It’s not every day you get to have a phone call with a Canadian composer who has dabbled in the worlds of alt-rock, comic rap, and classical piano over two decades. I recently had the honour of engaging in a lengthy discussion with the self-proclaimed “Musical Genius” himself, Chilly Gonzales.
One may assume that an eccentric, masterful pianist such as Gonzales (or “Gonzo,” as he is known to those close to him) would have little to say about the state of modern pop music. However, it doesn’t take much digging to see that he is fascinated by pop. He seemingly has a mission to help us understand the genre better through the lens of music theory and storytelling. In fact, some of his greatest successes have been collaborations with with Feist, Drake, Daft Punk (with whom he won a Grammy award), Jarvis Cocker, and Peaches.
Gonzales recently released his third and final album of the Solo Piano trilogy, one that adds to the mountain of achievements as a prolific composer-performer. To the common ear, Solo Piano III may come off as a contemporary take on classical music, a direction that few musicians have chosen to pursue as a career in the modern industry. However, Gonzales challenges himself to “play pop songs on a classical instrument,” transposing traditional pop structures onto more complex arrangements and instrumentation. It is an album that commands attention and embraces the listener, and each song is dedicated to a specific historical figure as per 19th-century tradition. If you catch him perform these songs live on stage, you’ll almost certainly hear him elaborate on the story of these dedications.
Chilly is known for his wacky stage persona. Photo credit: AFP.
Gonzales himself has been an inspiration for other composer-performers in the genre such as Nils Frahm, Jean-Michel Blais, Flying Hórses, among others, who have come out of the woodwork to pursue their music in the public realm and tread the Gonzonian path. Further to this end, Gonzales has set up his own conservatory of music—aptly called the “Gonzervatory”—whereby young talents are hand selected to attend an all-expenses paid series of workshops with Gonzales in Paris. It is “a place for young musicians to find and strengthen their musical voice, to journey deeper into the emotions and science of their art.”
With such a bizarre career path, it isn’t surprising that he is also the subject of a new biopic called Shut Up and Play the Piano. The film, which was directed by Philipp Jedicke, looks back at his life and career from his Montreal upbringing, to rapping in dark underground Berlin clubs, and the ultimate formation of his bombastic and flamboyant stage persona, Chilly Gonzales. The film had its North American premiere at Pop Montreal in September, and recently had a run of showings at The Bytown Cinema in Ottawa.
Gonzales is set to perform at the National Arts Centre here in Ottawa on October 22, where we’ll see him play a number of pieces from Solo Piano III by himself on stage, as well as some hits and hidden surprises from the rest of his repertoire with the accompaniment of Stella Le Page on cello and Joe Flory on drums. Tickets can be purchased online here or at the NAC’s box office.
Read my interview with Chilly Gonzales below.
MM: Your new album, Solo Piano III, is the final installment of your solo piano trilogy which has spanned nearly 15 years. You’ve said that “it isn’t an antidote for our times, but it is a reﬂection of all the beauty and ugliness around us.” On this album, how do you use the piano to describe the world we live in right now?
CG: Well, I don’t know if I’d go that far. When I’m an artist, I’m alone and not thinking about the audience or any extra-musical elements. I need to shield myself from that kind of thinking when I’m composing an album. I need it to remain a mystery to myself in order to do that. I work in an abstract musical world, I don’t think of people, places, song titles, concepts, or even what musical tools I may be using. But at the moment when the artist becomes the entertainer, where water turns to gas, I change form. In that moment I become very much audience-conscious. I would very much like to offer an experience to people who don’t often listen to piano music, for example. So, in that moment I start thinking about puns I might make, and things like that. And if you don’t like the puns in my album and song titles, then you should see the ones I don’t use. There’s an iPhone file with hundreds of rejected ones, ones that I feel are meaningful beyond their bad joke.
Anyhow, I just make music as anyone does, in a blind way. But there’s a moment where I become my own A&R person, and I step back to think about stuff like who I’m going to dedicate a certain song to, or a song title that will get people interested or listening to it in a heightened state. That includes looking at what I do and say, “Oh look what weird thing I did with those scales on this album!” Maybe there’s an eighth note scale with one surprising note. Then I get a whole stage routine out of it where I talk about scales, about how scales can’t be music because they’re so predictable. But what if you add a surprise ninth note in an eighth note scale? That is literally something I thought of two years after I wrote a piece. But it serves to include people in the process, in a way that I hope brings people in who would normally not be into this kind of music.
Maybe younger audiences who normally listen to music with lyrics. I try to make pop music, and pop music is about being attentive to the audience. Some people think I make classical music, which isn’t true. I make pop music with a classical instrument.
MM: You have been known to break down the music of modern pop through the lens of a classically trained pianist. You always seem optimistic about the music you’re discussing in the masterclasses, and passionate about the way different aspects make the listener feel. What captivates you about today’s pop music that most people maybe overlook?
CG: The storytelling, combined with the reduction. Music has always been reduced starting from the moment that it became a commodity. I trace that back to 19th century Romanticism, artists like Chopin and Liszt, you think of the genius figure. And that’s what we’re still dealing with —there’s no Kanye West without Liszt. He was the first to make the music more powerful if your personality is there to amplify it, make people feel closer to you. The irony is you do that by being larger than life, in the way that Liszt essentially allowed the rumour to be spread that he was possessed by the devil. He knew it would increase the powers of his music, and this got coupled with the birth of the bourgeoisie and democracies, concepts that informed our modern society, culture, capitalism, the role of the artist. That all got invented in Europe somewhere between 1830-1880. We’re still sort of living in that time, and since that moment music has been reduced, there’s less and less but it’s still telling a story.
I still like to listen to music that supposedly has nothing in it, but if you take the microscope deep enough, you’ll find storytelling, you’ll find theme and variation, tension and release, question and answer, the hero’s journey. Whatever you want to call those concepts, those are storytelling concepts. Even though music seems more and more repetitive, it’s not what you think. There’s always some element of change, and of contrast, otherwise it wouldn’t work. Especially in big pop songs, because they can’t become big if there’s not some element of storytelling in it. You can’t reach millions of people without the storytelling element.
MM: Few instruments are as emotive and expressive as the piano. What would you say to young musicians thinking about taking up the piano today?
CG: I would say that it doesn’t matter what instrument you play. Piano is valid. Computer is valid. Drums are valid. Drum machine is valid. Rapping is valid. Producing beats is valid. It’s all the same, but don’t forget to do it with other people. If you only do it alone in your room and get that little rush of “wow I put a song online and so many people have listened to it,” that’s a great start. But it’s not going to get you to musical ecstasy or a career. So on a pragmatic and spiritual level, don’t forget music was performance for thousands of years. There was an abhorration called recording that we’re still living in, but in another way the music business has again been reoriented towards performance—which is the one thing that can’t truly be replaced. We just have to keep that in mind.
I started the conservatory to remind people to always think of music as something always being performed. Remove the barrier between composition and performance, and ironically that’s how the Romantics did it. Chopin, Liszt, they were all composer-performers. In the classical world, when I hear people say “it’s amazing that you bring an audience to your acoustic classical music. Classical music is dying, what can we do?” It’s having more composer-performers. That’s how this whole thing was created. Now there’s this separation where we have a lot of living performers playing dead people’s music. With the conservatory, they have to erase that line so that every composition is also a performance.
MM: Jeremy Dutcher is a young piano virtuoso, much like yourself, who just recently won the Polaris Music Prize. While classically-influenced musicians have typically flown under the mainstream industry’s radar, do you think more attention is being given to artists like Jeremy, Flying Hórses, and Jean-Michel Blais?
CG: Flying Hórses! A wonderful Ottawa reference! Yes, I think it’s the return of the composer-performer. Jeremy Dutcher sings in some of his songs, and I know he sings in an endangered indigenous language which is very important. And of course my buddy Jean-Michel Blais was also shortlisted for the prize, and those are wonderful moments.
I only had a couple of role models when I started on my first record. Yann Tiersen, the Amélie composer was maybe the closest thing to being someone in the pop world making music with acoustic instruments. I was very inspired by his existence. And now there are more of us, and that’s so inspiring. And there are some I like more than others, of course. But I’m not to everyone’s taste, either. Just the fact that we have the chance to play in venues now that may have been closed to us in the past is a good thing. I’m really happy that there are people popping up who are daring to do that difficult thing, which is to try and reach a pop audience without lyrics or electronics. Well, some use electronics, like Jean-Michel Blais or Nils Frahm, who bring people in by incorporating electronics on stage into what they do. It’s yet another strategy.
There are so many ways in, and I’m glad more people are doing that. Every time I see an instrumental performance with a VJ, I think “this isn’t what I would do, but isn’t this better than the tyranny of everyone saying ‘but there’s no lyrics’ all the time.” It’s a refrain that many musicians have heard for a really long time.
MM: A new biopic about you called Shut Up and Play the Piano opened October 5th in Canada, and it seems to accurately portray how wacky your career has been so far. Can you talk a bit about the film and where this idea came from?
CG: Well, the director came to me with a pitch and wanted to tell my story. He said that when he saw me in Berlin I seemed so crazy, and yet I went through all of these evolutions while still remaining myself. And now I live in Cologne, leading a pretty mellow life in a mid-sized city. It’s probably not dissimilar in vibe from Ottawa in size and feel, actually. I choose my moments when I have to be in larger metropolis cities. And so I told him that I have this giant archive and would like to have my story told, and was into it as long as the archive had a role in the movie. So things rolled along slowly, as projects of mine usually do. I like to build trust, having been the subject of two documentary films before with results I was not happy with.
I was able to design the process with him in a way that I made sure I wouldn’t be disappointed, and we just took our time with it. Then we pulled the trigger, and I wasn’t really involved after the planning stage. I let the game play itself according to the rules we set up, and I’m so happy with the results. It has far exceeded my expectations of what a documentary about my work and life could be. I’m thrilled about it. I’ve only seen it twice, and I gave notes on a rough cut early on to help make it a better film. There are some moments that aren’t particularly flattering for me, they’re not all to my glory. It’s not a hagiography (or whatever the hell that word is), and by most accounts of people who’ve seen it, it’s similar to what it’s like to see me in concert. It goes by quickly, it is varied.
There are many emotions, some of which are touching and some of which are ridiculous. There are some moments that are even perhaps provocative, and slightly offensive or subversive. If I can combine all those things in a concert, then why shouldn’t that be able to come across in film? In that way, I think it succeeded.
Since taking the reigns as Executive Producer of the NAC Presents series a year and a half ago, Heather Gibson has had the vision of bringing something new to the table. She recognizes the NAC’s importance in developing emerging artists across Canada and supporting the Ottawa/Gatineau region’s local arts scenes, and to that extent, has lived up to her word and is building upon her vision. The NAC is becoming a more accessible stage for local artists to cut their teeth, as well as garner more exposure and develop their audiences.
Moreover, her work in challenging the music industry’s problem of unbalanced opportunities for women and marginalized people has allowed the NAC to be a shining example of how music programming should be conducted. She is steering the ship in the right direction, and demonstrating that achieving diversity and gender parity isn’t rocket science.
Upon the announcement of NAC’s 2018-19 season programming—which includes over 55 shows—I spoke with Ms. Gibson on the phone about these topics, and the new theme of Changing Landscapes.
Interview with Heather Gibson
Can you speak about the theme of changing landscapes and what that represents?
I didn’t book with a theme in mind, it’s just the theme that came. We wanted to book the artists that we wanted, and then the theme of “changing landscapes” is what it ended up being. It represents many things—changing of landscape here at the NAC, changing direction, the idea that Canada isn’t one thing and that it’s a collection of art and influences. That’s how they all kind of fit into that theme.
What role do you see the NAC playing with respect to gender parity and diversity in the grand scheme of the Canadian Music industry?
I don’t think gender parity is hard. It’s really challenging to understand why people will program an entire festival where there’s one female artist over nine days or something. With all respect due to my colleagues, I think that they either don’t have the same goals or aspirations as the National Arts Centre, or they just don’t know how to do their job very well. Gender parity and diversity is part of doing your job as an Artistic Director—in any kind of art. So, the role of the NAC is far deeper than presenting a diverse program, it’s about getting to the root of the issue and what the NAC can contribute to changing that. I don’t find it difficult to book like that, but I hear a lot of my peers saying that it is difficult to book diverse acts at a headlining level.
There are arguments to be made that there’s a short list of women who will perform for $100k or $50k, but then there needs to be a focus on booking women in a secondary role, underneath the headliners and on the B-stage. Bringing up the development of women like we have been with guys for decades is important. We have a responsibility at the NAC to ask the tough questions, like why are there so few female conductors? We need to figure out how we can develop female conductors. Or if there are only a handful of indigenous artists who fit the bill, then how do we make sure there are more of them in the future?
It’s difficult, and a lot of those conversations are systemic. There’s a whole ecosystem here that hopefully we can influence, and the audience is involved in that. If they want to support diversity, then the audience needs to come to those shows.
Traditionally the NAC Presents and the NAC Orchestra have been their own separate entities. Can you speak to how that collaboration came to be this season?
Yeah, the series is called Sessions. Part of the challenge is that the Orchestra is booking into 2020 right now, so when I first got here and expressed interest in this collaboration, they were very keen on the development of Canadian arrangers and composers, as well as audience development. On my side of things, I’m interested in artistic development of singer-songwriters. With people like Lynn Miles, we’re doing a full-commission project from start to end with her, so archiving great Canadian songwriters is important as well. Through the years you’ll see more and more of that, and Lynn is actually the first one.
It was a conversation we’ve had, and the NAC Orchestra and Andrew Shelley (Music Director) have been very supportive of this idea. They’ve been keen on seeing what we can do. We have a mash of things this year, Lynn Miles and Tom Wilson are doing the first one on October 4th. Tom is coming with his book and doing the show he did with the Hamilton Philharmonic, and Lynn is being commissioned. We’re doing six or seven with her on this first one, and then eventually over a series of shows she’ll have a full one in a year and a half. And then Stars are a full commission in December, and that is giving us the opportunity to work with a lot of great Canadian arrangers, and probably a new Canadian conductor.
There are a lot of different parts to it, Patrick Watson has a lot of these symphony shows under his belt and I think there will be an opportunity to do a lot of neat stuff with him as his compositions have been getting more and more intricate. It will be interesting with the band in front of the orchestra. The Johnny Reid Christmas show is allowing us to work with local choirs and have him front this thing that will seem like a community Christmas concert. It’s allowing us to do new things and open doors. It will allow us to break down some things and have a different conversation about the NAC Orchestra and how they fit in the context of music, not just contemporary or classical.
How has focusing more on programming with local artists—mainly on the Fourth Stage—been beneficial to the NAC?
I think as long as I’m here this is something that will continue. On the local side of things, we live and breath here in Ottawa. There’s no reason why we wouldn’t be part of the local music scene. For a year and a half since I’ve been here, we’ve been trying to figure out what that looks like, and we certainly don’t want to be a glass institution where once you’ve reached a certain level, you get to play a show at the NAC every once in a while.
I very much want to be part of developing careers. Our next big challenge is how do we move beyond just being a presenting venue, and move towards developing artists’ careers? We 100% have to look at that locally, and the scene we have here—whether that’s Pressed, Bar Robo, LIVE! on Elgin, or the Black Sheep Inn in Wakefield—we all have an important role to play. A band like Hillsburn will play at the NAC, and then go play a place like LIVE! on Elgin, and then come back here. The whole time they’re building their audience in the community.
It’s integral to me that emerging artists are involved in our program. I really don’t want to have a program where we wait until you can sell 900 seats and then we’ll put you in the Theatre. We need to be part of the development, and artists need to have the opportunity to have access to our gear, crew, and lighting, and I think emerging artists need the opportunity to play on this kind of stage. Then they go back out into the world like they do on tour, and then we’ll do it again in six months. We have to be a part of that.
Catriona Sturton is a household name in Canadian music and beyond—her masterful blues guitar and harmonica stylings combined with her angelic sweetness are the trappings of a true musical powerhouse, a fact undeniably demonstrative in her live performances. Her songwriting, in juxtaposition to her inundated playing, is deliberate and subdued, yet both offer a sort of honest intimacy that rattles and soothes, an experience similar to getting socked in the gut while someone tenderly strokes your hair. It’s often too much for audiences’ hearts to handle and I’ve had the pleasure of bearing witness to that collective heartbreak on two separate occasions, with a third opportunity coming this Friday, April 13th at NAC Fourth Stage on a double bill with Alberta singer/songwriter, Liz Stevens.
This show will be markedly different than any previous iteration of her solo work in two signifanct ways; for the first time she will be backed by a band and, perhaps more startling, Sturton will be playing violin publicly, something she hasn’t done since she was a child. I spoke with her about what inspired these changes as well as what else she has planned for Friday evening.
Interview with Catriona Sturton
Can you tell me a little bit about your history with the violin and how you came to pick it up?
I played the violin for years as a kid. My grandfather was the local fiddler in the Irish village that my mum was from (he was also the seventh son of a seventh son!). I liked the idea of learning fiddle music as a kid but ended up taking classical violin lessons. I wasn’t a great student (ok, I was kind of terrible; I once showed up to a lesson with an empty violin case) but am now thankful that it gave me a good musical base. I used to think that I never fell in love with playing music ’til I discovered the harmonica, but I’m realizing now that I have really deep feelings for the violin.
What sparked the resurrgence?
I went on tour with The Noisy Locomotive and played with Trevor Pool and Ben Nesrallah, who accompanied me on violin on several songs. Since then, I knew there was something magical about the combination of violin and harmonica. I kept thinking I should find a violin player to tour with in the future, then one day I decided that I should try to play it myself.
What was the most challenging part?
My experience was that it wasn’t like riding a bike at all…. it felt like a very new instrument even though I had played it for a long time when I was younger it felt very new to pick it up again. Part of that was I had to hold it in a different way to be able to play harmonica at the same time. The fun part was that I kind of used the harmonica as a teacher to show me what I wanted to do on the violin. I do like a challenge though, so there is something grounding in being humbled.
Did you experience an awakening of sorts?
Last year I went to learn Irish music from my uncle and it made me really wonder why I hadn’t tried to learn some sooner. At that time I was playing songs on the diatonic harmonica and he also gave me an accordion. But starting violin made me feel really strongly and deeply that I should be connecting more with this side of my family’s musical heritage.
Do you feel vulnerable without your guitar?
Very much so!!!!
You’re working with drummer Ben Deinstadt and bassist Kristy Nease now, a departure from your usual solo performances. What brought you all together and how did you manage to find cohesion as artists?
I have been working as a one person band for 5 years. While working on arranging my songs, it became apparent that some of them have pretty idiosyncratic structures, which kind of explains why it was sometimes hard for me to explain what I wanted from other musicians in the past. I met Ben Deinstadt through GINNY’s Lesley Marshall and had heard he was interested in touring. When we started to get together to play music it was just for fun and we became good friends in the process. I was really impressed with how much attention he would put into learning little details and arrangements for the songs and I also loved how some of the parts he came up with weren’t what you’d expect at first but fit the songs in a way that it now feels weird for me to not hear them. And he helped me fix a bunch of my gear! He’s great! I think he’s a bit of a secret weapon, he said some people he knows don’t even know he plays the drums, but I can’t imagine that will be for long.
I have played with Kristy since I first started to seriously consider playing guitar and harmonica at the same time. She’s a real inspiration to me as a musician. One of the very first tours I did was with her, years ago, in Nova Scotia. She’s solid as a person and a bass player, and I feel very lucky that she can join us for this show. I think she’s in 5 bands at the moment, I’m not sure if this makes 6! I was standing next to her at a show and saw how intently she was watching the bands play and I didn’t even know if she played music, I just had a feeling based on how tuned in she was that she’d be great to play with. Years later she’s a great friend and I feel so comfortable playing with her.
I’ll also have Birdie Whyte and Sal Valley as special guests. They are two gems of songwriting in Ottawa and we’ve just started to play together, the three of us.
That sounds so incredibly special! I mean, though you live in Ottawa, we are rarely gifted with a chance to see you perform and it sounds like this Friday is going to be particularly incredible!
I try not to play in Ottawa too often, so that I have time to prepare and pull out all the stops when I do! This time I’ll have a Wheel of Fortune, made by Montreal artist Emily Comeau and props made of my art by Ottawa’s Kate Greenland (who performs as Mabel Beggs, solo and in Aiken and Beggs).
Not to mention the addition of Liz Stevens on the bill!
I can’t wait to hear Liz live. Her voice blows me away but I’ve only gotten to experience it on video and recorded. She has such a great ability to capture nuance and feeling. There is a video of her singing Wicked Game by Chris Isaak that is devestatingly moving.
You are also a visual artist, creating the most sunshiney of illustrations. Your smiling heart is almost a signature of sorts. You create artwork for others upon request seemingly just to brighten others days. What drives you to spread such positivity? Is it something you consciously curate or is it something you feel comes to you naturally?
It’s funny, when I first made a website my friend, Jason Cobill, who designed it, suggested I have my drawings on it. At the time I wasn’t sure how they fit with the music I was making. I write a lot of quiet and very moody songs. But the drawings I make definitely have a light and funny quality to them. I started making drawings online for people when I got a scholarship to an online group where my role was to be a cheerleader in exchange for doing the course for free. I really enjoyed tuning in to where someone was at and trying to see if I could draw something that would encourage them in that moment. I discovered an app I could colour in the drawings with and it all clicked for me. I started drawing more this year because after I got a concussion sound really bothered me and after months of laying pretty low I think I needed a creative outlet.
My favourite drawings to do by far have been for people by request, or when they ask for one for someone they care about so I’ve kept making more and more. It makes me happy to be able to do them and I feel lucky when I get to tune into people caring about each other. For example, parents might ask for one for their kids, or people will ask for their friends or partner. In the moment when I’m drawing I get to feel that love and it is really beautiful. I haven’t really considered myself to be an artist but I have started to get a number of commissions, which I really appreciate because it has really encouraged me. And I’m starting to make merch with my art. The first ones will be at this show, I have some pins.
You mentioned you had suffered a concussion that impacted your ability to play music. What was it like coming out of that? What have you learned from the adaption process?
I got rear ended this summer and hit my head on the steering wheel. It threw me for a big loop because one of the most difficult parts of it was that I became hypersensitive to sound, to the point that it made me nauseous. I had trouble if more than one conversation was happening at a time. And bright lights were too much. Basically everything that you have at a show I couldn’t handle. It was kind of heartbreaking because I had worked really hard for 5 years and was feeling like I was starting to build some momentum with my music career and then had to face not knowing what the process of recovery would look like. I had to lie in the dark with sunglasses on and my windows covered up.
The part that turned out to be the hardest for me was that my ability to read and respond to people was really affected. So, little things like talking to someone after a show was a huge challenge, let alone trying to talk to lots of people, which is actually a really big part of playing shows. The other thing that crept in later was that being rear ended made me feel cautious about driving, which is a huge part of touring. After moving through all kinds of challenges in the past few years and working really hard to keep unafraid and a positive attitude, I got kind of swamped.
One thing I realized throughout it all was that it is very scary to be vulnerable, and I think being kind of reduced in this way made me take more risks in writing songs that were more open about challenging times. And it made me want to move away from having a wall of sound that I had aspired to with a big amplifier, harmonica tone, and one-man-band posturing I used as a bit of a defense mechanism while touring solo. I mean, I still like to play loud at times! But it made me appreciate more how brave it can be to really open yourself up. In some ways I think I have started to connect with people on a deeper level after going through a few things and kind of having no choice but to reflect them in where I was at.
While difficult to comprehend how someone’s artistic well could possibly be mined deeper, the fact that someone so accomplished as Catriona continues to take artistic risks that bring us closer to her is a rare gift afforded to an audience: a gift you can receive this Friday evening if you believe in love and magic. Tickets are available a the NAC box office, or can be found online here.
We’re giving away two passes to tonight’s performance by Flying Hórses at the National Arts Centre, which is sure to be an intimate spectacle.
Flying Hórses is the project of composer-pianist Jade Bergeron, who combines piano, Wurlitzer, chimes, bells and cello to create instrumental soundscapes that stir the soul. Her debut album, Tölt, was recorded with Sigur Rós’ producer, Biggi Birgisson, at Sundlaugin Studio in Iceland. She also played Iceland Airwaves Music Festival in 2015, as well as the world-renowned Festival International de Jazz de Montreal in 2016. The Banff Centre for Performance Arts welcomed Flying Hórses in the fall of 2016 for a residency, to work and collaborate with Juno award-winner Charles Spearin (Broken Social Scene, Do Make Say Think). And just to put the cherry on top, Flying Hórses was nominated for the 2018 Prism Prize, for Best Canadian Music Video, alongside Leonard Cohen, The Weeknd, Feist, and Grimes. Not bad company to be in.
We’re giving away a few free passes to Flying Hórses’ performance at the NAC’s Fourth Stage at 8:30 PM tonight along with Ottawa’s own mal/aimé, so be sure to enter below! Just fill out the form and we’ll be in touch by 6:00 PM via email if you’ve won.
Rose Cousins experiences life as a human. The east coast roots-balladeer dreams big, and writes big. Armed with a dynamic set of pipes, Cousins distils our species’ grandest themes into dreamy vignettes that seamlessly pivot from whisper-quiet confessionals, to titanic pronouncements.
Despite years of critical and industry acclaim, Cousins re-jigged her priorities at the end 2013. She spent some time travelling, songwriting in meccas like LA and Nashville, and got back into photography, spending hours printing in NSCAD’s dark rooms.
Last year she returned with “Natural Conclusion”, a candle-lit, epsom bath of emotive balladry. Lyrically impressionistic, she’s leaves the metaphorical heavy-lifting up to the listener. Minimalist song titles like “Freedom”, “Chosen”, “Grace”, harken to a simpler time in pop music, when a creep was a “Creep”, hurt was “Hurt”, and songs about spoon men were called “Spoonman”.
Rolf Klausener: Dream gig to open-up for? Rose Cousins: Sting, but only if I got to meet him. I’d like KD Lang, Bonnie Raitt and Adele’s audiences to adopt me.
That’s incredibly fair. Who’s your dream opening act? Drake
Heavy. I’d love to see that with my human eyes. What’s your favourite venue in Canada? This is where I say the NAC right?
Only if you mean it with your physical heart. Do you associate Ottawa with the National Arts Centre, or as having its own scene? When I started, my “Ottawa” experience was playing the Blacksheep Inn. It associated Ottawa with some of the best fans and listening audiences. Since the NAC’s program to develop new artists has been in play, it’s expanded my experience of growth as an artist and expanded the experience an audience can have of a variety of shows. It’s an opportunity I deeply appreciate.
With that, what significance does playing the NAC hold for you? It’s an opportunity to expand the idea of a show to reach new heights. Filling a grander space, not necessarily with more sound but with more ideas. This time, I’ll be bringing a string quartet along with my band.
Who doesn’t love strings!? Do you think performing arts centres like the NAC are the right place for contemporary popular music like trap or drone-metal? It makes perfect sense that the National Arts Centre would be a good place and presenter of our diverse Canadian talent.
It really does. How did the experience of writing-on-assignment in Nashville and LA affect your approach to the songs that followed? It has only broadened my skills. I adjust my approach based on what the song is for, especially if I’m writing to a brief; but, my experience as a human will always inform the way I write no matter what it’s for.
Humanity is vital. Since the early 2000’s, there’s been a marked shift in attitudes towards song placement in film and tv. For writers with solid publishing deals, syncs are an essential part of their financial sustainability. How has that shift in attitudes affected your process as a songwriter? Luckily, there will always be death, birth and breakups in Film and TV, so I don’t have to do much shifting as a songwriter. Songs in movies have always been my favourite. So, my existing tendencies lend to this shift in revenue streams.
Flexibility is key! So, how do you separate the “songwriting for me” Rose, from the “I’m gonna nail this sync” Rose? I don’t.
In 2007, a passion for music and dedication to female empowerment spurred the creation of Ottawa Rock Camp for Girls—a weekend of music instruction for teens and young adults. Ten years later, Girls+ Rock Ottawa is a multi-faceted organization with programs for girls, women, and non-binary youth to learn and experience music in a welcoming space. This November, Girls+ held their eleventh rock camp, showcasing tremendous growth and confidence in Ottawa’s women+ music community at the newly-renovated National Arts Centre.
Despite its recent success, Girls+ Rock is still a small, non-profit organization ran completely by local volunteers. Bianca Oran, a member of the organization’s Board, is a non-profit professional with a passion for music and development. She left a career in the music industry to work on sponsorships for the Ottawa Mission, and joined Girls+ a year ago to assist with on partnerships and communication. “It married my love of music with my day job and what I was already doing,” she says. “Music has been a huge part of my life for most of my life. I thought this would be a really good organization to get involved with in any way.”
“Since I’ve been there, it’s evolved a bit,” she says. This spring, the organization changed its name from Ottawa Rock Camp for Girls to Girls+ Rock Ottawa. “That’s because we’re more than just a once a year camp,” she explains. “We do workshops throughout the year, we have a drop-in jam space where alumni can come and practice. We provide that access space for them.” In addition to their new programming, the organization expanded to an older audience, hosting its first Rock Camp for Women+ this summer. The inaugural project was a huge success, proving a desire for welcoming music programs and communities in the city.
In the past year, Girls+ has also received an influx of funding, allowing the organization to pursue its new projects. They recently received just under $24, 000 granted from TD. “For a little organization like ours, to have that support is huge,” says Oran. The funding allowed them to purchase brand new instruments for their camps and jam sessions, providing for new and returning artists. “We purchased a lot of the instruments from local music shops,” says Oran, “so we put the money back into the community.”
The recent funding has been continued with the help of The J.S. Belleau Fund, which was established this summer. The fund was created after the passing of Jean-Sebastien Belleau, a young Ottawa local and active participant and friend of the city’s music community. “We were honoured and moved when J.S.’ family listed Girls+ Rock Ottawa as the recipient of all proceeds in his name,” says Tiffanie Tri, Chairperson and co-organizer of the camp. “We created the fund because we wanted to have a way to distinguish the funds that were donated in his memory. As in, have a way to track it and monitor its impact.”
Additional funds were also raised this summer at the I Love You J.S. Fest (ILYJS), a community festival and fundraiser hosted by Ottawa Showbox. Since his passing in March 2017, over $2,700 has been raised in J.S.’ name, and donations continue to roll in.
Girls+ has used the donations towards the the maintenance and upkeep of their new and growing inventory of musical instruments, “in order to sustain these investments, and to ensure that we can keep providing high quality instruments to anyone who wants to partake in our programming,” says Tri.
The new instruments were used this past month at the Girls+ Rock Camp, but the organization has more and much larger plans to use their new investments. Their main goal is to create a local music library for young musicians to borrow and rent instruments, following their mandate of providing access and resources to music in Ottawa.
In addition to their increasing funding and expanding projects, the organization has established partnerships with a variety of local businesses. Girls+ recently launched their own collection of merch, selling out of their first run at Victoire Boutique in Westboro West and online. The organization chose Victoire for its independent, local impact and dedication to ethical fashion. The new line (which includes t-shirts, sweatshirts and totes with handmade designs by local artists) marks a new beginning for Girls+, with a tangible showcase of identity, community and impact.
Girls+ is a unique non-profit made of young musicians, professionals, artists, and local supporters. The organization’s last year is proof of this, with its exponential growth and evolving identity. “We’re a community based organization that uses music to empower girls,” says Oran. “We have this flagship event, the camp, but we also want to create new partnerships in the community. We want to make sure were being as inclusive and diverse as possible.”
In the future, she hopes for a continuation of funding and community support. “How great would it be if we could take on more than 30 campers per year? Or if we could pay our volunteer teachers? We just don’t have the capacity or funding yet.”
Specifically, Oran is passionate about creating space and resources for women and girls interested in music. “It’d be great to have more support from the community, more spaces for alumni to host all-ages shows,” she says. Sustainability is important to Girls+, which inspired their jam sessions and women’s rock camp, so alumni can return to further improve their skills. Many have done so, with a handful of former students returning annually as teachers.
Ottawa is not an easy place to thrive as a young artist, especially as a young woman. Girls+ Rock’s mandate—to empower young girls and women through music—is evidently thriving and working to break down barriers for gender minorities. At November’s camp showcase, campers exuded a shared confidence and skill, nurtured through the program’s dedication to community. The programs offer an affordable, safe and inviting space for youth to pursue their passion.
From a $24,000 grant to community fundraising to multiple new programs, it’s been a massive year for Girls+ Rock Ottawa. Now, with secured funding and growing local partnerships, there’s no limit to the impact these young girls, women and local leaders can have in Ottawa’s music community.
If you’re a fan of Canadian music and follow CBC, you’ve probably heard of the CBC Searchlight contest. It’s a competition that attracts thousands of submissions from musicians across the country, and the search for the nation’s most talented undiscovered performers occurs over the course of several months. In its fifth year, CBC has partnered up with Canada Scene and the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in the annual competition.
The contest has wrapped up with Vancouver’s The Long War being crowned winners (and, coincidentally, also have an Ottawa connection). The west coast folk rockers took the prize with their song “Breathe In Breathe Out,” beating out singer-songwriter Jaryd Stanley, as well as Saskatchewan trio The Wolfe and hip hop/R&B phenom WILL, who moved to Canada from Trinidad and Tobago at the age of five.
The Long War are set to play their biggest stage yet, Ottawa’s newly-renovated National Arts Centre on July 2nd. The night will be hosted by Canadian songwriting staple Royal Wood, who worked with them during their residency at The Banff Centre, and will also feature exhilarating performances by the runners up.
I spoke with The Long War’s singer Jarrett Lee about the CBC Searchlight competition, and the road ahead. Read the interview and watch their performance of “Breathe In Breathe Out” below.
The CBC Searchlight Live! event will be held on Sunday, July 2nd at the National Arts Centre’s beautiful Babs Asper Theatre at 7 pm. Find ticket information and purchase links here.
Interview with The Long War’s Jarrett Lee
Now that the CBC Searchlight competition is over, what was your biggest takeaway from the contest? Did you learn anything from the process as a whole?
Our biggest takeaway is something that we continue to remind ourselves everyday and that is Searchlight is an opportunity. We need to work hard and take full advantage of that. There’s a lot to learn in the music industry and we need to embrace those learning experiences while continuing to grow musically as a band. We’re so excited for what’s to come, and so grateful CBC and Searchlight has helped put us in this position.
What does it mean to you to come play in Ottawa at the National Arts Centre for Canada’s 150th?
Ottawa is a special place, it’s like a home to me. The first stage I ever performed on was in Ottawa. I met my bandmate Chad in Ottawa when he was cutting his teeth in the music scene before moving to Vancouver. The NAC is an incredible venue, I saw one of my favourite bands Wilco play there. And to be playing a venue so renowned on Canada Day 150 alongside Royal Wood to my family and friends is truly surreal. It’s an important chapter in this journey and we’re so thrilled to be a part of the celebration.
Winning the competition is a huge feat, with so many other acts that entered from the start. Did you get a chance to listen and become a fan of any other artists? If so, whom?
There were a lot of talented artists in Searchlight, I’m a fan of Will, Jaryd Stanley and The Wolfe all of whom will be hitting the NAC stage July 2nd. They were our Searchlight finalist peers and we spent some serious time together going through the process. That experience was a special one that we all shared connecting us in a way. They’re also really great songwriters and awesome people worth checking out.
What was it like playing “Performance in the Park” in from of a sold out crowd in Banff?
It was like nothing I’d ever experienced! There were two thousand plus in the crowd, the weather was cold and wet but people came out and were so interested in sharing in the experience of live music and so engaged in the performance. We have a song called “Lake Louise” and everyone sang along. Magical things happen in Banff.
How much longer will it be until the Vancouver Canucks win the Stanley Cup?
Great question! Patience is a skill, not a virtue. We’ve got a hard core Montreal fan in this band who I’m sure would love to answer this if he could. Missed opportunity, sorry Chad!
Moving forward, what does the future hold in store for the band? Do you feel like there’s a lot of music in you to give?
We’re releasing an album called “Landscapes” in January that we recorded at Metalworks Studios in Mississauga with Producer Kevin Dietz. We couldn’t be more excited about it. We’re always writing and already have lots of material we can’t wait to play. There’s plenty of music flowing through us, we’ve already planned our follow up album!
Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, is made up of about 2,200 permanent residents, while Dartmouth has about 67,500. The City of Ottawa has more permanent residents than the entire province. It’s easy to be recognized, its easy to know of a lot of people, and if you are a public figure like Joel Plaskett, it’s no shock that pretty much everyone can find a connection to you.
Joel Plaskett is known around town not only for his music, but his work in the community. Advocating for the arts in Nova Scotia through organizations like the Khyber, growth of Dartmouth’s downtown core, and producing up and coming local artists. Encouraging growth in the arts is something that is found within many members of the Plaskett family. While living in Lunenburg, Bill Plaskett was one of the founding members of the Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival. This festival has continued to be one of the towns flourishing events, highlighting local artists on its many stages, including Joel. The most recent project undertaken by the Plaskett duo has been the appropriately named Solidarity album released in February.
When I was told that I had a chance to speak with Joel, I knew that I wanted to highlight the importance of community, family, and to showcase the importance of that word solidarity. I chose to reach out to my community to find which questions they would want to ask. I was not disappointed. I learned more in that part of this interview process than I expected to in the whole thing. Many were interested in family, wanting to know what it was like to produce an album with his Dad, and how much of an influence his dad was on his career. Some were interested in his work in Dartmouth, some of his past experiences, and others interested in where he saw things going in the future.
When creating Solidarity, partnering with his dad changed the album’s sound from his usual influences, and it brought him a sense of grounding. The process led to the exploration of parts of the self, bringing back the sounds of traditional folk. Discussions of the album began about a year before they decided to go ahead with it, booking the tour before solidifying the albums production. The deadline was tight. They started the recording process in October of last year with a deadline in the first part of November, which gave them about 30 days to record and produce it in it’s entirety. Having shared a stage in the past with his father, Joel wanted to take that further and give his dad more of the stage. Bill takes lead on five songs on the album, which are rooted deeply in tradition. A sound that was also inherited by Joel, bringing him “full circle” in his dad’s influence on his music. This was an influence that started by digging through old record collections, finding interest in certain musicians that have impacted the sound Joel carried into his career. The guitar style he was interested in was very much his dad’s, an influence that he noticed come through more on this album than on other albums. This album mixes Bill’s ‘social’ musical style with Joel’s more professional approach to music production, bringing the “living room to the stage.”
Growing up, Joel was influenced by music from a variety of sources. His love of rock music began from a lesser-known source, which was his time spent at Camp Wapemeo. Located in Yarmouth, Joel attended this camp with Ian McGettigan and Rob Benvie, who would later join him to form Thrush Hermit. It was at this camp where Chef Bobby got up in front of the whole camp and air guitared Stairway to Heaven at campfire. For Joel, that moment wasn’t about the air guitaring, but about having his first taste of Led Zeppelin. He talked about his “a-ha” moment, sitting at the fire thinking, “WHAT IS THAT SONG?!” He was 12 or 13 years old, and he admits that those camp moments changed his life.
Camp, like most kids, left a lasting impact for Joel. Memories for him also included a song well known which was sung by all the kids at Camp Wapemeo. That song was Leaving on a Jet Plane. Years later, well into his career, Joel was asked to play at a camp located in Ontario. He ended up finding out that his song, True Patriot Love, became the “Leaving on a Jet Plane” song for that camp, and thinking, “Yes. I made it!”
Understanding the ins and outs of music industry is important when working the way Joel does. Running an all-in-one record store/barber shop/coffee shop/recording studio in Dartmouth keeps him in the loop about what the local industry looks like, while also giving him the ability to produce records for musicians on-site. The New Scotland Yard Emporium has provided the space for many locals like Mo Kenney to build their foundation in the music industry. Other renowned artists have gone through NSYE, such as Cancer Bats and, of course, Frank Turner who recently played a pop-up acoustic show while on tour last month.**
Growing this hub in Dartmouth has made the profession accessible for him, and other musicians in the area. Sharing worries about the financial sustainability of the industry, he says there is little money in recording and that artists can only find security through money earned while on tour. Streaming has impacted the ability to earn money off records, but has had an impact on developing a fan base for shows while away. Joel has been fortunate enough to develop an audience that has grown and gotten older with him throughout the years, many of whom are dedicated to coming to shows. Anyone who has been in that audience knows Joel takes pride in his shows, keeping it professional and casual. You’d find yourself excited to be there, and comfortable enough to go have a conversation with him after the show. Connecting with the audience and encouraging that his shows, and music in general, “is something everyone can be a part of.”
This mindset has kept him able to continue to work within the community. Avoiding the fan fair often associated with being a well-known performer, and wanting to maintain his ability to walk down the streets of Dartmouth. Relax and enjoy the simplicities in life, like disconnecting from the world of technology and telephones and going for walks around Lake Banook (one of Dartmouth’s many lakes, it is the City of Lakes after all). Keeping this small-town mentality allows for the ability to slow down, which, in true Nova Scotian fashion, also includes the boycotting of Sunday shopping – the belief that everyone needs a day of rest and relaxation.
Being on tour provides a different kind of relaxation for Joel. It provides the relaxing “feeling of being useful.” Knowing that in the moments while away, he is doing exactly what he needs to be doing. When getting on stage he is comfortable. He knows the tuning, he knows what to prepare, and knows that that first song should sound and feel like. Joel and Bill Plaskett will be playing the National Arts Centre on March 18th. He tells us to expect a shared stage. Opening for them is a “fuzzy-folk” duo, Mayhemingways, who have also been recruited to do some backing up for the Plaskett’s set. In addition to these openers, the tour will have Shannon Quinn joining for the first few shows, including the NAC. She is a talented fiddler who will be playing with them for the set, making it into a five-piece group in the end. This show will be different from what people are used to, and will showcase the fusion of Bill’s traditional folk with Joel’s upbeat rock. He also promised to bring in a few of his old songs as well.
Joel’s Song I wish I Wrote but Didn’t
Nina Simone – The Twelfth of Never (original lyrics by Johnny Mathis)_________________________________________________________
**Frank Turner and Joel Plaskett have a long-standing friendship after Turner went on tour with Emergency five years ago. Joel highlighted Turner’s stage energy, general positivity, and overall genuine kindness. Plaskett also highlighted how every so often Turner will be listening to Joel’s music and it will pop up on his twitter, and people from anywhere and everywhere will comment about checking it out. For that he gave a chuckle and thanks.
What happens when three singer-songwriters meet, become friends, and start to help each other out? I had a chance to sit down with Carleton Stone, Breagh Mackinnon, and Dylan Guthro, who all grew up in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Each having their own successful background in music, they told me about how they came together at the Gordie Sampson Songcamp, and from there, Port Cities was born.
Each a successful solo musician in their own right, it is no surprise that their collaboration has become its own fusion of sound, making their experimental vibe unique. Since meeting their mentor/friend Gordie Sampson, they have been working to create, perfect, and record their debut album. When asked to describe the journey of making this album they simply said “meat and potatoes.” Insisting that the album, which they have been working on for a year, has been worked down to the core. Expanding on the DIY style of writing and recording they have chosen, something that is both accessible and nourishing to the tight-knit music community they know and love.*
Port Cities revisited Ottawa, opening for folk power-house Rose Cousins on February 17th at the NAC. Listening live, their harmonies silenced the lively room of eager Rose Cousins fans. A crowd comfortable with artist interaction they sat mesmerized by the young singer-songwriters. Between songs, the crowd did not hesitate to let the trio know how they were feeling, making comments like “I can’t wait until you play at my house!” in reference to a tour contest the group is putting on to win a house show.
They promised their set wouldn’t make you cry like Rose’s inevitably did. (Trust me, you would have cried. Been there, done that, got the T-Shirt… literally) They were right, and started the show off on a strong high note, and kept the momentum from start to finish.
What’s next for Port Cities? They have a new album, and they are out to show the country. (You can give this debut EP a listen here.) They have been touring the country with folk power-house Rose Cousins, who has also recently released a new album.
My recommendation? Keep an eye out for these folks.
*Inspiration for their music is drawn from the artists’ personal tastes and backgrounds. When asked what song they didn’t write but wish they had, two of the three musicians mentioned Paul Simon’s Graceland.
Saturday evening saw the NAC studio fill up in anticipation of the St. Bernardin trio Pandaléon‘s first live performance since the release of their latest offering, Atone, in January of this year. The album isavailable through the renowned Quebec label Audiogram, and the scope of sounds on this album is rich and inventive, while remaining intriguing and easily accessible. It’s like you’re being taken on a ride somewhere you haven’t been before, but you’re with friends and they know where they’re going. They’ve been here before. They live here.
The band largely self-produced this album, doing so in the abandoned elementary school that the Levac brothers/members attended as children. With the help of Nicholas Seguin, they experimented patiently over 5 months, throughout the building, seeking the appropriate spaces to capture the best sounds. The intimacy of the album really comes through in their live performance, and the studio space in the NAC was perfectly suited. From the sound engineering, to the lighting, to the video projections on the backdrop, as well the band’s own energy, the whole sensory experience was paired to an intoxicating and enlightening end.
The band’s confidence in their sound, and passion for playing makes it so comfortable to see and hear, even as a newcomer. The enjoyment was clear in singer/keyboardist Frederic Levac’s facial expressions, as certain songs would swell to their sonic climax and his brother Jean-Philippe’s drums grew from sparse, atmospheric arrangements to solid, driving rhythms. There’s something about the energy of siblings performing together that is simply magnetic. The same should be said for guitarist Marc-Andre Labelle, who’s palette of sounds was equal parts enchanting and intense, as with his physical demeanor in performance. I loved seeing how much the members were clearly communicating throughout the set as well, relying on expressions and quasi-gestures. This is a fascinating thing to watch: such intuitive interactions, evidence of the some deep chemistry between them.
The room was full of love for the group, who received a full standing ovation at the conclusion of the set. Whenever a band leaves the stage with their amplifiers and equipment switched on, I always assume an encore will shortly follow, but when they came back out to sustained applause, they instead addressed the audience to thank us again for attending, but primarily to thank all those behind the scenes who helped put the show together. A class act, graciously acknowledging how a single show can be so much bigger than the band themselves.
As I mentioned, Pandaleon’s new album Atone is out now, courtesy of Audiogram Records and it’s available on iTunes.