Halifax native Ruth Minnikin has long been a vibrant member of her hometown’s passionate and collaborative music scene. Her rich sonic career began in the late ’90s when she was 17 and her first band, Booming Airplanes, was signed to EMI. Since then she has headed up numerous ensembles, ranging from country (The Guthries) to orchestral indie pop (The Heavy Blinkers). Meanwhile, her latest project, Ruth Minnikin and her Bandwagon, and their recently released debut album, Depend on This, has people talking. An album Minnikin colourfully calls “a conceptually dramatized exaggeration of an avant-garde jalapeño pepper on a life raft,” it combines the honesty and soul of a true Canadian singer-songwriter with splashes of strikingly modern production, soaring pop arrangements and alt-country swagger. The disc has garnered glowing reviews from publications here as well as in Europe and the U.K., and her recent U.K./Canadian tour was a smash success.
When it comes to music, Christine Fellows could almost be two people. “There is the anti-social songwriting me that lives in Winnipeg,” she says with a laugh, describing the more solitary practice that has allowed her to release four solo albums since “quitting her day job” a decade ago in order to pursue music full time. Then there’s Christine Fellows the performer and fervently engaged-in-the-world artistic collaborator, with more than a few creative projects on the go at any one time. “It’s a way of giving you more opportunities to expand your work,” she says, describing mixed-media endeavours that span dance, theatre, film and art, and fearlessly mash-up musical forms. “I guess, for me, it’s a way of not just working inside your own world.”
Not that Fellows seems at risk of navel-gazing. Instead, her most recent albums have been fed by in-depth research on a specific topic, allowing her to learn while she writes. Her whimsical 2007 release Nevertheless, for example, is anchored in the life and work of American modernist poet and “legendary spinster” Marianne Moore, but also includes a cast of unlikely characters, from artist Joseph Cornell to the Greek goddess Athena. “I like having something to spring off,” explains Fellows, her voice curling into an audible smile. “I get really inspired by that.”
A six-month residency and commission at Winnipeg’s Saint-Boniface Museum in 2009 became the inspiration for her current project. Due for release in March 2011, Femmes de chez nous will be a studio album and performance DVD inspired by the Grey Nuns who once inhabited the museum’s building. The commission resulted in a series of public, on-site performances in a tiny chapel, which were accompanied by overhead projections by visual artist Shary Boyle, with whom Fellows collaborates regularly. “The nuns came to see it,” she says. “It was totally moving — the direct contact between the work and the people the work is about. That’s always amazing.”
Fellows, who does most of her writing at the keyboard, also recently took part in the National Parks Project, an initiative that sent groups of musicians and filmmakers camping while they collaborated on films and soundtracks reflecting their experiences of the Canadian landscape. Fellows, who describes the experience as “life-changing,” worked with musicians Sandro Perri, Fellows’ husband, John K. Samson (of The Weakerthans) and filmmaker Daniel Cockburn at Bruce Peninsula National Park.
Indeed, though she enjoys her solitary writing work, Fellows admits she is less and less drawn to performing on her own. “It’s not fun for me,” she admits with a laugh. “The fun part is sharing the experience with other humans!” Fellows is also intent on continuing to collaborate, and is open to whatever comes next. “Every time you open yourself up to experimentation, you aren’t going to be disappointed. Even if it’s a total failure, you will have had a really transformative experience. And that’s what I’m looking for.”
- Fellows has been touring with the Correction Line Ensemble, a chamber group that blends classical and modern music, sharing the stage with John K. Samson and four classically trained musicians. Fellows says, “It’s like trying to find a common language.”
- She has created numerous live scores for performances by dancers Susie Burpee and Brent Lott, and served as composer in residence with Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers.
- She has toured across the country with the Pan-Canadian New Folk Ensemble, which includes songwriters Old Man Luedecke and Kim Barlow, along with musicians Alex McMaster, Jordy Walker and Alison Corbett.
When Jeremy Fischer bought his iPhone about a year ago, he never expected it would become part of his repertoire of musical instruments. But one day he downloaded East Beat Maker, a drum-machine application, and almost overnight his songwriting process was altered. “I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of writing with this app,” he says. “I don’t write with a band so I just lock in a kick and snare pattern and work from there.”
Since then, Fisher’s downloaded a number of music apps, from Vintage Drum, a program that lets you play the skins with your fingers, to the piano app Virtuoso. In fact, he’s got more instruments and sounds at his disposal than he ever would have imagined possible. He recently took his love of music apps to a new level — the video for his new song “Shine a Little Light” has him playing apps instead of real instruments.
While Fischer’s taken the iPhone and turned it into a portable jam space, others are just beginning to discover the hundreds of music apps on the market. It’s not only changing the way people use their phones, it’s also altering the music business. “There’s evidence the market place is beginning to be populated by media produced on mobile devices,” says Aram Sinnreich, a Rutgers University media professor. “There are so many opportunities; no one can keep track of the many ways these devices can be used.”
Toronto-based jazz singer Matt Dusk uses his iPhone’s voice-recorder app to capture instrumental practice sessions that he can later sing along to. “It helps me get ready for gigs with no surprises,” he says. Musicians are attracted to the apps for two reasons: they’re easy to use and they’re cheap. Dusk likes being able to record ideas instantly, for better or worse. “When you think you have the next ‘Hey Jude,’ you can record it, then listen to it and realize you’re not even close,” he says with a laugh.
Fischer uses his phone for the same reasons as Dusk, but mobile technology also helped him make the cheapest video of his life. He spent about $14 on his apps and that was it. He already had a camera and he edited the spot with software he already owned. That’s a big change from the $40,000 Sony Music spent on making some of his older videos. “It’s really my time that costs,” he says. “Other than that, there was no budget.”
Cell-phone apps aren’t just being used for music creation. Former Torontonian-turned-New Yorker Jared Gutstadt invented Jingle Punks, an app for music supervisors. The program gives supervisors access to 30,000 songs, mostly from independent artists, and allows them to choose and use a track right then and there. Gutstadt says mobile technology is breaking down barriers, giving talented people the chance to rise to the top. “It took me eight years to get music in TV shows and now that’s something that can happen 100 times a day,” he says.
Mobile technology is only starting to influence the music world, but no one doubts that it will have a huge impact on the industry. “When I made my first record I had one guitar and a pad of paper,” says Fischer. “Now every tool you want is available on a phone.”