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Friends Along the Way

Notes from the Road
by Catherine MacLellan

At Jon Rehder’s Wednesday gig at the Haviland (photo: ©pixbylorne)Back in 1998, I was home from a year in Australia and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I had studied one semester at Dalhousie but I wasn’t even sure why I was there, so I came back to PEI. I made a few friends who persuaded me to sneak into Baba’s every week (I was only 18) for open mic or to see Rhythm Rules every Thursday night with Jon Rehder and Reg Ballagh. Eventually Jon and Reg started asking me up to sing, and I was so shy I could only look at the ground and I could barely open my mouth. They had to keep turning up the mic just to hear me whisper out my songs.

It was the first time anybody other than my close family and friends showed signs of believing in me. Jon and Reg were so supportive and encouraging, I even remember Christina Forgeron showing up at an open mic and cheering me on. I sometimes imagine that without that encouragement I would still be living at my mother’s house, playing songs in my bedroom to myself.

Recently I spent a Wednesday night at Charlottetown’s Haviland Club where Jon has started up a new weekly gig. Every Wednesday he invites a local musician to get up and do a set with him and each week the audience flows in. It’s a lovely event, entrance by donation, with living room/cabaret style seating. It feels more like a family than an audience. Sitting in on Jon’s show brought me way back to those nights at Baba’s as an 18-year-old kid. It really shone a light on how much I have changed over these last years and just how lucky we are on the Island to have such a wealth of musicianship and a vibrant, supportive, music-loving community.

I’ve spent the last 15 years completely absorbed in trying to do what I do the best that I can and learning how to be confident in that. Self-confidence seems to be my lifelong challenge, but I’m learning. Now, suddenly, I’ve taken my eyes off of my own life and looked around. I have noticed that I am not the young one anymore. I’m not exactly the old one either, but I’m noticing all these amazing songwriters and bands springing up from the red earth of PEI and it is really exciting. As a mother and a touring musician I don’t always get to go to shows, so when I do it is surprising and exciting just how strong the scene is.

Watching some of the newest generation starting out along the path towards a career in music is inspiring. I see myself in some of them, and wish I had been as gutsy and confident as others. In the end, all anyone needs is a bit of faith—faith in what you do and faith that somehow the world will provide you with enough. After that, everything is a bonus. The hours I spend tending the garden, playing games with my daughter or observing the world, mining for songs—these are all extras that make my life rich.

So in this spring, full of peaceful productivity, I salute the next generation of artists who are rising to the challenge and giving back to the Island community with their art and energy. I feel inspired and motivated to keep rolling down the track of my life, and I’m happy to have made so many friends along the way so far.

Music on the Brain

Notes from the Road
by Catherine MacLellan

Last month Chris and I attended the Folk Alliance conference in Toronto, five days of music performed by hundreds of musicians and bands in one hotel. As expected, it was madness but the kind you adjust to after a while. By our second day we were in full swing, running the hallways, slinging guitars, going from showcase to showcase. Among the throngs of musicians we spotted many Islanders there including Ashley Condon, Dennis Ellsworth, Rose Cousins, Tanya Davis, Teresa Doyle and John Connolly. PEI was well represented and well loved at this mega-event. We played ten shows in three days and then fled the downtown hotel scene for the countryside of Ontario.

First stop was the Tamworth Legion, three hours from Toronto, for a show with Jonathan Byrd, an incredible songwriter and performer from North Carolina. The Legion was packed which would turn out to be a trend for this mini-tour. My sister, her husband and a gang of her friends from Kingston made the drive to this show. It is so rare that I get to see her, so it was a real treat to have her in the crowd.

We had a week off before our next show so I flew home to spend time with my daughter, Jonathan drove back to North Carolina to spend time with his son and Chris went ice-fishing on the Ottawa River to celebrate his birthday. Time well spent.

Our next stop was a show at Hugh’s Room in Toronto and it was so lovely to see the room full of friends and local musicians. Jonathan again put on a superb show and I realized I have so much to learn from him. He hails from North Carolina, but he really follows the tradition of the Texas songwriter. The son of a preacher man, he has inherited the gift of a gilded tongue. He is funny, sincere, well-spoken and a great songwriter to boot — almost enough to make me begrudge the man!

A few more shows with Mr Byrd left me truly inspired and wanting to sit down for a month and just write. Over the last couple of years I have been writing the best songs of my life (in my view), all yet to be recorded, but the songs have been written with long gaps in between writing sessions. Perhaps it is the amount of time I spend on the road, or the balance of life as a single mother / musician. Whatever it is, I crave to just hide away and write.

Over the next month I hope to do just that. I have a good slice of time back home with very few shows and the feeling of true spring arriving — it could be just the right combination. I could also spend that time doing taxes, cleaning house and planning the garden. Only time will tell.

I have been reading the Daniel Levitin book, This is Your Brain on Music. Since its release, people have been reminding me to read it and referencing it on just about every music platform there is. Finally my friend Jon handed the book to me and I can’t put it down. He writes about the connection between music and the human brain with one of the chapters about what makes a musician. Is there such a thing as talent? Or is it really achievement enhanced by genetic make-up, environmental factors and plain old determination. He talks of the idea of ten thousand hours of practice being required to achieve a level of mastery at anything. This is a great reminder to me to write as much as possible. It also gives me an argument to people who tell me that they just don’t have the talent for music. All you need to do is obsess over it like all musicians do and eventually you will get there.

Medicine Music

Notes from the Road
by Catherine MacLellan

We are headed to Toronto by car, fighting a wicked winter storm to get there. Highways are full of snow drifts but the beautiful glassy ice of a silver thaw keeps me excited about winter. We are headed to a massive music conference called Folk Alliance International which brings people from all over the world to play music as many times as possible over five days.

The last five years it has been held in Memphis and will move on after this year to Kansas City for another five. It is a pretty interesting phenomenon. The last time I attended FAI it was in Memphis and I was excited to see the city, so famous for music, Elvis and Martin Luther King Jr.  The strange thing was that you didn’t ever have to leave the host hotel. We stayed there, played there, ate there and only by peer pressure did I leave the conference to wander around downtown and head to Staxx Records and the Civil Rights museum. (Which, by the way, is the most moving museum I have ever been too.)

This year will be a bit different, as I am staying with friends in Toronto and it is a city I know well. I have my favourite spots to visit which is one of the joys of my life as a traveling musician - drinking, eating and seeing fine things that aren’t really available in PEI. Also, with the conference being in Toronto, there will be a lot more Canadians in attendance than usual which means a ton of my friends will be there that I don’t get to see very often.

We stay for 3 days at the conference, playing 10 times, and then we head to Tamworth, Ontario, for our first of several shows with Texan songwriter Jonathan Byrd.  Son of a preacher man with a very interesting bio (check it out at JonathanByrd.com), he comes highly recommended from a host of my Toronto musician friends, with whom he recorded his last record.

After this trip I get to take a real break and sit with my ideas for my next record, finish writing and arranging songs for it and maybe even go to bed at normal times! Over the last few years I have been suffering from stress and food related health problems, mental and physical. It’s no surprise, really, living as a single parent and a road-weary musician. Regardless, I have always found the inspiration needed to keep me writing and performing and growing. Over the last year, though, my songwriting slowed to a near stop and my moods became more polarized and extreme. It is amazing how long a person can last under these circumstances. I am not what you might call tough. I have a fragile make-up but as I start to listen to the messages my body sends me I am learning to take care of myself.

Recently a friend pointed out to me that music is medicine, and in forgetting what my music has always been about for me (personal exploration and self-expression) I had stopped giving and receiving the medicine that I so need. Now I am getting back on track and healing in leaps and bounds. One of the greatest gifts I receive from fans is hearing that my music somehow helped them through a hard time. I’ve even had a few people tell me that their babies were born to my music!

I hope that everyone can find their own medicine, to do what we are put here on this earth for, whether it is playing music, catching fish, raising children, or even building model train sets. Whatever it is, the world is a better place for it and for you.

Coney Island Baby

Notes from the Road
by Catherine MacLellan

Coney Island (photo: Catherine MacLellan)We’ve been hanging around New York City for a few days now, playing venues that pass the hat and have regular hourly turnover of musicians all night. In Manhattan’s lower east side there is the feeling that the city never sleeps and musicians are akin to rats, everywhere and certainly bottom feeders.

Our first night in the city we played our regular haunt of the Living Room and were delighted to be on the same bill as The Good Lovelies, our own Canadian darlings. The Lovelies were on their first tour since the birth of member Caroline’s baby, Annabelle. They now travel as a crowd with support from their label as well as Caroline’s husband, everyone taking turns with the 4-month old sweetheart. As always, it was great to see friends from home and it reminded me of the tours I did when my own Isabel was a tiny baby, frequenting bars, cafes and festivals. Annabelle will be another one of those music kids with friends all over and perhaps a broader perspective of what family can be.

On our second night in the city, we stayed with our new friend Ruth in Coney Island. Miles from Manhattan, here the streets are quiet, suburban, with a sense of long-standing community. Ruth has spent almost her entire life in this part of the world. She grew up on the boardwalk, hanging out at the side shows and amusement parks, riding the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel, eventually even working in the parks. We ran into her friend Stanley on the boardwalk, a man who is a virtual walking encyclopedia about Coney Island and a volunteer at the Coney Island History Project. Together we walked past the rides and closed shops and restaurants while Stanley and Ruth pointed out the things we should know and how much it’s changed over the years.

Having suffered through Hurricane Sandy in the fall, Coney Island still has the marks on the buildings from the water where it rose swiftly to 3 to 6 feet all along the island. In fact, Ruth’s house, just down from the boardwalk was submerged in water halfway up her first floor. At one point during the storm, she suddenly heard the rushing of water and thought she had left a tap on downstairs, only to find the floodwater surging in from every side. The fridge even tipped over and floated into a corner. The whole main level was gutted including her kitchen and living room, and now, months later, she is still waiting for her insurance company to settle with her so she can begin the repairs. It will be many months before she is back to a normal life, and so many of her belongings, keepsakes and mementos can never be replaced.

I remember seeing the footage of Hurricane Sandy on the television, and it seemed quite dramatic at the time, but the aftermath is more than I thought it would be and the speed with which the recovery is taking place is at a snail’s pace. Many people lost their homes entirely and so many local businesses may never return. If you’d like to check out more about Coney Island and see the damage done by Sandy, go to the Coney Island History Project website, www.coneyislandhistory.org.

Today we play our last show in New York, a cafe in Brooklyn, and then we head back and forth across the states of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. We’ll spend four days recording in Woodstock, hanging out in the Catskills, and then play one more show in Philadelphia before heading back home to real winter and snow. We’ll spend the rest of the cold season traveling between PEI and Ontario attending the Folk Alliance International conference in Toronto and playing bills with a great (though little known) American songwriter named Jonathan Byrd. We hope to see you along the road.

Honest Songs

Notes from the Road
by Catherine MacLellan

Mitch Schurman (photo: ©pixbylorne)It’s been quite a year for everyone I know, really. Hardships with the economy, health of body and mind, and rushing, rushing from the summer into the preparation of the fall for the cold and dark months ahead. I always welcome December and the feasts it brings, I also welcome a month of not straying too far from my home and being with family. Right now I’m sitting in front of the woodstove, cuddling with my cats who are happy to have me back after a busy fall. I can see the woodpile outside, only half finished, now covered in the season’s first snow. I also see my suitcase left on the floor, full of a tour’s worth of clothes and bits and pieces of my life on the road.

I guess I have stalled a bit, out of gas, or perhaps just in need of a little break - time out to reflect and get back into writing songs and into the joyful spirit of the holidays with my daughter Isabel in mind.

I recently toured the Canadian Prairies, stopped home for a week and set off again across the pond to the UK for a tour of bangers and mash, divine cheeses and disastrous coffees. There has been quite a dramatic difference there since my last visit to England a year ago. Venues have been having a tough time getting people out and some have even shut down completely.

It’s interesting to watch the ebb and flow of economy and art. Even in my short career so far I have seen trends come and go and come back again. Who ever thought the 80s would be cool again, and even more interestingly—Yacht Rock. Everything is fair game and will be recycled, but I wonder what is new. It seems everything new is really just a modification of what already has been, and perhaps that has always been the case.

For me, my songwriting is not about being innovative and ahead of the times, but making something that is honest, musical and inspiring to me. Something that touches hearts and minds, that is what I aspire to and that is what I like to listen to. I’m lucky to live in PEI, a place full of great songwriters and musicians. Some you can go see at local venues, but so many local songwriters you may never get to hear unless you’re sitting around a campfire with them.

One of the greatest songwriters I have ever run across is our own Mitch Schurman. So many of his songs give me shivers and really, I just wish I had written them myself. For so many years his music could only be heard by him in person, but with his first release of music, hopefully a broader audience will get to share in his music. I’ve heard rumours that he may be working on another collection of songs.

Another of my heros, on many levels, is my friend and neighbour Malcolm Stanley. Known for his years of creating beautiful pottery, Malcolm has been writing songs as well, sharing his music with us down at the Dunk and elsewhere along the Dixon Road. Beautiful words and melodies, songs about what he sees around him, friends and seasons and family.

Malcom has just recently recorded an album of these songs that we’ve been treasuring for so long. It has become a sort of Dixon Road project, so many of us coming together to bring it to light. Hopefully it will be ready to go by February and will have a lovely painting of Malcolm by Perry Neatby on the cover.

I hope for everyone a nourishing new year and hope that inspiration will find each and everyone of you, that you all may bring your buried treasures and secret wishes to light.

Exchanging Music

Notes from the Road
by Catherine MacLellan

Sam Carter at a recent Harmony House show (photo: ©pixbylorne)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.

Summer Highlights

Notes from the Road
by Catherine MacLellan

Ron Hynes (photo ©pixbylorne)September and October are my favourite months. I think. Although I will miss the heat of this past summer and lying on the beach, I am happy to make soup and put on sweaters. I’m also happy to get busy with work again. It’s been a perfect summer of weekend festivals and random shows, but I am in need of a good, old fashioned tour.

So off we go again. Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta to start. Then off to merry olde England and Scotland again in November with my dearest friend, Miss Tanya Davis.

Tanya and I have been friends since grade 6, and have been through all of our ups and downs together over the years. We used to sit at her mother’s piano and write sappy lovesick songs and sing The Rose. We were pretty dramatic kids and occasionally were ostracized from the rest of the crowd in school for our idiosyncratic ways. This meant we spent a lot of time making up our own language, playing our own games and hiding in the gym change room. We never thought we’d be both writing songs and performing them all over the world as adults.

I feel so lucky to be able to head over across the sea with Tanya. I guess I feel pretty lucky in general that my job is to write songs and perform them, though, honestly, I’m not very good at much else! (Except perhaps crib and petting cats.)

Some of the highlights of my summer were the festivals I played. Indian River was amazing as always and I got to play at Nova Scotia’s version of Funk the Dunk at the Beckwith Bash, put on by Eric Fresia and family.

The Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival was everything I hoped it would be. Beautiful weather, lovely little town, music everywhere and a cast of new friends were made. Chris and I arrived Thursday afternoon, late for our soundcheck on the mainstage. No problem, really, we just snuck in before PEI’s own Colette Cheverie.

Later that night, after our mainstage show and hanging out with the gang there, we headed back to our digs for the weekend just outside of the town on Heckman’s Island with our new friend Nancy. She treated us to amazing hospitality which included pie for breakfast every morning! It was like she knew me.

Nancy lives on this amazing property with a house that she built twenty or thirty years ago, but is a perfect recreation of a hundred year old Nova Scotia farm house. Sitting right on a bay, her boathouse was the best spot to relax after a “hard” day of socializing, playing and drinking.

On the Saturday night of the festival, Dave Gunning hosted a tribute to Ron Hynes, who was supposed to be playing the festival but was just starting his battle with cancer in Newfoundland instead. The festival organizers couldn’t imagine filling his mainstage show with a different performer, so they organized this in honour of him and a bunch of us played his songs. Besides Dave and myself, Kim Stockwood, Kevin Fox and Garnet Rogers all participated. It was a moving salute to a sometimes undervalued Canadian icon.

Perhaps the best part of that concert for me was the actual process of learning Ron’s songs. Chris and I chose Where Does Love Go Wrong and 1962 as our songs. Although I’ve known Ron’s music for most of my life, have toured with him and feel like he’s part of my musical family, it wasn’t until I sat down to learn these songs that I realized what a truly great poet he is. I was floored by the intricate details that mostly go unnoticed until you really pay attention.

This was perhaps the lesson of the summer for me: Dig in, pay attention and never forget the importance of pie for breakfast.

The Music Itself

Surviving the East Coast Music Association weekend

Notes from the Road
by Catherine MacLellan

Catherine MacLellan accepts ECMA Award for Folk Recording of the Year (Silhouette)I have now survived yet another ECMA week, although I must say that now that the conference is held in April, it is much easier to survive. I remember when it was held in the dead of winter, always (somehow) the coldest weekend of the year. We would all be tramping through giant snowbanks with arm-fulls of gear and instruments, shielding our faces from the north wind. This time around, in Moncton, we were sitting on patios in t-shirts with cold drinks in our hands.

As always, the East Coast Music Association conference and festival is a great time to catch a ton of music in a very short period of time and also an opportunity for musicians to all get together in one place. Upon arrival, I felt completely overwhelmed by this great social experiment, I wanted to run back to the car and hide there for the week. I slowly warmed up to the over-exposure to society and got into the swing of things.

My goal at the conference was to see some of the bands and musicians that I haven’t had a chance to catch, especially PEI acts. Being a mom and on tour much of the time, I have missed a lot of what is happening in our local scene. It was so great to finally catch the North Lakes as well as Two Hours Traffic with their new line-up of members. They both floored everyone on the Saturday late-night stage.

I remember a number of years ago when the indie bands never really got the attention that they deserved, the whole event completely out of balance from what was really happening in the scene. It was mostly traditional based music which gave the east coast an identity which the national eye could see. This year it was quite obvious that now the reverse has happened. There was much less traditional music, and some would say it was almost non-existent, whereas every event was dominated by indie bands. I wonder if we will ever find an appropriate balance where every niche in our very diverse scene can be heard and seen.

This was the first year that I had taken it pretty easy, with only one or two performances a day. Chris and I played a couple official showcases, the odd radio and internet recording and then the gala on the Sunday night. One of the highlights of the gala was seeing David Myles perform with Classified, I had been waiting to see that. Catching up with David is always a beautiful experience, as he is perhaps the most positive and non-cynical performer on the east coast. He brings such enthusiasm to what he does and it is truly contagious. It was also touching to see the emotional honesty of host Roch Voisine as he received his award (a total surprise to him) for special achievement in the arts. Catherine MacKinnon received a lifetime achievement awarded, handed off by her daughter (another surprise) and played her signature tune, Farewell to Nova Scotia.

One great thing about this year’s awards ceremony was that it was not in a giant concrete arena and instead held in the Casino NB Ballroom. This created a much cozier atmosphere and the quiet acts sounded good for once. That included the Once and the Olympic Symphonium, whose beautiful harmonies and subtle musical arrangements would have been somewhat lost in an arena.

I suppose a smaller room for the gala is a sign that our beloved ECMA event is shrinking in magnitude, but in my mind it is not such a bad thing. In fact, it may bring around a more sincere and honest approach to what has become an overblown and overly-commercialized event. Perhaps it is time to remember what the East Coast Music Association is all about—the music itself.

Events Calendar

November 2018
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