Grit and grace
July 2017 | Profile by Jane Ledwell
Tara MacLean-Grand’s grandmother always told her: one day, she’d feel the pull back to PEI, where she spent her childhood. While Tara says, “I always represented PEI, anywhere I’ve been in the world,” she certainly went far, as an internationally-known singer whose work as a solo artist rode the Lilith Fair wave and who also found pop success with the band Shaye. Today, she’s a Saltspring Island family gal with a publishing deal, mentoring gigs, and three growing daughters.
But dedication to family runs two directions, into the past as well as the future, and two years ago, when her grandmother was ill, the predicted pull to PEI became a tug. “If I could create something and come home with it, my dream would come true,” she recalls.
Inspired by Rita MacNeil, “a mom who just wanted to sing,” Tara “started to draw on songwriters from Atlantic Canada”—their songs and their stories—and developed Atlantic Blue, a stage show of songs from Atlantic Canada and short films of the songwriters that created the songs. “This is the first show I’ve written, produced, directed, and performed in,” she says. And the accompanying album, she says, “may be the truest album I have made.”
Tara says, “I feel like in Atlantic Canada, being musical is almost like it’s not special—it’s normal. It’s part of how we survived.”
Last summer, Tara launched Atlantic Blue in a sold-out two-night run at Harmony House. She announced she was looking for a gig for this summer—and by morning had a plan in the works with The Guild for summer 2017.
During that first run of the show, Tara says, “People were shocked some of the songs were from here—we have so much homegrown talent, so many treasured songs—and stories of tragedy, triumph, and huge success.” She was buoyed by the response and encouraged by standing ovations—“That’s something I don’t get at home when I make breakfast,” she says ruefully.
To create Atlantic Blue, Tara says, “Basically what I did, I thought of all my favourite writers from this area and my favourite songs of theirs. In ten minutes, I had written it all down. It was such a joy—you know you are doing the right work when you are filling your heart every time you work on it.”
With her hands to her chest, Tara says, “I’m a balladeer—and (the album and the show) have some epic ballads.”
Tara laughs, “My relationship with sad songs is long. Sadness is the gateway to a lot of things. Sad songs make me feel powerful when I sing them. If you can add grit to the grace, that’s a really great balance.
“One thing I realized was that in the lives of these writers, there was so much tragedy, their lives were so intense. We’re talking shipwrecks. Child abuse. Severe depression. Thinking about their lives, I really wanted to bring it home.”
She adds, “To take a sad song deeper, you have to touch on a lot of things, and you have to dig deep. It’s so easy to dig deeper in red clay!”
To that point, Tara insists, “This project is all about local,” from merch to musicians to vinyl pressing. “I couldn’t have recorded it anywhere else.” She worked through a cold January at PEI’s Dunk River Sound.
Tara MacLean’s grandmother will be there for Atlantic Blue’s opening night; her daughters will also take in the show she describes as “the history, present, and future of Atlantic Canadian music.”
Tara says, “I had to ask my family for a lot to be able to do this… It takes a lot of surrendering to be a mama,” she admits. “I want for (my daughters) to see their mom in her full power,” and to know their powerful musical and family heritage.
“I hope it’s the first of many summers on PEI,” Tara MacLean says. “I’m so excited to be part of the pulsing scene of live performance on PEI this summer. I want to make PEI proud I belong to them.”