Catherine MacLellan and Tara MacLean grew up together, consider themselves family, have the same job, and by coincidence, both had the same goal for 2017. They desperately wanted to spend the whole summer in the place they love and call home, Prince Edward Island. And independently, they both came up with the same solution. They each spent the summer presenting theatrical shows on the Island, both of which proved to be huge hits with audiences, and career highlights for each singer-songwriter.
Who wouldn’t want to spend the summer on P.E.I.? Especially with its coastline covered in amazing beaches, its many restaurants out-doing each other, serving up all manner of seafood delicacies, and a relaxed, life-is-good attitude everywhere. Even with tens of thousands of tourists arriving from all over the world, it’s still surprisingly un-crowded. But you can’t stay at the beach all night, and those tourists are always looking for some evening entertainment.
MacLellan lives in P.E.I. year-round, and is always faced with a dilemma. She loves being home, but has to leave for most of her work, especially touring the summer festival circuit. “Living in P.E.I., you want to be here as much as you can,” she says. “Especially in the summer, because you wait all winter long for the summer… Somebody like me, who’s touring all the time, never really gets to enjoy it.”
MacLean had a different problem. Although she was born and raised in P.E.I., life had taken her to Salt Spring Island, BC, to raise her family. She’d actually gone on hiatus from music in 2008, but was feeling the urge to start performing again, her three kids having grown a little older. Also, she felt the call of home, especially after her grandmother had taken sick, and wanted to be around her family.
It’s not surprising that they both came up with the same plan. MacLellan’s father, Gene, and MacLean’s dad, Marty Reno, were best friends and musical partners from 1971 on. Marty backed Gene on his tours, they made a gospel album together, and had a band together, Refuge, in the ‘80s. The families have always been close, and even lived together for a time in Burlington, ON, when the girls were little. “I remember sitting at their feet so much, just listening to them sing together,” says MacLean. “It seemed to be that they always had their guitars out. Their music was the first real music that I knew, that moved through me.”
Prince Edward Island’s arts scene is as vibrant as its weather, and every small hall on the Island has been turned into a cultural space, with theatre groups, cèilidhs (traditional Irish/Scottish community dance parties), comedy troupes, music acts offering no shortage of entertainment for the tourist trade. MacLean and MacLellan both came up with bold plans to each combine their music skills with a night at the theatre. Even though they both made their names as songwriters, MacLean for her adventurous solo albums and pop songs with the band Shaye, and MacLellan for her own JUNO Award-winning folk music, for these shows, they’re performing the classics of other songwriters.
“She sends people to my show, and I send people to hers. It’s a family business we got going here!” – Tara MacLean
MacLean is paying tribute to the great songwriters of the East Coast, who influenced her, like Ron Hynes, Stompin’ Tom Connors, Sarah McLachlan and Lennie Gallant. In a show called Atlantic Blue, playing at the Guild Theatre in Charlottetown, she and her band perform songs by each artist, along with short films she’s prepared to tell their stories. Just right for East Coast music fans, and tourists ready to learn about some local heroes.
“It’s been half and half, locals and tourists,” says MacLean. “There’ve been people coming up from the southern States. Most of my career was spent touring the U.S., so it was really wonderful to see that people were still devoted and would make the trip.”
Across the city at the P.E.I. Brewing Co., MacLellan has been performing If It’s Alright with You – The Life and Music of My Father, Gene MacLellan. For years, Catherine avoided her father’s legacy, wanting to make her own name in music. More recently, she finally felt ready to explore his work and created the show (and an album of the same name), which features his iconic hits – “Snowbird” and “Put Your Hand in The Hand” – and tells his life story through anecdotes and photos. Catharine was only 14 when her dad passed away in 1995, so she shares her search for him with the audience.
“They go in with no expectations, and think it’s kind of interesting that my dad wrote these big songs,” says MacLellan. “That might be all they know at that point, but by the end they seem to come out with a clear picture of who he was, and they’re interested in that story. For me, it’s great to talk about his accomplishments and the funny little path he trod all the way along. But at the end, my dad took his own life, and to be able to talk about mental health is really important. So that has been really resonating with people.”
While both SOCAN members admit to enjoying a bit of beach time, what’s really been satisfying is the complete success of each show. “It’s been everything and more, it’s been so wonderful, and the audiences have given me such great feedback,” says MacLean.
“We started this not knowing if people were even going to like the show, and then people have been coming back two and three times to see it,” says MacLellan. “It’s been sold out since July, and it looks like it might be until the end of the run [in early October]. It’s pretty exciting, and I just feel so grateful.”
The Guild has already announced it will be bringing back MacLean’s show for 2018. MacLellan hopes to do the same, and also plans to tour the show to the rest of the country this fall, and the spring of 2018.
And no, there’s no semi-sibling rivalry going on. “I love that Catherine is doing the show as well, and it just feels so good to know that we’re both home,” says MacLean. “She sends people to my show, and I send people to hers. It’s a family business we got going here!”