On Cape Breton Island, the music flows like water.

Despite its relatively modest population, at 132,000 residents, this Northeastern tip of Nova Scotia, spread over 10,311 square km, has launched a number of tuneful tributaries surnamed MacMaster, Rankin and Sampson: artists that have impacted lands and listeners far beyond its borders.

The Island’s musicians are largely known for Celtic music, folk, and roots, whose traditions stretch back hundreds of years to their origins in Scotland, Ireland, and France. Those old ways are celebrated through such cultural ambassadors as The Barra MacNeils, The Rankins, and Natalie MacMaster, as well as such gatherings as the Celtic Colours International Festival, Gaelic College Ceilidhs (kitchen parties) and the Acoustic Roots Festival.

The Barra MacNeils

The Barra MacNeils

The current generations of such established musical families are widening their options and exploring additional genres, from the indie rock of the now-Toronto-based Alvvays, led by the voice of former Rankins fiddler Molly Rankin, to pop trio Port Cities, whose members include Dylan Guthro, son of folkie Bruce Guthro. Lately, hip-hop has also been a going concern, with rappers Mitchell Bailey from Glace Bay and SHIFT FROM THE 902, a.k.a Todd Googoo, from Eskasoni, working to add their voices to the international mix.

“There’s something in the water, indeed,” chuckles professional songwriter Gordie Sampson, the SOCAN, JUNO, and Grammy Award-winner best known for co-authoring two Carrie Underwood chart-toppers “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “Just a Dream.” “It’s undeniable, given the small population and the ratio to musicians that come out of there. Simply making a career as a musician of any kind, whether you’re a songwriter, player, fiddler, or singer, you’re held in high regard in that community. It’s viewed as an important vocation.”

There are many reasons why Cape Breton has been the breeding ground for so much renowned music – from Glencoe Station’s legendary John Allan Cameron and North Sydney’s Matt Minglewood in the ‘60s and ‘70s; to Creignish’s fiddling wunderkind Ashley MacIsaac; Glace Bay singers John Gracie and Aselin Debison; and Mabou’s The Beaton Family and The Rankins (both collectively and individually).

The most obvious is lineage, with the music fermenting from the influx of French, Scottish, and Irish settlers during Cape Breton’s 18th century colonial days, and Islanders continuing to preserve those sounds.

“It’s popular because it stems from a time and a place where it was almost necessary for [Islanders’] survival,” notes Troy fiddling sensation Natalie MacMaster, niece of Judique fiddling legend Buddy MacMaster. “Scottish settlers came to a place that they’d never been to before, and the music was the joy, a piece of home for them.

“[Cape Breton] artists are serious storytellers. They know how to write songs that impact and resonate with people.” – Sheri Jones, of Jones & Co. Artist Management

“This cherished music just kind of took root in Cape Breton and spread through the land. There was a lot of that Cape Breton-style fiddle music that blossomed in other pockets of cultures. Like the French, a small bit of Irish, and even the First Nations people, that mixed different dialects, depending on where you were on the Island. Now, 250 years later, I think people just really have that joy for the music, and it’s what feeds the soul.”

Heather Rankin says solitude shouldn’t be discounted as another crucial component to the evolution of Cape Breton music.  “I think it has to do with the fact that Cape Breton was isolated for a long time,” says Rankin. “We weren’t that accessible, really, until the ‘50s when they built the Canso Causeway.”

Port Cities

Port Cities

Rankin suggests that music also became a major concern because there was little else to do. “A lot of people had theatres, and bars, and restaurants,” Rankin says. “We had nothing like that growing up. So I think it’s partly to do with the small-community environment, and that’s how people entertained one another for generations. It was still very quiet where we were growing up in the ‘70s in Cape Breton… and I think even for kids that are coming up today… It’s still out of the way, and there’s not that much to distract you, although there’s a lot more technology these days.”

Port Cities’ Carleton Stone agrees with Rankin’s assessment. “There’s a very strong storytelling, singer-songwriter tradition there, and you’re isolated,” says Stone, who shares the stage with his fellow Port Cities singers and songwriters Breagh MacKinnon and Dylan Guthro. “A lot of the year it’s winter, so I think a lot of people have a lot of time to gather around and play music together.”

Adds Guthro, “There’s not a whole lot to do, other than get together and jam. Cape Breton is famous for its kitchen parties, with everyone getting their instrument out and just playing. I’m sure that contributes to the talent.”

Also contributing to the high standard of Cape Breton musicianship are scrutinizing audiences, says Gordie Sampson, who hails from Rita MacNeil’s home community of Big Pond, population 47, and who annually returns from his Nashville base to run his Gordie Sampson Song Camp (which is where the members of Port Cities actually met, and started writing together).

“The crowds can be tough, in the sense that you really have to move them,” he says. “They’re not going to clap for you just because you’re there… When you’re cutting your teeth in that community, you can’t really fake it, or phone it in. It makes everybody dig in a little deeper.”

Cape Breton musicians can make a living in what’s generally acknowledged as an economically depressed part of Canada – The Cape Breton Post reported in April 2018 that Nova Scotia receives $1.838 billion annually from the federal government in equalization transfer payments, $15 million of which is received by the Island. Still, the allure to travel outside its borders is irresistible.

“If you want to take it to the next level, you end up moving away, because there’s a ceiling,” says Sampson.  “Whether it’s money you want to make, or wanting to go on the road, you will reach that ceiling. It’s a very small demographic.”

What they’re up to
Heather Rankin:  After releasing her second solo album Imagine in 2017, Rankin has been touring, and this summer performed with the Nova Scotia Tattoo. She’s playing live in Alberta and Ontario in the Fall, and gathering material for her next album.
Natalie MacMaster: After recently giving birth to her seventh child, MacMaster and husband Donnell Leahy have organized the second annual Green Ridge Celtic Folk Festival in Keene, Ontario, August 24-25 – a celebration of Cape Breton, Scottish, and Irish roots music.
Gordie Sampson: Sampson hosts his annual Song Camp yearly in early July, and is also working in Nashville, co-writing with such up-and-coming artists as Claire Dunn, Ashley Hanbrick, Hunter Cage, Tenille Townes, and Caylee Hammack.
Port Cities (Dylan Guthro, Breagh MacKinnon, Carleton Stone): The trio is currently touring, and preparing material for a follow-up album to its self-titled debut, produced by Gordie Sampson.
Celtic Colours International Festival: Runs in multiple venues on Cape Breton Island from Oct. 5 to 13, 2018. Local and international artists booked for 2018 include J.P. Cormier, Howie MacDonald, Men of the Deeps and Edwina Guckian.
The Acoustic Roots Festival: Held annually in Cape Breton near Marion Bridge from Aug. 31 to Sept. 2, this year’s headliners include Buddy MacDonald, Harold MacIntyre, and Meaghan Blanchard.

Heather Rankin discovered the global appeal of traditional Cape Breton music when The Rankin Family struck out on their own in 1989 with an eponymous album. “We thought it was just something for people in our backyard, and that it was old-time music,” says Rankin. “But we were able to touch and enrich people in far corners of the world, as far as Australia and New Zealand, and parts of Europe and the United States. That music resonated with people.”

Celtic-flavoured folk and roots music also brings people to Cape Breton, especially through annual festivals like Celtic Colours International, which runs October 5-13 this year. The festival features both international and local talent, and draws more than 20,000 attendees annually. “Locals come to see the visiting artists, and foreigners come to see the locals,” says David Mahalik, the festival’s information officer, adding that Celtic Colours’ attendance continues to grow. “We’re consistently climbing,” he says, adding that the ticket split ratio between locals and foreigners is “60/40 now for people coming from off-Island.”

Crediting the internet for attracting audiences around the world, Mahalik says the reputation of Celtic Colours is attracting tourists. “We hold the Gaelic culture in high regard and recognize it as a basis for the music, the dance, and it all gets rooted back in the culture,” he says. “We’re very careful to respect that, because that’s our origin story.”

Gordie Sampson says music and tourism are irrevocably intertwined. “Music is part of the fabric of tourism,” he says. “Part of the experience of coming to Cape Breton for the first time involves a heavy music component: People come and want to see music, and hopefully want to buy it.”

Veteran manager Sheri Jones, of Jones & Co. Artist Management, who counts Sampson, Port Cities, Mary Jane Lamond, and Wendy MacIsaac among her Cape Breton clients, says the area’s music scene will continue to quench the thirst of music lovers in the foreseeable future.

“The musicianship is intricate, and these artists are serious storytellers,” says Jones. “They know how to write songs that impact and resonate with people.”

Sometimes, François Lafontaine dreams of a song. A song that doesn’t exist yet. To wit: the song “Le rêve” (“The Dream”), a piece of bravery from the group Klaus’ first album. “I got to the studio and told the guys, ‘I dreamt a song!” says the trio’s keyboardist, referring to his bandmates Joe Grass (guitars, a ubiquitous session musician who plays with Marie-Pierre Arthur, Patrick Watson, and many others) and drummer Samuel Joly (also a ubiquitous session player, also with Marie-Pierre Arthur, Fred Fortin, and many jazz artists).

Throughout its eight minutes and five seconds, “Le rêve” is evocative, not only of the type of adventure one only lives in the mind while sleeping, but also that which, while wide awake, musicians give themselves when they truly let loose. After a syncopated jazz-rap intro, a heady rock riff (made heavier thanks to guest musician Fred Fortin’s bass) lays the initial muffled atmosphere to waste, until that powerful bulldozer is itself swallowed whole, toward the end, by the chiming melody of a krautrock-inspired rhythmic pattern.

“As in a dream, at first, you can’t quite make out the elements, you don’t know exactly where you’re at, then it turns into a nightmare, and the third movement is the deliverance. You come out of the dream,” says Lafontaine, a member of Karkwa and Galaxie, who has played on so many albums by other Québec artists to even attempt to list exhaustively.

Recognized and admired by music lovers everywhere in the province – even though their names aren’t spelled in big letters on the marquee of the venues they play – Grass, Joly, and Lafontaine could easily be described as super-session musicians. That’s not only because they play a lot, and often, but mainly because their contributions to other people’s music are instantly recognizable. When one sees them onstage at the beginning of a show, one knows that the evening surely won’t be dull.

But despite the collegiality of their collaborations with the songwriters who ask them for their contributions, the genesis of Klaus was the answer to a desire, shared by the three friends, to open up the hatches, unafraid of the flood.

“When you’re playing someone else’s song, your job is to bring a certain balance,” says Joe Grass. “You take their idea as far as you can, but you can’t allow yourself to steal the show. In this case, we threw balance out the window, it was more like…” The guitarist moves in hands on each side of his face as if to mime the rapid pace of a car on the highway.

In (other) words: “It means that whenever one of us had a new idea, no one else said no, ever. We’d find the balance later.” François Lafontaine’s smile suddenly makes him look like an eight-year-old. “Isn’t it great to be able to always say yes?”

So what comes out of a series of “Yeses”? A band that doesn’t fit any particular label, and whose members’ only wish is to give themselves over to the pure joy of music created with friends, not caring a bit if their explorations take them down the road of afrobeat, prog, or dance-rock.

Fun, fun, fun; the word is like a mantra for Lafontaine who almost can’t believe he signed a record deal with these two other guys. Watch him push back when one tries to label him a virtuoso. “Hell no, I’m not a virtuoso! Sam, is, though!” he insists with as much disbelief as if we’d tried to call him an astronaut. “I have infinite admiration for these guys, and I think it’s mutual. We love what we hear when we watch our buddies play.” The fact that the three compadres also sing together on the majority of the verses is another powerful metaphor of the mindset during their recording sessions.

The tours for each of their respective projects had been over for a little while. François, Joe and Samuel were having pints at the pub – as we all do. The vague ambition of a solo synths album vanished from Lafontaine’s mind the moment his friends suggested birthing Klaus. The project turned out to be, in a sense, the antidote to the fatigue that creeps up in the minds of musicians on the road.

‘Did you ever not feel like playing?’ Lafontaine asks his friend Joe Grass, before re-formulating (in a much clearer way) one of our questions.

‘It’s a funny conundrum,” he says. “When you’ve been on the road for eight months, you remember you like playing, you want to feel it every night. But at some point, it’s like a muscle that you over-use, and it becomes numb. There’s an emotional disconnect that happens between your mind and your body when you’re tired. When I was in my twenties and I would get to that point, it was an instant existential crisis! Nowadays, all I tell myself is: Get some sleep and drink less beer.”

Or create a new band!

ElisapiePlanting one’s roots only to uproot oneself over and over again. Feeling truly at home only inside oneself. Revealing one’s concept of the world to someone else only as a path to freedom. All that and much more inhabits the thoughts of Elisapie, who recently offered us her story of running away: The Ballad of the Runaway Girl.

“In the Great North, we appreciate more quickly,” says Elisapie serenely. Six years after her Travelling Love, album, she’s back with a new one that sounds like an immense cry of love that reaches those who most deserve it, as best it can. “I had new experiences that needed to be expressed,” she says. “They’re not big adventures, just my inner life.” After 20 years spent in the “South,” going back North only occasionally, Elisapie feels she’s become one with her environment. And although a sense of belonging to a place informs us, she felt a deep-seated desire to re-acquaint herself with the territory that welcomed her into this world. “When I go back up North to play shows, I feel like a baby being cradled by her mom,” says Elisapie.

Her music is at home everywhere, and can be understood any way one wants, but one thing is certain: it’s marked by a constant sense of place. “Up North, our notion of time, and of our bodies, are different” says Elisapie. “There’s this vastness. I just got back from there, and it was late-summer tundra: yellow, with just one kind of green. And now in Montréal, all I see are lines, partitions. Streets, major arteries, buildings, and all those shades of green. It’s impossible to find the meditative aspect of such immensity. I went back often, recently, because it’s much more powerful than the words of a shrink.”

The runaway girl traces her album back, on the road that led to it, while saluting those who were there along the way, and those who should’ve been there. “I’ve always run away from problems, so that I could paint something beautiful elsewhere,” she says. “I always felt I needed to protect my little world, and it hasn’t been that long since I’ve allowed myself to move on.”

The Challenges We Face Together

Now that the First Nations are finally at the heart of Canadian politics, Elisapie says it loud and clear: it cannot stop. Born of a Native mother and Newfoundlander dad, she was given up for adoption to relatives in the North. “We did go through extremely difficult times, and people always think Natives are victims, but go and see them in 2018,” she says. “What you’ll see is a people of incredibly hard workers. The territory, the language, all the stakes are still the same, but the drums are coming back. The younger generation is learning how to use them in a ceremonial way. It’s going to be a very powerful healing process. We increasingly get the impression that we’re being heard, and I felt I had to speak to my people in a language they know. I needed to make music, still.”

On the opening track, “Arnaq,” Elisapie pays homage to the Inigenous women and girls that are missing or murdered in Canada. The words immediately hit us, and leave us shivering until the end of the album. You’re a man, you’re a young boy / You’re a father, you’re a grandfather / No, don’t do it / You’re the protector. Through her words, Elisapie wished to remind men that they are extraordinary. “I’m telling them they are the balance in women’s cause,” she says. “In our history, women have always been close to their families, to care for them, while men had the duty to hunt and understand the territory while respecting our rites. Ultimately, at the end of this role that was central to who they were, men lost a part of themselves. I want them to know that it’s possible to have both that strength, and the kindness of modern men.”

The music composed by one of her uncles started to resonate loudly in he, so she covered his song “Quanniugum,” from the 1970s. “At one point, I was in such bad shape that I couldn’t tolerate any kind of pressure, everything scared me, tears ran down on his music,” says Elisapie. “I purged myself. “Wolves Don’t Live by the Rules,” an iconic song of Inuit culture written by Willie Trasher, one of Elisapie’s main influences, is another cover. “The sound of this album is as close as possible to this notion of foundation,” she says. “Almost everything was recorded live, together. That’s essential, this togetherness.”

How a Team Is Built

After one of her gigs, Elisapie distractedly said “hello” to one Joe Grass, backstage. “When you meet someone like that, you want to know what they know how to do,” says Elisapie. “I did my research. For this new album, I wanted a guy who picks up his guitar, and that’s it. I had the same feeling with him as I had with Patrick Watson, for example. He’s very close to folk, bluegrass, and blues and there’s something vintage about his sound. He’s the one I needed.”

She called him about her album and he said yes almost immediately. “I had this idea of having two guitars dance together, complete each other,” she says. “But Joe Grass told me he wasn’t going to dance with just anyone!” she remembers, laughing. He chose Nicolas Basque. And then Robbie Kruster, one of Elisapie’s longtime collaborators, joined them on drums. Sound engineer Paul Evans added his own magic touch. “He works in Iceland, and is very strong in intellectual or classical music, and he brings a touch of modern to the mix,’ says the artist. Joe Jarmush (SUUNS) co-wrote “Darkness Bring the Light” with her. “I wanted something with a gospel feel to it and we sat down to talk about it,” she says. “An hour later, we had recorded the song on our iPhones.” Elisapie built a strong family around The Ballad of The Runaway Girl, a family that also includes Gabriel Gratton, Leif Vollebekk and Manuel Gasse.

After a journey that’s both soft and rough, we get to the end of the story with a song in French. “I think we wanted this album to be like a journey, and with ‘Ton vieux nom,’ we have a soft landing,” says Elisapie. There’s no doubt writing a song in French was no small feat for her. “My rapport to Francophones is special,” she says. “It’s a window on the rest of my life, because I live among the Francophones.” Her striking interpretation of “Moi Elsie,” written by Richard Desjardins, quickly became iconic, yet she was afraid of making a mistake by singing in French again. “I wanted to sing about the North in a poetic way that was different from ‘Moi Elsie,’” she says. “Instead of being the little girl who watched her white man leave her with her dreams, I wanted to sing about an experienced woman who talks with her Inuk man whom she left up North. People wrongly believe that Inuk men are hard, but when they’re in love, they’re the most sensitive ones.”

Chloé Lacasse and Natasha Kanapé-Fontaine helped the singer-songwriter create a finished song that lived up to her expectations. The poetry is transcendent: Dis-moi comment tu plantais la neige/ Comment nous sommes faits de pierre/ Je veux t’écrire une chanson/ Pour te rappeler ton nom/ Ton vieux nom (Tell me how you sowed the snow / How we are made of stone / I want to write a song for you / To remind you of your name / Your old name).

The album comes out on Sept. 14, 2018, via Bonsound and Yontanka (Europe).
Later this month, Elisapie will undertake a nearly 50-date tour throughout Québec and Canada.