It’s fitting, somehow, that Catherine MacLellan compares songwriting to gardening. After all, the Prince Edward Island-based singer-songwriter is unabashedly obsessed with the latter. She admits that these days, her garden is where she finds her inspiration. “I really love digging in the dirt,” she says with a laugh. “A lot of things come to me there.”

 

For MacLellan, the songwriting process is as mysterious as a sprouting seed growing into a full-blown plant. “It’s similar in the sense that you don’t have total control of it,” she explains thoughtfully. “You do what you can…. You can put compost in the ground, but then it’s kind of up to the seed.” MacLellan describes her own rather organic songwriting process as one wherein she waits for a “song feeling” to strike, rather than adhering to any sort of strict writing schedule. “Basically, I just feel a song coming on, and then I sit down and write it.”

 

It’s an approach that has served her well thus far. With three albums under her belt, MacLellan’s honest, unpretentious and heartfelt approach to music-making has earned her heaps of praise from both audiences and critics alike. Most recently, she won both Female Solo Recording of the Year and Folk Recording of the Year at the 2010 East Coast Music Awards for her album Water in the Ground, along with Solo Artist of the Year at the 2009 Canadian Folk Music Awards. In the last year she also represented PEI as part of CBC Radio 2’s Great Canadian Song Quest, and took home a handful of prizes — including both Songwriter and Album of the Year — at the 2010 Music PEI Awards.

 

Though MacLellan jokes that she first starting writing “bad songs” at age 10 (her brother’s cigarette smoking was an early theme), she says it was the death of her father, singer-songwriter Gene MacLellan, from suicide in 1995 that enabled her to find her voice in music. “I was a shy kid,” says MacLellan, who was 14 at the time, “and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I hid in my room and wrote all these sad songs. That’s really how I got started.” MacLellan says songwriting is still her preferred method for exploring things that are hard to talk about. “I’m still on the path of writing songs about emotions that I can’t find the words for in everyday conversation.”

 

MacLellan, who was born in Ontario but grew up in PEI, credits her father for showing her what was possible for her own musical career. “We would come home from school and he’d be editing a song or writing one with a guitar,” she recalls, “and that was how he made his living. I think it gave me the idea that I could do it.” But thanks to the early exposure, she also knew better than to romanticize life in the music industry. “I knew it would be a struggle, but it was one that I was willing to take up.”

 

Though MacLellan acknowledges her reputation for making melancholy music, she is currently embracing a more optimistic outlook in her songwriting. “I don’t want to leave a legacy of ‘I’m so sad and my life is so hard,’” she says with a smile, crediting the birth of her daughter, Isabel, now four, for helping her to find some lightness. “Suddenly it wasn’t about me any more. My perspective definitely changed.” Though she acknowledges the pull to write sad songs about things like break-ups, MacLellan says she realized she didn’t want to keep herself stuck in that rut. “I wanted to get myself out of the pattern of sadness and misery. I want to be happy!”

 

On the cusp of getting to work on her next album (“I have a big backlog of songs,” she says), which she hopes to have realized within the next year, MacLellan says she’s grateful to get to make music for a living. “I don’t have these grand dreams,” she says. “Mine are really practical. My one dream was to get to do this for a living and to not have to do another job — and now it’s about what I have to do to keep this going.”

 

She acknowledges having a dream come true, however, when in February, she shared a stage with musicians Gordon Lightfoot and Gord Downie as part of a behind-the-music concert presented by the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, wherein an emerging artist is invited to perform with more established musicians. “I can’t believe it actually happened,” she says, the disbelief at playing with two of her musical heroes still palpable. “I don’t see how it can get much better than that!”

 

At the end of the day, however, MacLellan says she feels privileged to come home to her daughter — and to her garden. “I’m kind of a homebody,” she says, acknowledging that her touring schedule gives her a best-of-both-worlds balance between big-city stimulation and small-town community living. One more dream, she says, is to find a way to make touring “more meaningful and less crazy.” Then, MacLellan says, she really could imagine doing it for the rest of her life. “I’m a practical dreamer,” she says. “I like attainable dreams.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Translations prior to Fall 2010 are currently unavailable. 

Animés par le même amour inconditionnel de la langue française, Biz et Batlamfondent Loco Locass en 1995. À la suite d’une rencontre déterminante avec DJ Chafiik, le trio fait paraître une poignée de maquettes bricolées à la maison, puis un premier album complet voit le jour en 2000 (Manifestif). Suivent le projet musical interactif In Vivo en 2002 et, deux ans plus tard, le populaire Amour Oral.

Après avoir rudement mis à l’épreuve la patience des amateurs en repoussant la date de parution de leur troisième album à plusieurs reprises, les gars franchiront bientôt (enfin !) la ligne d’arrivée. Mais qu’on se donne le mot : il faudra sans doute patienter encore jusqu’en 2011 pour se mettre le nouvel opus du groupe dans les oreilles. « L’album n’est pas encore prêt, » lance d’emblée Chafiik. On est à deux ou trois chansons d’avoir un disque complet, mais il manque un certain équilibre dans les textes. » Biz poursuit : « On n’a pas toujours le contrôle sur ces choses-là. Personnellement, j’aurais été prêt avant, mais Batlam, en tant que comédien, a été très occupé avec le film Dédé à travers les brumes. Inévitablement, ça nous a retardés, mais ça l’a enrichi en tant qu’être humain. Il s’est immergé dans la musique des Colocs et a trouvé une grande force mélodique. Ça lui a donné de nouvelles idées. Ainsi, le nouveau compact sera teinté de ces expériences. »

 

ET C’EST LE BUT !

Derrière la console de ce très attend disque (toujours sans titre), Chafiik balance quelques titres qui se retrouveront sur cette nouvelle production du trio : « Les géants », « Un conte social de Kevin et

Gaétan », « La trahison des marchands », « M’accrocher ? » et… « Le but ». Complétée au printemps 2008, la chanson s’est sournoisement glissée sur les ondes d’une station AM avant d’être entendue

lors des séries éliminatoires de 2009. Mais le succès fut tout sauf instantané. « L’an dernier, on a sorti la chanson, mais les séries n’ont duré que quatre matchs et la pièce a tourné pendant trois jours ! C’est un morceau qui a beaucoup d’ambition. On a voulu écrire l’ultime chanson sur le Canadien de Montréal. Rien de moins.

 

On connait l’histoire du club et on connait aussi l’importance du hockey en tant que peuple. La structure même de la chanson est reliée à l’histoire du club, à une saison de hockey, à la vie d’un joueur, » affirme Chafiik.

 

Il reprend son souffle et enchaîne : « La récompense ultime ? Que les gens finissent par oublier que Loco Locass l’a composée et qu’elle devienne un chant de ralliement. Qu’elle appartienne au peuple. » Biz renchérit : « C’est la chanson qui nous a pris le plus de temps à compléter : deux ans et demi ! Ce fut un travail colossal au niveau de la structure car c’est une chanson remplie de symboles. On peut l’interpréter de plusieurs façons, » estime-t-il.

 

MUSICIENS POPULAIRES

Ironiquement, c’est au cours des dernières années, alors que le groupe n’avait aucun album à défendre, qu’il s’est le plus souvent retrouvé sous les projecteurs. En plus d’avoir travaillé avec un orchestre symphonique (pour le film Symphonie Locass ainsi que lors de leur prestation aux FrancoFolies 2007), la bande a signé le thème de la série Montréal/Québec (« Hymne à Québec »). Puis, le tandem Biz/Batlam s’est fait remarquer avec le projet du Moulin à paroles, présenté sur les Plaines d’Abraham. Toutes ces experiences ont contribué à modifier quelque peu l’approche musicale du trio. Biz : « Je pense qu’on a goûté au Plaisir d’être entendus par le plus grand nombre. On est de meilleurs constructeurs de chansons qu’avant. On comprend comment une chanson est bâtie.

 

Aujourd’hui, on est capables de faire de la musique populaire, dans le bon sens du terme, appréciée et destinée au plus grand nombre d’individus, mais tenant compte de notre pensée et de nos

convictions. On a appris que dans un discours, moins c’est plus. » S’occupant des charpentes musicales ainsi que des rythmes, Chafiik signe également une certaine portion (approximativement 20 %) des textes, parfois personnels, souvent à portée politique et sociale, du trio.

Habiles manipulateurs de mots, Batlam et Biz se partagent l’écriture de la majorité des titres. « S’ils contribuent un peu moins à la musique que moi, ils ont des idées précises. Parfois, ils arrivent avec le souffle premier d’une chanson et je n’ai qu’à ajouter un beat. Ils savent très bien ce qu’ils veulent et c’est une joie de travailler de la sorte, » précise Chafiik.

Alors que ce dernier vient de completer la réalisation d’un album pour sa soeur (Alecka), nouvellement signée avec l’Équipe Spectra, Biz poursuit pour sa part un projet de livre, encore au stade embryonnaire. De plus, un jeune comédien local vient de l’approcher pour adapter son premier bouquin (Dérives) au théâtre. Sinon, pour les prochains mois, les activités des membres du trio convergeront vers un seul et même objectif : Loco Locass. « On veut terminer l’album et partir sur la route l’an prochain. On est rendus à un stade de notoriété où l’on reçoit beaucoup de propositions. Il faut savoir dire non. On ne veut pas aller trop vite, brusquer les choses. On met la barre haute à chaque fois et on veut se surpasser. » Gageons que l’amateur est febrile d’entendre le résultat.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Boxing, we’re told, is the quintessentially male sport. Joyce Carol Oates, in her 1985 book On Boxing, even says this: “Men fighting men to determine…masculinity…excludes women as completely as the female experience of childbirth excludes men. The female boxer violates this stereotype and cannot be taken seriously—she is parody, she is cartoon, she is monstrous….”

Toronto composer and sound artist Juliet Palmer, a founding member of the interdisciplinary performance collective urbanvessel, disagrees. Palmer’s Voice-Box, with librettist Anna Chatterton and choreographer Julia Aplin, is about women who box, and it takes them very seriously indeed, using boxing as a metaphor for making a distinction between violence and aggression, and for understanding the positive value of aggression.

“Aggression is a very gendered issue,” says Palmer, who initially came to North America from her native New Zealand in 1990 to work with Meredith Monk in New York, earning a PhD in composition from Princeton in 1999. She now lives in Toronto. “If a woman is aggressive, she’s often sidelined. But positive assertion is how we act in the world, how we get things accomplished.”

The initial idea for Voice-Box, commissioned by Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, came when opera singer—and accomplished boxer—Vilma Vitols approached Palmer about bringing the worlds of opera and boxing together.

“It took us a while to find the form for Voice-box,” says Palmer, whose previous works with urbanvessel include Slip, a site-specific performance for bathhouse (performed at Toronto’s Harrison Baths), and the much-acclaimed Stitch, an a cappella work for three female singers whose central metaphor is a sewing sweatshop. “Often there was the urge to push towards narrative, which wasn’t helpful. We’re exploring the structure of the sport — it’s more of an event than a story.

“It was a collaborative process, with the librettist there from the beginning. We spent time in the gym experimenting with training routines and vocal improvisation to see what impulses were triggered by the physical language of boxing.”

The piece, structured in a series of “bouts,” involves four protagonists (yes, there’s some real boxing) and, as in much of Palmer’s vocal writing, shifts fluidly between styles, exploiting the particular skills of its performers—improviser, jazz and gospel singer Christine Duncan; actor and opera singer Neema Bickersteth; actor, comedian and boxing coach Savoy Howe; and Vitols, whose expertise ranges from Baroque opera to contemporary music.

“I write specifically for different performers, and I adapt what I’ve written in collaboration with them,” says Palmer, whose chamber and orchestral music is more abstract and complex than her theatre music. “If they have great improvisational skills, I make sure they have that option; if their strengths are in interpreting precise notation, then I do that. The challenge is in how those different voices can share the same space. Each has a different emotional register that I want to access.”

To expand her understanding of the voice in dramatic contexts in different cultures, Palmer has studied South Indian singing, Japanese folk singing and Georgian singing—to name a few. In Voice-Box, Duncan uses Tibetan throat singing to make the idea of aggression clear in the music. “It’s in your face and uncomfortable,” says Palmer, “a deep, multiphonic sound that’s non-feminine and aggressive.”

There’s also a chorus of grunting sounds taken to extremes, an operatic duel, a tango, an electro-acoustic score that recycles sound endemic to the gym and the sport—bells, punching bags, squeaking ropes—and a cheesy, pre-recorded boxing theme.

That theme goes public for the first time when Voice-Box premieres on Harbourfront Centre’s World Stage Series in Toronto, Nov. 10-14. We hear it’s a knock-out.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *