It happened when John met Paul. It happened when Bryan Adams met Jim Vallance, and when Drake met 40. It happened when someone’s chocolate fell into someone else’s peanut butter. It’s the classic story of the sum being more than the individual parts.
And it happened when SOCAN members Breagh Mackinnon, Carleton Stone and Dylan Guthro – three Nova Scotia-based, solo singer-songwriters – got together at a SOCAN-sponsored Gordie Sampson Song Camp in the summer of 2011 in Cape Breton.
“That was the first time that we had all played music together and collaborated,” says Mackinnon. “Carleton and I are both from Sydney, so we kind of knew of each other before and had played some shows, but that was the first time that we all came together creatively.”
Between them, Mackinnon, Stone and Guthro (son of musician and SOCAN member Bruce Guthro) have made six solo albums and worked with some of the brightest lights in Canadian music, including JUNO Award-winning duo Classified and David Myles, producers such as Howie Beck (Feist, Hayden), Hawksley Workman (Serena Ryder, Tegan and Sara) and Broken Social Scenester Jason Collett.
“We were making music together so much, we decided to make it official and just start one band.” — Breagh Mackinnon of Port Cities
But when the three combined their musical and songwriting talents at the song camp, it was the start of something bigger – although at first they didn’t know it. For the next three or four years, they continued writing songs together, contributing to each other’s albums, sharing bills and playing in each other’s bands.
“And then, just a couple of years ago, we were making music together so much, we decided to make it official and just start one band,” Mackinnon says. That musical penny dropped in 2015 when they officially formed Port Cities. They were soon signed to Warner Music Canada, and in early 2017 they released their eponymous debut album, which they recorded in Nashville.
To produce the album, they prevailed upon the good graces of their Song Camp host once again. Fellow Nova Scotian Gordie Sampson has carved out a space for himself in Nashville as one of Music City’s most sought-out songwriters and producers, having worked with the likes of Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban, Miranda Lambert, Florida Georgia Line and many others.
“We’d been there a number of times to write songs,” says Guthro, “but to go down and work on our own music was really cool. We were very lucky that Gordie is so well-connected down there, and he has his go-to guys; he knows all of the players, the musicians and engineers, and whoever we needed. We were constantly blown away by how fast and how incredible they were. One chord chart, listen through the song once, make a note or two, and go in and, first or second take, just kill it.”
While in Nashville, they also made sure to take advantage of the wealth of songwriting talent there. In fact, a few of the songs on the album were written in Nashville with songwriters they’d met through Sampson.
“Every trip that we go down there, we try to do some sessions with the writers there,” says Mackinnon, “because, obviously, some of the world’s best songwriters live in Nashville. We would always be writing on our own, but we wouldn’t want to pass up the opportunity to write with some of those incredible writers down there as well.”
But when the trio started to choose which songs they were going to record as Port Cities, they initially dug into their respective individual back catalogues for songs that hadn’t yet found a home.
“So we kind of started from there,” Stone says, “but then as we were finishing the album, we figured out a really good work flow, just between our three creative minds. So I think that’s become more the reality as of late.”
The collaborative writing process they hit upon capitalizes on their different musical strengths and diverse musical backgrounds.
“I feel like I can be more of the lyric-title-concept guy, and one of my weaknesses would be melodies,” Stone says, “where Dylan is amazing at melodies, and Breagh’s a jazz prodigy, so she has all these musical tools in her toolbox, that I have no idea [how to use]. I think that’s why the collaboration works really well. Our skills complement each other when we’re in the co-writing situation, which is one of the reasons why we kept working together after we met. And that’s only gotten stronger as we’ve evolved as writers and friends, really.”
So far, the fruits of their collaboration appear to be catching on with listeners. Their song “Back to The Bottom” topped Spotify’s Viral Hits Chart, attracting more than 340,000 streams to date.
After having recently toured as an opening act for fellow East Coaster Rose Cousins, the trio is revving up for some album release shows on their home turf. Then Port Cities will set out for a U.K. tour in May, before returning to Canada for the summer festival season. By the fall, they’re back in Europe for more shows, finally returning home for more dates in Canada.
The flow they’ve found by combining their unique voices and talents has begun to carry them far from their home ports, but you won’t hear a sour note from Port Cities.
“We’re pretty much booked till Christmas, it seems like,” Stone says, “so we’re not complaining.”