ALBERTA SESSIONS: SONGWRITERS ON STAGE
Wednesday, March 22 - 25
Engineered Air Theatre, Cantos Music Foundation and Megatunes (check listings)
A bribe against loneliness, hours spent as a music therapist gaining the courage to sing onstage, a childrens chant in a playground, 900 gigs in every juke joint and music club in Canada these are some of the seemingly unrelated elements, the ghostly influences strained through the minds of the musicians and filtered together during the Alberta Songwriters Sessions.
Artists like Northern Alberta guitarist-vocalist Shane Ghostkeeper are new to the game, with only a few gigs under their belt. Others, like Jay Crocker, have already logged nearly a thousand gigs in his case, most of them with his band Recipe From a Small Planet. But while experiences may vary, passion, musical open-mindedness and a chaos-inspired creative process are themes that each artist speaks of again and again.
Ghostkeeper says he is at the sessions representing the music of his band, Children of the Great Northern Muskeg, on their mission of expression and healing. Raised in High Level, the Métis songwriters musical journey began with a $60 pawnshop guitar given to him by his father. The elder Ghostkeepers spent dreams of his own NHL glory had inspired his 15-year-old son to move to Edmonton, where he felt more homesick than hockey crazed. His father, who had filled his familys home with music ranging from Loretta Lynn to Hank Williams Sr., arrived bearing the guitar to assuage the pain.
"Ive been obsessed ever since," Ghostkeeper says from his Calgary home. He began immediately to figure out licks from the likes of Robert Johnson and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Ten years later, music fills every moment of the day that he is not working as an arborist.
"If I have a bout of inspiration, I will pick up the guitar and write. I think its universal among everyone, where it starts with restlessness. After the first few hours of letting it all out, the rest is just practice. I try not to write unless I am inspired, because its just meaningless," he says.
Ghostkeepers music is centred on hard-nosed themes that help heal the heart of his people.
"Evaluation and criticism of Christianity in my community up north. The general fear that has been instilled in the Métis people by the missionaries and residential schools. Thats why I was never taught to speak Cree or anything else that was a Native language," he says of the inspiration for his songs.
He moved to Calgary in June 2004 with his girlfriend and his cousin, who are both musicians in his band. Next week, the group will enter the studio to record their first album.
One other thing to know about Ghostkeeper even though he has one of the greatest last names ever uttered, it is not a stage name.
"Theres a couple of different interpretations of the name. I was told by my uncles and dad (that) their great-grandpa in Kathleen (was a) cattle rancher. He would take care of the graveyard, which was sort of a community volunteer responsibility, so they called him Ghostkeeper."
One lady who does have a stage name is Heather Blush. Although, like Ghostkeeper, she has performed commercially for a relatively small number of gigs, paradoxically, she performs for a living almost every day. Thats because Blushs other career is as a music therapist.
Born in Winnipeg, the singer grew up in small Manitoba towns before heading to Florida to complete her training in music therapy. While there, she was thrilled to play with a band in New Orleans.
"We didn't play any famous places or clubs or anything, but it was exciting because a lot of my influences are in the jazz vocal kind of traditions that are part of the culture there," Blush says.
During last years Calgary Folk Music Festival Songwriter Contest at the Ship and Anchor, no one in the room could miss Blushs voice, which instantly turned heads with its warmth, precision and charisma.
Like Ghostkeeper, Blush moved to Calgary only a couple of years ago, but already she has made her presence felt on the local scene, forming a band called Triple S and releasing an album, First Blush. Her songs swing through jazz and folk-kissed styles, and her open, airy voice is the thread that ties everything together.
Ironically, she did not quite know how great her voice could be until she was working as a music therapist.
"If you are trying to help people in seniors homes recover their memories, you get them singing songs they have heard in their life, in their childhood. So you are constantly singing and performing. I got over my shyness about singing live pretty quickly now its easy!"
The sound bites of childhood also figure in Jasmine Whenhams success story, but not in the usual way. The daughter of two music teachers was travelling with her family in the Queen Charlotte Islands when she sat down at a campground with her guitar. Children were playing nearby, and the rhythm of their playing and "nah-nah" taunts somehow got wrapped into Whenhams guitar strings.
The result was the song "This Girl," which also captured the attention of the Folk Fest judges at last years Ship and Anchor songwriting competition.
"The story on pretty much every song is they just happen," Whenham says from the home of her manager, Lynn Elder, where she spends time when not back at the family home in the central Alberta town of Falun.
Three years ago, Elder, herself an accomplished singer-songwriter, suggested that Whenham take her music career more seriously. The recognition in the competition suggests that Elder was on to something.
"With that one, the little guitar lick that I play all through the verse kind of just came to me and I played it over and over again (on the camping trip). My aunt told me to go away, shed heard it enough. So I went to the park and was listening to the kids and they werent singing nah-nah but there was this lilt to the way they were talking to each other and playing and it ended up in the song."
Whenham finds some of her inspiration in the time she spends at the family home in Falun, helping her parents raise her 16-year-old sister. When she is in Calgary, she sometimes finds those soothing, familiar rhythms and tones that connect listeners to her songs while walking Elders dogs in Nose Hill Park. Its possible that she might run into Jay Crocker up there, walking his Old English sheepdog Django when hes not performing, recording or writing songs.
Crocker lit out onto the road right after high school with his band Recipe From a Small Planet, and hes hardly slowed down since. After the heavy touring years were over, he studied music at Mount Royal College, an experience that still comes in handy in his career as a music teacher. Crockers new record, Melodies From the Outskirts, lives up to its name. The songs trundle through a variety of styles, none of which are nameable, and flutes, brass, keyboards and vocals all spill out of shadowy corners in odd directions. Local anti-hero Lorrie Matheson produced the disc.
Crocker is stoic when asked how he made such an interesting but listenable album.
"My experience helps Ive been doing it for awhile now. I guess Im lucky enough to be able to write what Im hearing in my mind. I work at it a lot and do it often. Im always writing no matter if I like it, if I dont like it Im always writing it down. If you do anything a lot, you are doing it with more ease and more efficiency," Crocker says.
So how do you create an album that almost no one can nail down but almost everyone responds positively to?
"It often starts with the rhythm section, like a drum pattern or certain feel, then I kind of build everything on top of that. Sometimes the chords come first. I try and be able to do it any way if I have something, put it down and work at it from any angle."
And theres the thread that ties these remarkable writers together not so much that they are Albertan, but that they seem to be tuned into the chants and voices coming from the radio stations in their own minds.