Things seem to be getting very big, very fast, for Regina’s Library Voices. Just don’t ask how many members they have. “It’s strange,” says singer Michael Dawson, who fronts the current eight-piece pop collective. “The first question in every interview is always about the size of the band. Truthfully, it’s never been much of an issue.” It’s a wonder they don’t need more members, what with their catchy, anthemic songs brimming with guitars, synths, organs, accordions, brass, strings, theremin and all manner of strange electronics. “At this point we’ve got it down to a science. Not a hard science like chemistry — it’s a little looser. More like alchemy.” Over the past two years they’ve cropped up in both Canadian and U.S. publications —The New Yorker gave them a mention and SPIN called them an “undiscovered band you need to hear now.” Their debut full-length CD, Denim on Denim, is getting a great reception, and they’ll be touring Canada starting in September.
It’s hard to put just one label on Vancouver-based singer-songwriter Billy the Kid (a.k.a Kristen Pettinger). She’s been a solo folk singer, band leader, guitar slinger, punk rocker and label owner (Lost Records). As she puts it, her work is “a call-to-arms for individual thinking, personal pride and refusal to relent.” Her EP The Lost Cause features a blindingly star-studded cast of musicians. Produced by Raine Maida, such greats as Garth Hudson (The Band, Bob Dylan), drummer Randy Cooke (Ringo Starr/Dave Stewart), guitarist Ben Peeler (Jacob Dylan/The Wallflowers) and harmonica player Stan Behrens (Ruth Brown, The Four Tops) participated in The Kid’s vision. The Lost Cause hit No. 1 on MuchLoud’s charts, leading her to a spot on the Warped Tour. In 2009 she was nominated for XM Radio’s The Verge Artist of the Year, and she released Billy The Kid Live at the Verge this year. In the fall, she’s setting out on her biggest cross-Canada tour yet.
They don’t call it Music City for nothing. Long known as the creative and commercial hub of country music, Nashville continues to grow in importance as a music centre. Artists and songwriters in a wide range of genres now call Nashville home, and their ranks include a highly impressive and successful Canadian contingent.
A partial list includes Gordie Sampson, Bob Ezrin, Gerald O’Brien, Liam Titcomb, Victoria Banks, John Capek, Carolyn Dawn Johnson, Deric Ruttan, Fred Mollin, Eddie Schwartz, Johnny Douglas, Steve Fox, Daryl Burgess, Michelle Wright, Patricia Conroy, members of Doc Walker, Linda McRae, Jason Blaine, Johnny Reid, Colin Linden and Jason McCoy. Former residents who had fruitful sojourns there before returning north include Paul Brandt, Joan Besen (Prairie Oyster), Luke Doucet and Dean Brody. Other prominent Canadians often visit Nashville to write, record and perform, including Jann Arden (much of her 2009 CD Free was written and recorded there), Josh Finlayson, Tom Wilson, Dan Hill and Lennie Gallant.
Space doesn’t allow us to cover the careers of all Canadian songwriters and artists now living and working in Music City, but W+M interviewed three Nashville-based songwriters, two well-established, one just starting to make her mark.
Deric Ruttan is a singer/songwriter balancing a career as one of Canada’s most popular country artists with life as a successful Nashville songwriter. Achieving this enviable position has taken commitment and perseverance through tough times. ““I was just so determined to do this for a living when I moved here that I really didn’t have a two or ten year plan. I just knew I would either make a living at it or stay here trying ‘til they buried me here. Throw yourself into it and just do it until they pry your guitar from your cold dead fingers!!”
Ruttan now says “I still feel that way. I have a wife and five kids and I’ve put roots down here. Now, at least I can say I’ve had a little bit of success.” His commitment was certainly tested during his early fruitless years in Nashville. He moved there in 1994, from Bracebridge, Ontario, and “totally roughed it” for his first year.
“I found a cabin on a farm,” he says, “that was 11 by 13 feet with no running water, but the rent was just $20 a month. After 18 months I got my first publishing deal. I was paid $12,000 a year and I thought I was in heaven. In two years I got no cuts out of that catalogue, but the important thing was I had a room that was all mine and that’s where I practised my craft and learned how to co-write.”
His career took off in 2003 when, after signing a publishing deal with Sony/ATV, he released his self-titled debut album. It produced five Top 10 singles in Canada and he simultaneously notched his first No. 1 U.S. hit as a songwriter by co-writing “What Was I Thinkin’,” recorded by Dierks Bentley. He has since written other hits with and for Bentley, plus such notable artists as Gary Allan, Eric Church and Aaron Pritchett.
Ruttan’s recent hit single, “Up All Night,” was actually written at the SOCAN House in Nashville (see sidebar). “Jimmy Rankin was in town for a week, staying there, and that’s where we co-wrote that song,” says Ruttan, who remains popular in Canada and recently toured here, supporting his third album, Sunshine. “Songwriting puts the most food on the table, but touring is great fun and I find it helps my songwriting,” he says.
Nashville-based Canadian recording artist and songwriter Victoria Banks is a close friend of Ruttan. Like him, she also hails from Bracebridge, Ont., and when she moved to Nashville in 1997, she stayed on his couch for a time. Banks also credits Carolyn Dawn Johnson with aiding her transition. “Carolyn and Deric helped me and so now I’ve tried to continue to pass on help and advice to the newer Canadian writers coming down. There are a lot more of them now, and it’s neat seeing that come to fruition.” She cites Lisa McCallum as a young Canadian writer who “picked my brain and is now writing full time here.”
Banks also paid serious dues before breaking through as a songwriter via the penning of No. 1 songs for Jessica Simpson and hits for the likes of Sara Evans and Johnny Reid. She also says persistence is a must. “Sometimes it seems whoever gives up last is the one who gets the hit. You take your lumps and move and grow, as opposed to letting them crush you.”
For Banks, “Nashville is the place to be to learn about songwriting, how to structure a song, how to make your lyrics count. I see artists coming here from all over the world to write songs. There are pop and rock musicians who understand their music could be even more powerful if it has an incredible lyric as well, and Nashville is the king of that.” Says Banks. “I’ve been writing more and more with artists outside country, coming here to write for their albums. I enjoy stretching my boundaries.”
Eddie Schwartz is something of an elder statesman of Canadian songwriting. A former SOCAN board member, this veteran has been based in Nashville for the past 13 years, and is quick to extol its benefits. “It is such a great environment for songwriting, with so many resources here. I’d never experienced songwriter-friendly banks before! They actually see it as a legitimate profession. Then there is such a community of musicians and studios, plus the publishing opportunities. It blew my mind to see the depth and variety of opportunity and support for songwriters here.”
One Nashville newbie is young singer/songwriter Morgan Tobias. “I moved here last December, though I’ve been coming back and forth since 2008,” she says. The catalyst for her relocation was fellow Canadian country singer/songwriter Jason Blaine (the 2009 CCMA Artist of the Year). “Jason found me on MySpace and wanted us to write together. He brought me down to Nashville, invited me into his songwriters circle and set up writing appointments. Once you’ve met a few writers, they can set you up with their songwriting friends and you get to write in different songwriter circles.”
Tobias appreciates that spirit of camaraderie. “Generally people want to help people out since everyone benefits.” In her case, she has made impressive progress in a short time, and has recently recorded a five-song EP with top Nashville producer/songwriter Josh Leo (LeAnn Rimes, Reba McEntire), featuring songs co-written by the pair. Other notable Nashville writers with whom Tobias has collaborated include Bonnie Baker, Gary Byrd and Amy Mayo, and she’s optimistic her songs will attract the attention of a publisher and/or record label soon.
She acknowledges that moving to Nashville has affected her sound. “I used to do more pop writing but since living here, it has definitely become more country,” she says. To Tobias, “Nashville feels like home. I’m going to make this work out, but even if it doesn’t, I’d love to stay here.”
Victoria Banks says, “When you think of the hit songs contributed by the likes of Deric, Carolyn Dawn and Gordie, you see Canadians are contributing substantially to the Nashville sound. I think we bring something a little different to the plate because we were raised on a more open concept of country music. Most of the Canadian songwriters making waves here are greatly respected within the industry for thinking outside the box.”