, gorgeous little islands, ghost towns, century-old haunted hotels, and on and on.

Our show in the tiny and remote town of Powell River on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast was doubled up with the local Cinco de Mayo feast and festivities. A rowdy room full of delicious Mexican food and lively conversation was converted (while we hit a pinata outside) into a quiet, attentive, seated audience and changed yet again into a raging dance party to end the night.

In Vancouver we played in the most unpretentious little spot, Little Mountain Gallery, and joined forces with the amazing Petunia. After we finished our portion of the show, Petunia got onstage with his new west coast band, the Vipers, and blew the room away. He had people dancing, laughing and singing along to his haunting old-time songs. With his music in the air, the room transformed into a magical space that felt like a 1930’s speak-easy, or what I imagine that to be like.

There were so many highlights to this tour. Night after night of full houses, interesting little venues, and welcoming arms in every town. The odd strange sound person, the rare little kink in our plans…all these bumps in the road were erased by the beauty of our surroundings, the amazing food we found to eat, and the lovely friends who joined us on our way. From a Calgary roadhouse to a café in Canmore, from artist-run galleries to a Unitarian Hall, our stops made this a trip to remember.

On the final morning before heading back onto a plane for home, my eyes opened onto the sight of a snowcapped, rocky mountain bathed in the light of the sunrise. I lay there for just soaking it in, knowing I wouldn’t be back to the mountains for a while. I pondered the size of our country and how much warmth it holds. And all the while, my garden waited.

Southern Exposure

Notes from the Road
by Catherine MacLellan

My last flight out of Charlottetown took me over the familiar PEI sand dunes on the north shore, still covered in ice and snow. Three flights later I had landed in Austin, Texas, guitar in hand, ready for one of the biggest music festivals in the world.

During South by Southwest (SXSW) the streets of Austin are overloaded by 2000 bands and countless people taking in the non-stop music in every spot that has any capacity to be a music venue. From cafes to used-clothing stores, from tents to high-end clubs, this city is swarmed by musicians, music fans and industry heads. Somehow, I managed to see very little music.

I was lucky enough to play with fellow label mate Lynn Miles, catch the Six Shooter showcase with Amelia Curran, Justin Rutledge, and Melissa McClelland, and witness a strange set performed by Paul Simon’s son—Harper Simon. As we headed for home, I was suddenly attacked by a feeling of never wanting to hear another band anywhere ever again. Ha. The feeling passed quickly enough.

 

I had two days at home before packing the van and driving straight from the Crapaud hills all the way to London, Ontario, where we began our short but sweet mini tour in Ontario and Quebec.

This tour had been based around one show in Toronto at the Glenn Gould Studio. I wanted this show to be special and celebrate some of the friends I have made in the Toronto roots music scene.

Some of the first shows I played in Toronto quickly launched me into this close knit and vibrant scene. I remember taking the downtown ferry to Ward’s Island, the home of an event simply called the Jambo. Here was a buzzing mini music festival, one day every summer, put on by Joanne Mackell. Joanne always said she made this event so that all of her touring musician friends could actually be together in one place at one time. A rare treat.

This is where I first heard and met many of the friends I would soon claim as my own. Joanne is one such friend. A rocking country singer, with zero ambition but tons of heart, Joanne is a one of a kind gem.

Also at the Jambo, I met David Baxter, a producer and player for many roots musicians in Toronto and now, as CBC calls him, Canada’s oldest emerging artist. He has played many a show with me since then and introduced me to a jewel of a songwriter, Jack Marks.

Jack, Joanne, David and Shelley Coopersmith (an amazing mandolin and fiddle player) all joined me and my band onstage that night. It kind of felt like my version of “The Last Waltz,” but far from a farewell and far from a “star” lineup. These were my friends and I was so grateful to share the stage with them.

If the tour had ended there, we would have been happy, but we were barely warmed up. We travelled on to Wakefield, Quebec, just outside of Ottawa to play at a legendary venue, the Blacksheep. Opening for us was the Wilderness of Manitoba. I have never been quite so blown away by a band in a bar. They had the room silenced with their beautiful three and four part harmonies and interesting arrangements.

Our last stop was a church in North Hatley, Quebec. Playing in the Eastern Townships on a beautiful spring day, there couldn’t have been a nicer way to end this tour. We were welcomed in to this lovely town with a potluck dinner, a beautiful old house to stay in and an amazing breakfast to help us on our way.

Now back on the red isle, the smell of spring is in the air and I realize we’ve made it. We made it home and we’ve all made it through winter. Soon, I’ll be standing on the sands of the north shore, no more snow or ice to contend with.

The Buzz welcomes Catherine MacLellan as a regular columnist. Catherine’s prospering musical career necessitates spending time on the road, as she brings her songs to her audiences, in person. She will report on places and people she meets along the way.

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