Profile by Jane Ledwell
Visiting from Toronto, writer and singer-songwriter Nancy White calls herself a “lapsed Maritimer.” Nationally-known for wry wit in songs and musical political commentary, she adds self-deprecatingly, “You have to invent some phrases for yourself or else people will do it to you.”
The Island-born artist is on a fly-in trip to PEI to beach, visit friends, and see shows, including Anne and Gilbert, which she co-wrote. She confesses, “I was never an obsessive Maritimer. I’m not one of those people who is, ‘Christ, I miss the ocean, I’m dying!’” she laughs.
What hasn’t lapsed is her Island inability to take a compliment. As we talk about her astounding career writing musical commentaries on the news for CBC Radio’s erstwhile “Sunday Morning,” or her great album Momnipotent which defined the experience of a generation of feminist moms, or Juno wins and nominations, she diverts.
“I had a nice, but ordinary, voice, so I thought I’d better be entertaining,” she says of her beginnings as a musical humourist.
Call her “award-winning”? She says, “I came in first in freestyle at the Alberton swim meet at 14. I came in second for a radio award in New York once. I got silver but there was no gold. I was best, but not good enough. It’s the perfect Canadian award, in a way!” But she can’t help but revel in a recent honorary degree from Dalhousie University—called in the Anne books “Redmond College.” “Lucy Maud Montgomery went to Dal, too. So it connects L.M. Montgomery, Anne and me.”
Nancy White’s admiration for Montgomery and Anne is uncomplicated: no vestiges of the love-hate relationship that can develop among lifelong Islanders. “I don’t have Anne’s picture on my license plate, so maybe that’s why,” she smiles.
“Anne’s not a fictional character to me, so let’s let that go right now.” As a cub reporter at The Guardian, she wrote the first or one of the first reviews of Anne of Green Gables—The Musical, and the magic lasted. (“I’d seen a few musicals, but to see a musical that was about here!”)
When her writing and music brought her back to Anne—and Gilbert—she and her co-writers imagined a complementary show: “We wanted it not to have reference to the original show. We saw it as a companion,” she says.
“Doing the show has made my connection to PEI closer.” Poking fun, she says, “I grew up here before ‘the garlic.’ I’m sure it’s better now, and the Island will reach a high level of sophistication—then erode away into the sea.”
When we met, Nancy hadn’t yet seen this year’s remounting of Anne and Gilbert at The Guild. Experiencing what Anne would call “delights of anticipation,” she says, “I hear it’s a really intelligent read, with excellent actors and Martha Irving as director. As Marilla, you know, she was very good—excellent glove work” she smiles, “so she is really immersed in it.”
The morning after seeing the show, Nancy White calls to enthuse, “It’s unbelievable. It’s one of the best things I’ve seen in the theatre. Every line is just as I’d imagined… And the acting! The kissing is great in this version… You’re so close, it’s so intimate.” She adds, “You can feel the vibration going through their bodies when they touch…
“I’ve seen it so many times—but when you’re one of the writers, you even cry at the comedy because it’s working.”
Her standards stay high for her writing. “I wrote a song about Stephen Harper, called ‘The Silencer.’ It’s a pretty good song,” she admits, “—as an Islander, I guess I should say it was ‘better than having your eyes gouged out by mussel shells.’” She jokes, “I wrote a song called ‘Talking to Myself in My Car.’ Does that tell you anything about my career? Maybe I’ll be discovered and plummeted to stardom—oh dear,” she cringes, looking pained, “‘Plummeted’ is not the right word, is it?”
Nancy White is likely to remain a “lapsed” Maritimer. She loves the anonymity of the big city. “You like everybody to know who you are—to a level,” she says. “In Toronto, if I fall in a ditch, no one will pick me up—unless there’s another Maritimer coming by. Smoking, of course. And if you’re smoking, don’t pick me up.”