This article originally appeared in the September/October 2017 issue of Canadian Musician.
By Bob Mersereau
It’s been awhile since Tara MacLean has been in the spotlight; nine years in fact. The singer-songwriter had a pretty enviable career going from the mid-’90s to 2008, with three solo albums on Nettwerk Records and two with EMI as part of the group Shaye. She had a publishing deal with Sony/ATV, was managed by Terry McBride, had toured on Lilith Fair, and built a strong U.S. following opening for the likes of Dave Matthews Band. Shaye had done a reality TV show for CMT, and MacLean had played Conan on her own. All this atop an appearance in the film Coyote Ugly.
Then, she decided to take a little break. Pregnant with her third child, she wanted to get off the road and the treadmill. “I had a record ready to go with Nettwerk, but when I told them that I was having another baby, they said, ‘Okay we’ll just put it on the shelf and get back to us when you’re ready to tour,’” she said.
It turned out that it wasn’t that simple. “When I was out of the baby phase, I called them and said, ‘Okay, I’m ready,’ and they said, ‘You know what? Everything has changed, and if you want to, you’ll have to start from scratch. And if you do that, you’ll have to get back in a van and tour. You’ve got three children, do you really want to do that?’ And I realized, I kind of didn’t.”
MacLean sat back at her home on B.C.’s Salt Spring Island and, like everyone else, watched the music world keep changing. Downloads, streaming, multiple revenue streams… In the nine years MacLean sat out, about the only thing that stayed the same in the Canadian music industry was the name, Canadian music industry.
Tara MacLean [Photo by Billie Woods Photography]
As the country reflects this year during Canada 150, it’s an interesting time to take stock of our place in the musical world. At every party and event across the country this summer, music will play an integral role in the celebration, and Canadians seem prouder than ever of our musicians. Internationally, Canada’s profile has never been higher, a remarkable statement given the legacy of Cohen, Mitchell, Young, Lightfoot, Adams, Twain, Rush, and so many others; and yet, the success of Drake, The Weeknd, Bieber, Mendes, Jepsen, and Arcade Fire has been unprecedented.At the same time, it’s hard to find a regular Canadian musician who isn’t singing the blues. Everyone has had to adjust to the new realities, whether it’s touring constantly, spending hours promoting themselves on social media, or trying to decide whether vinyl or t-shirts will be more profitable. Skeptics and cynics are happy to pronounce the music industry dead, the product now worth fractions of pennies to the producers or simply taken by consumers for free.
Even the Canada 150 celebrations seem somewhat flat, at least to those people with long memories who recall the excitement of the1967 centennial. But to sing a song like Bobby Gimby’s “Ca-na-da” would be terribly naive at a time when Indigenous people are reminding everyone that their country dates back well beyond 1867. And if you’re going to sing a song, how about something by one of Canada’s Indigenous communities, which comprise more than 1.4 million people in the country, yet remain woefully underrepresented in the music industry despite singing all the early hits in these parts?
So are things getting better? Worse? Almost everyone in music these days seems to be using the same word: reinvention. That’s what Tara MacLean said.
“About two years ago, I started missing music, but nothing resembled what I knew before about how to make records,” MacLean shares. “I didn’t even bother to ask a label if they wanted to sign me. I just had this idea that if I needed to start from scratch, the only place to do that was from home.”
Home for MacLean is Prince Edward Island, and her mother, grandmother, sister, and of course, those incredible summers. She wanted to take her whole family there, and realized she could reinvent the whole concept of touring for herself. With its constant turnover of tourists, MacLean would have a new audience arriving each week, so she developed a show called Atlantic Blue. It features her tributes to the great East Coast songwriters who inspired her as she started her career, from Ron Hynes to Gene MacLellan to Stan Rogers to Sarah McLachlan. The show features the songs and stories of the writers, told by MacLean using filmed elements, and performed with an all-East Coast band.
There’s a new album too – songs from the show that she has released on her own via Pledge Music. She found lots of her old fans ready to support her, some even planning summer vacations on P.E.I. to see the show. It makes her question the old music world she left.
“Did I really make a good living at it before? It cost so much money to tour at that level. And the amount of money that went into promotion and making the albums and the videos, at the end of the day, I’m still recouping my Capitol release, I’m still recouping my Nettwerk releases,” she says. “This is going to be the first album that will be recouped within months of its release. The hard part is doing everything myself and the learning curve that came with that.”
Everyone that’s still here is learning such new tricks. That goes all the way to the top of the chain. Major record labels, once the swaggering kings of the music industry, have merged and downsized, diversified and penny-pinched in order to survive. And yes, the talk is all about reinvention.
First, though, Warner Music Canada president Steve Kane wants to dispel that “music industry is dead” talk.
“For the Canadian business right now, it’s not only very healthy, there’s a sense of optimism, and a sense of an open market that we now have access to,” he begins. For Kane, the big revelation has been that being successful doesn’t have to mean having U.S. hits.
“Canadians spent so many years beating their heads against the wall at the American border, and too often all they end up with is a bloody forehead,” he says. “When the golden ring is a 45-minute drive away, you’re still so tempted to concentrate all your efforts there. What we’re discovering and what we’re encouraging young artists to look at is that more so than ever, a hit record can come Tara MacLean from anywhere. A career can begin anywhere.”
There was a time, Kane notes, that before Canadian artists tried to find any new markets, companies would wait until they received a blessing from a U.S. source, whether it was an A&R exec or a chart breakthrough in a large market.
“We just had Courage My Love do their second U.K. tour, their first European tour. They don’t have physical releases in most of these countries, but what they do have is a network they’ve been able to build through Spotify, through Apple, through their own socials, they’re able to find like bands, and like-minded fans. So some of the barriers to entry are coming down.
“We’re looking at this global market and saying it’s a big world out there. If we just keep beating our head against that U.S. border and looking for somebody to bless it and say, ‘Yes, we will now release it,’ when we don’t have to do that anymore, that gives us a great opportunity to help our bands build their brand globally.”
That’s another big change from the classic record company plan of tour, record, tour, record, and cash in as much as possible
before an act dies off. Bands are developed slowly, patiently, with an eye to longer careers.
Courage My Love was signed in 2010 when twin sisters Mercedes and Phoenix Arn-Horn were just 17. They first connected with fans through touring, going to Japan before even crossing the U.S. border. They developed an online presence with a series of EPs, not releasing a full album until 2015 and now a second, Synesthesia, this past February.
“It’s been a process of slowly climbing and growing, and not rushing or pushing, and just seeing what happens,” says Mercedes Arn-Horn, enjoying a small break at the family cottage after the European dates and before heading to the U.S. “I think we needed that because we needed to find our sea legs and discover what kind of artists we wanted to be.”
With all that groundwork in so many different territories, she says the band feels ready to go for it, regardless of whether their next break comes at home or abroad. “We’re super-hungry, and now it’s like we’ve cut the ribbon and we’re going to race.”
The touring has put the group in a position to see how Canadian musicians are viewed these days in different parts of the world. The clichés are still there, Arn-Horn says – people wondering if they know their second cousin who lives in Vancouver. But there are more positive clichés too, the Maple Leaf continuing to earn respect abroad as the country shows differences don’t have to mean division.
“When we were in the U.K., we were there right when there was an election, and there were two attacks that happened,” Mercedes continues. “It was eye-opening to see in different parts of the world that it can be very tumultuous. I think one thing that Canada has going for it that I feel really proud of is that we always take care of our own, even if we don’t agree with each other. There’s a sense of unity. Even if we don’t have the same ideals, we can at least band together and have a sense of unity or empathy. I like to carry that with me wherever we go.”
It’s a sense of unity the band tries to share with fans. “Sometimes I think it takes going away to realize what we have at home,” she adds. “It’s not all bad in other places, but I feel that Canadians really pay attention to each other and what’s going on. Health care, everything like that, we make it a priority to take care of our own, and have a cultural mosaic instead of a melting pot. We’re proud of the diversity we have as opposed to being scared of it.”
Arn-Horn doesn’t mean everything is rosy back home, of course, and the music world is a place you can find longstanding issues.
Courage My Love
The cultural divide between English and French Canadians is more of a chasm in the music world, with virtually two distinct industries. While Francophones have always listened to lots of English artists from the rest of the country and abroad, many Anglophones couldn’t name a single French artist other than Céline Dion. With arts always a higher priority in French Canada, there continues to be a strong interest in music, but that industry has been hit hard by the collapse of physical sales as well. Having no access to the rest of the nation’s touring and sales markets makes matters worse.
So they look to where language isn’t a barrier, which is in Europe. French Canadians have had a regular run of success on the continent since the ‘50s and ‘60s with singers such as Gilles Vigneault and Félix Leclerc earning as much praise abroad as at home. As artists in English Canada start looking more and more to Europe as a new or alternative market, Francophones got there first and are still making the trek.
Lisa LeBlanc of tiny Rosaireville in New Brunswick found out what a little European success can mean. Her self-titled debut from 2013 showcased a new kind of sound that took Acadie, then Quebec by storm. “Trash folk,” she called it, singing in Chiac with lots of English slang thrown into the lyrics, including plenty of swearing and lots of humour. She could play her banjo like a woman possessed, or belt out a country tear-jerker. The major Quebec TV shows loved her and she was soon playing all the major showcases and festivals.
“The album just kind of worked,” says LeBlanc. “We had some great press, and we were really lucky.” Then she started doing shows in Europe and watched the album take off. She saw sales climb to 140,000 units. Even though the music was filled with phrases and references that didn’t translate all that well, European fans knew what they liked.
“We have such a beautiful following in France and in Switzerland and Belgium,” she says. “Some people are like, ‘Hey, I heard your song on the radio in France the other day.’ And for me, that’s totally weird, because I feel like such a black sheep going there, you know?”
It’s just another example of Canada doing well in the global marketplace, according to Kane. “A song can come from anywhere and start from anywhere. I’m seeing more and more Canadians being willing to take the chance, and going, ‘Okay, I’ve got to go start making something happen in Germany. That’s where I’m going. I gotta go start making something happen in the Far East. That’s where I’m going to go.’”
Willie Thrasher [Photo by Amanda Leigh Smith photo]
At many Canada 150 events, Indigenous people are being represented and given a voice. There seems to be at least an attempt to follow the spirit of the Truth and Reconciliation report in a public way, and many Aboriginal performers and groups will take part. The music industry can even point to stars – A Tribe Called Red, Tanya Tagaq, and a resurgent Buffy Sainte-Marie. But Indigenous artists are still battling to be heard after years of being mostly ignored in the media, in the live music scene, and in the recording industry.Music historian Kevin Howes found much of the Aboriginal recording history of the past 50 years lying in Canada’s vinyl trash heaps. Howes has spent the past 20 years travelling the country, searching through the thrift stores, Sally Anns, and used shops, crate-digging to find obscure and unsung Canadian music. In the boxes of dusty 45s, he took note of all the Indigenous music he was finding and started paying attention to the quality and cultural significance of much of it.
Already the producer of the highly regarded* Jamaica to Toronto* series of albums, Howes turned his attention to these obscure records. In 2014, the two-disc collection Native North America, Vol. 1 was released, featuring 23 artists such as Willie Dunn, Lloyd Cheechoo, and Shingoose. It took a U.S. label, Light in the Attic, to release this mostly Canadian-based set.
The collection has been a resounding success on many levels, not least of which was a 2016 Grammy nomination for Best Historical Album. “The support for Native North America has been very positive and very encouraging, and it’s been such an honour to connect with so many people who have given feedback to myself and the artists. It’s phenomenal,” Howes says. “I understand, because I fell in love with the recordings in the same way, in my travels.”
Kevin Howes [Photo by Amanda Leigh Smith]
One of his goals has been to see the artists in the collection get more music work, since they have always had trouble finding gigs outside of Indigenous communities. To that end, Howes started booking his own shows, bringing along artists such as Duke Redbird and Willie Thrasher.“It was really important for me to put on grassroots events to raise awareness about these artists and their history, their stories, but also that Native North America wasn’t just a museum piece – that it was a living and breathing history and we are blessed and honoured to have many of the artists still with us in the flesh, and many of whom are still active. So I wanted to showcase what the artists are doing here and now.”
The people who came out to the shows included Indigenous and non-Indigenous fans, from young people to pensioners, from all sorts of backgrounds. Howes feels it has helped to make a difference. “It touches my heart to know that people have come together in appreciation over this music. And it has assisted, it is part of the process of reconciliation that is happening in this country right now. That’s really the success of it for me, but the artists still need to pay the bills, and that is a struggle that still exists as it has since the ‘60’s, regardless of the greater awareness for Indigenous music and culture that is happening right now.”
Willie Thrasher has enjoyed more gigs since the Native North America collection came out, including an appearance at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. He and Howes have been invited to appear at the youthful and trendsetting Sappyfest in Sackville, NB this summer as well.
“I’ve been traveling quite a bit, doing music all over, traveling to Austin, went to Montreal, the whole Northwest Territories, Yukon Territories, Calgary, Red Deer, amazing things have been happening,” says Thrasher, at home in Nanaimo, BC, and getting ready for more touring this summer. Not only was he on the Native North America collection, Light In The Attic also reissued his 1981 album Spirit Child.
The Jerry Cans
Sent to a residential school himself, where in the past it was a topic people didn’t want to hear about, now Canadians and young people from his own culture want to hear those stories from him, thanks in part to the new interest raised by the compilation. “This went all over the world, like a big fire started, and it’s still burning,” Thrasher says. “People are still asking about it.”
Like English and French artists, Aboriginal musicians are finding markets overseas as well. The Jerry Cans are from Iqaluit in Nunavut, and feature traditional throat singing alongside alt-country and folk, with songs for the most part in Inuktitut. With both Inuk and English members, the group considers it their job to tell people about life in the Far North, and that’s led them very far south at times, most recently on a tour of Australia and New Zealand.
“We feel like ambassadors for Northern Canada for sure,” says Nancy Mike, vocalist, throat singer, and accordion player. “They often won’t know where Nunavut is, so we say, we’re from the Arctic in Canada.”
One thing they did understand in Australia was the plight of Aboriginal people. “There are so many similarities that we could easily connect that way,” says Mike. “That’s something we see here in Canada as well but their issues in Australia are so raw still. I would feel they are about 10 years behind Canada in terms of Indigenous issues.”
Mike feels that, in Canada, there’s definitely an increased awareness of those issues since the Truth and Reconciliation report. “If we play a show, we sing in Inuktitut, in my first language. But in between songs, we do a lot of storytelling or explanations about where we come from and what we do, and what issues we have, and what celebrations we have. We love to talk about the North, and I personally absolutely love talking about my culture and where I come from, mostly for the passion of the issues that young people now face in the North. So when we tell those stories to a southern audience, after our show they’ll come to us and say, ‘I’ve never seen a show so educational, what you did just now. ‘ They absolutely love learning about it, and a lot of them come to us and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I never knew this happened in the place where you live.’ They become a bit emotional or they become very thankful they were able to attend our show.
There’s still much more that Canadians can do, she adds. “You need to take the time to learn the history of where you are living. Talk to Indigenous people or even non-Indigenous people, just to educate yourself about what really happened, and use that as a tool for how you can help out in your community, or your interactions with Indigenous people. I think change is happening now, and that’s great, but a lot more should be done as well.”
The group is doing what it can for other musicians from the North as well. They have set up a label called Aakuluk Music, to work with Inuit and Indigenous artists.
“We’ve always known that there is such amazing talent in Nunavut,” says vocalist and guitarist Andrew Morrison, also the group’s manager. “As we became more active in the south, we always wondered why there wasn’t more Nunavut talent on stages and festivals across the country, because we knew that any of those bands would be right up there with all the other ones. So we started to realize that it was important from The Jerry Cans experience to build a team of management and booking agents, publicity, marketing, and all these other sides of the music world that we didn’t know anything about when we first started. So we wanted to try and create some sort of organization to build up those things in Nunavut.”
Morrison has watched audiences embrace his group in Canada and abroad. “Every time we’d play in a new place, there would be one or two Inuktitut speakers in a crowd of a thousand,” he says. “We were nervous, like, ‘What were we thinking coming down here?’ And by the end of the show, everybody is singing along in Inuktitut. So there’s lots of potential, and I think that’s just one lesson; we knew the audience would respond.”
Like Howes, Morrison wants agents and bookers to take notice of the crowds coming out to these shows.
“I think in the music world, but also in Canada on a kind of bigger scale, there’s some amazing things going on right now in terms of whatever reconciliation means, but there’s lots of interest,” he asserts. “People are trying to reflect on what all this stuff means in the history of Canada, and everything, all of the good, and lots of the bad that’s gone on. And I think that people are just very interested in hearing those stories, and something new and something they haven’t been exposed to before.”
No one is calling the Canadian music world of 2017 problem-free, but there’s a surprising amount of optimism for the future, from artists and the industry alike. Companies are adapting, finding new ways to do business that will hopefully keep people employed and make a few more stars, both home and abroad. Artists are finding ways to keep creating and performing. Internationally, Canada’s reputation is stronger than ever, with the world showing an appreciation of the talent, and the people making the music. Even the country’s deep wound with its Indigenous people is starting to heal, in no small way through music.
After a worrisome two decades or so, it seems music makers might be able to celebrate just a little for Canada 150.
*Bob Mersereau is a music writer and broadcaster living in Fredericton, NB. He’s the author of several books on Canadian music, including The Top 100 Canadian Albums, and is currently working on a biography of the late songwriter Gene MacLellan. *