Story by Nicolas Tittley | Thursday December 22nd, 2016
Despite The Brooks’ growing reputation, it still wouldn’t be unfair to qualify the band as “Montréal’s best kept secret”.
Founded by renowned musicians with eclectic backgrounds – over the years, the band’s eight members have played with the likes of Yann Perreau, Fred Fortin, Yanick Rieu, Kroy and… Michael Jackson! – their soul-funk roots are rapidly becoming a very serious endeavour, one whose musical identity is like a breath of fresh air over the city.
“It’s been many, many years now that Montréal has renowned for its indie-folk-rock bands; but for everyone else, who need a break from that, there’s The Brooks,” laughs Alexandre Lapointe, bass player and unofficial leader of the gang of merry pranksters.
The best way to discover The Brooks is during one of their “Soul Therapy” events at Dièze Onze. This small Plateau Mont-Royal club is the band’s birthplace, and the place where they’re re-born each week, playing on Wednesdays for a capacity, pumped-up crowd that keeps on growing. Their success has caused them to look for another, bigger venue, but The Brooks still prefer the unique intimacy of Dièze Onze. “Initially, the idea was a three-month residency with a revolving cast of singers, but I think we ended up having a little too much fun doing what we do ourselves, because we’re going to celebrate our third anniversary, soon!” says Lapointe.
Being on stage also had a transformative effect on the original project, which was much more modest and anonymous. “We’re all session musicians working on a ton of different projects, so it’s not always easy to get everyone together,” Lapointe admits. “Initially, we thought we’d go into the studio and concentrate on instrumental tracks for the movies (the band has notably scored Stéphane Lapointe’s Maîtres du suspense) or videogames. Even recording an album wasn’t part of the plan.” But the pieces of the puzzle slowly fell into place. The band took to the stage, until they comprised eight pieces, including a groovy, charismatic character that naturally ended up on the mic.
Among the many vocalists with whom The Brooks shared the Dièze Onze stage in the early days was Alan Prater – who, besides being a solid singer, has played trumpet and trombone in Michael Jackson’s live band. A frequent collaborator at first, Prater became a full-fledged member of the band and a crucial component of their most recent album, the contagiously funky Pain and Bliss. And although he’s collaborated with Valaire on their recent Oobopopop, his loyalty to The Brooks is total. “At first, Alan was mainly supposed to do brass, but he quickly started singing melodies, and it clicked immediately,” says Lapointe. “He brings so much to the table through his energy, his stories of the good ol’ days, but also with his lyrics that are sometimes very personal. ‘Mama,’ for example, really is inspired by his mom.”
The maternity theme – omnipresent in the band’s day-to-day dealings, since three of the members recently became fathers – is also reflected on the album cover, which depicts a mother and child. The drawing style of the cover illustration is reminiscent of certain Afrobeat albums of the ‘70s; The Brooks tapped Nigerian artist Lemi Ghariokwu, who was behind many Fela Kuti album covers – and also a musician whose influence on the band rests side by side with Stax and Motown.
“You know, we’re not just a bunch of musicians, we’re also music-loving friends; we have vinyl evenings where each of us brings two or three records and we spend hours playing music for each other,” Lapointe explains. “Even though we do all kinds of musical styles professionally, we never had to discuss the kind of music we were going to do together; we just started jamming and that’s what came out, as naturally as can be.”
High Valley’s Brad Rempel co-writes songs at the beach
Story by Nick Krewen | Wednesday January 4th, 2017
Isolation has its advantages.
Growing up in the tiny northern Mennonite hamlet of La Crete, Alberta, about 250 km south of the Northwest Territories border, Brad and Curtis Rempel were cut off from the type of media exposure the rest of us take for granted.
For example, you might be surprised to learn about the kind of music the brothers Rempel – known musically and professionally as High Valley – didn’t have on their radar.
“We’d never heard of Michael Jackson until we moved to Nashville,” admits Brad. “We’d never heard of Led Zeppelin, or Nirvana, or any of these other famous bands people think we’ve heard of.”
No “Stairway to Heaven”? No “Billie Jean”? No “Smells Like Teen Spirit”?
“Ricky Skaggs was one of only three albums we were allowed to listen to when we were growing up,” says Brad, during a recent promotional trip to Toronto. “We didn’t have any radio or TV, so all we had was bluegrass music. So we’d heard of Ricky Skaggs, and Del McCoury, and Ralph Stanley, and stuff like that.”
It’s an interesting circumstance, because if you think you hear echoes of Mumford & Sons or The Lumineers in High Valley’s rollicking rhythms, spirited harmonies and stomping beats – on such songs as “Dear Life” and “Young Forever,” from the duo’s fifth and latest album, Dear Life – the Rempels claim they were Mumford before Mumford was Mumford.
“What we’re doing now is what we did for the first 15 years, but nobody heard it,” says Brad. “In brutal honesty, we tried to make that music for a couple years in Canada, but we felt pressured to fit in, and write and record music that sounded like normal country radio.
“What we’re doing now is what we did for the first 15 years, but nobody heard it.” – Brad Rempel of High Valley
“We bought our way out of our record deal two-and-a-half years ago, and finally we said, ‘OK, now we’re going to do what we always done.’ Then we started hearing Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers and the Avett Brothers on pop radio, and I called Curtis and said, ‘Hey, they’re playing bluegrass music on pop radio. I wonder if they’re going to start playing it again on country radio soon.’
“So we went back and started making the same kind of music we’d always made. If you listen to the record our family made when I was four years old – and I had two songs on it – in 1988, it would sound a lot more familiar with what we’re doing today than everything we made in between. It’s what we should have stuck with the whole time.”
While U.S. audiences are just beginning to discover High Valley, thanks to a deal inked with Atlantic/Warner Music Nashville – and the song “Make You Mine” (recorded with the duo’s childhood hero Ricky Skaggs) – Canadians have known the hit-making band since 2007, stretching back to their trio days when brother Bryan was a member. They scored three Top 20 hits with “Love You for a Long Time,” “Trying to Believe,” and their first Top 10, “Rescue You.”
After brother Bryan Rempel high-tailed it to spend more time with his family, Brad and Curtis had the latitude to return to their basics. “We figured we’d rather be at the front of a line of people doing this sound than the 25th-best version of the bro country sound, which is what we never fit into, although we almost pretended to fit into it for a couple of years,” Brad explains. “Our music has naturally been about faith, family and farming, those kind of things, and for me to be able to write old-school songs using the bluegrass language.”
“Rescue You” was also responsible for putting a solid songwriting team in place: Brad, his pal Stennis, and Grammy-nominated producer Mosley, also a member of Me in Motion, a Christian rock band. The trio is so comfortable with each other that their creative process is actually pretty enviable.
“Ben’s wife and his kids; me, my wife and our kids; and Seth, his wife and their child, we all go to the beach together, multiple times a year, to Pensacola Beach in Florida,” says Brad. “We’ll write during the day, go to the beach, come back and record. A lot of the lead vocals on Dear Life were me holding a mic in my hand in the beach house, singing it for the first time.
“We just wrote the song, I sang it, and that’s the vocal that’s on the record. So ‘Dear Life,’ ‘Don’t Stop,’ ‘Memory Making’ and ‘Young Forever’ were all recorded at the beach. We love writing that way. We love recording that way. Zero of the songs on this record that I had anything to do with were written on [Nashville’s] Music Row. I bought this old farmhouse in the country, so we worked at the farmhouse, or at Seth’s house in Franklin, Tennessee, or at the beach house.”
Brad describes the process, one in which he says suffers no pressure. “At the beach we have a makeshift studio,” he explains. “For several tracks on the record, Seth would literally bring a laptop, use Logic [recording software] and say, ‘I want to test my skills and only use the built-in skills that came with Logic on my laptop.’ I literally sang sitting on a chair, holding a studio mic in my hand for some of the songs. And we recorded some at the Castle, where Al Capone used to hang out in Tennessee.
“Warner was really cool,” Brad continues. “We signed with Warner Atlantic, and all of a sudden we had this budget where we could record anywhere we wanted to, which was mind-boggling. But we still went to Seth’s place to record it just like County Line, the last record. We’re cheap, stingy, Mennonite kids. We don’t really want to change anything.”
In terms of subject matter, Brad says he’s inspired by nostalgia. “It’s very, very easy for things to give me memories of my childhood,” he says. “It’s very important with me, with our kids, that everything we’re doing are things that we’ll remember in positive ways. What if I fly on this airplane and I never see them again? What are they going to remember? I think way too much about that stuff.
“So there’s a song called ‘Memory Making’ – that’s one of the beach songs. My wife Rebekah came up with the title for ‘Dear Life.’ I had come home and she said, ‘Man, our kids are growing up so fast – I feel we’re hanging on for dear life.’ And I said, ‘Man, that’s a great song title.’ We saved it for the next beach trip, and I told the guys, and we wrote it like a diary. Hopefully the album is like a diary: here’s what we’re thankful for; here’s what we’re scared of… and here’s what we’re proud of.”
With “Young Forever” recently placed on the ultra-popular video game Madden 2017 and ESPN picking it up for college basketball broadcasts – and “Make You Mine” denting the U.S. country charts – High Valley’s big-picture musical philosophy is offering something fresh and different.
“People call it Americana, and folk, and Mumford, and we just call it bluegrass, though we hired a very progressive producer who pulls it into a much more 2016 vibe,” says Brad. “Then we come at it with all the banjos, and mandolins, and acoustic instruments we can find. It’s like this tug of war where it ends up being the High Valley sound that we’re definitely proud of. It’s definitely different from normal country radio, for sure.”
Photo by Courtesy of Séan McCann
SOCAN Members Raising Mental-Health Awareness
Story by Stuart Berman | Thursday December 22nd, 2016
One bottle of scotch. Four bottles of wine. Forty-eight beers. For most, that’s a decent long-weekend haul at the liquor store. For Séan McCann, that was just another day at the office.
As a multi-instrumentalist for Great Big Sea, McCann helped supply the foot-stomping, pint-spilling backbeat to Canada’s pre-eminent party band for 20 years. And in that context, the aforementioned booze inventory – the contents of his personal daily backstage rider – simply comprised his tools of the trade. As he’s inclined to say, “that band was a great place for an alcoholic to hide.”
But five years ago, at age 45, McCann summoned the will to quit drinking – and shortly thereafter, his band. “I was sober for my last tour, and it was brutal,” he recalls. “I think my bandmates expected me to fail, because I had tried to quit and failed before, and that failure left me depressed many times. It was a hard place to be. But that was it – I was like, ‘I want to survive.’”
Following his split from Great Big Sea, McCann embarked on a different sort of touring: to mental hospitals, recovery centres, and wellness conferences, spreading a music-as-therapy message to fellow addicts.
But while speaking at a 2014 event in London, Ontario, McCann was forced to confront the fact that his alcoholism wasn’t simply an occupational hazard of playing with a rowdy roots-rock band. During a Q&A with the audience, one attendee stood up and revealed his addiction was the aftershock of being molested by his minor-league hockey coach. Following that confession, McCann publicly acknowledged for the first time that he, too, had been repeatedly sexually abused by a priest he had befriended as a teen.
“I was still in denial about that, even when I quit drinking, even though it was the cause of my problems,” McCann says today. “I put my past right out in the open in a big way and, man, did I ever learn a huge lesson that day, and take a huge load off.”
But these modest, self-released efforts are contributing to a much larger conversation happening across the Canadian music industry about mental-health awareness. And it’s one that’s uniting disparate bands and brands – from Serena Ryder’s spokesperson role for Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign to Fucked Up growler Damian Abraham’s advocacy work for VICE. More and more artists are opening up about their struggles with addiction, anxiety, and depression, in the hope of effecting change – whether it’s to simply make fellow sufferers out there feel less alone, or pressure governments to re-think their entire approach to mental healthcare.
“Crazy.” “Crazy on You.” “Let’s Go Crazy.” “Crazy in Love.” The history of pop music is essentially one of celebrating psychosis – of rendering mania in euphoric and heroic terms. This poetic license extends to how we view the artists themselves: From Brian Wilson to Kanye West, we romanticize eccentricity as a byproduct of genius. And when big-name artists suffer a public breakdown, it’s easy for us armchair psychiatrists to chalk it up to the pressures of fame. Then we sit back, grab the popcorn, and watch the inevitable comeback narrative play out on the awards show stage.
But for the average working musician – the sort who can’t afford to treat their troubles with a six-month stint at an elite rehab facility – mental illness is less a public soap opera than a private hell: a mundane, insidious condition that threatens their very livelihood.
As any musician will tell you, touring is one of the least secure, most strenuous means of eking out a living. And it’s beset by all sorts of extreme factors – financial uncertainty, long hours, claustrophobic travel conditions, uncomfortable sleeping arrangements, mind-numbingly repetitive routines, unhealthy eating, loneliness, homesickness – that can prove perilous for those with a pre-disposition to anxiety and addiction. The supports that exist in traditional workplace environments – HR departments, counseling, stress leave – just aren’t there for you when you’re trying to figure out whether your $50 gig will buy you enough gas to make it to the next town.
From an outside vantage point, Carmen Elle appears to be living the dream. Her electro-pop ensemble DIANA debuted in 2012 with a blog-buzzed single (“Born Again”), which lead to deals with renowned labels (Paper Bag in Canada; Jagjaguwar in the U.S.) for their album, and a foothold in the festival circuit.
Carmen Elle (of/de DIANA)
Most musicians in her position would be eager to capitalize on that momentum by releasing a follow-up album. For Elle, the prospect absolutely terrified her. Heavy touring for DIANA’s Perpetual Surrender album had the effect of exacerbating travel-related anxieties she’d been battling since she was a child; each concert became an endurance test in whether she could make it through a whole set without triggering a full-blown panic attack.
“It’s more acute than just having nerves, or needing to have a drink and feeling okay afterward,” Elle says of her onstage jitters. “I had a really bad panic attack onstage last summer in Montréal – I feel like I blacked out. I remember staring at the exit sign the whole time, and I felt so close to just ripping my guitar off and running, like, ‘I’m gonna puke! I’m gonna die!’”
DIANA have just released their sophomore effort, Familiar Touch, a record that “I really didn’t want to come out,” Elle admits, fearing the promotional commitments that lay ahead. “I’m just not built for touring the way other people are. As a band, we’ve had to change the way we communicate. Before, [my bandmates] withheld a lot of touring information until the last possible second and they hoped I would just come through. They’d get super-stressed approaching me with tours, and I got super-stressed being on tours, and we all started to get cranky and resentful. But I’m more open about the things I feel I can’t do, and they’re accepting of that.”
Elle’s also grateful for her bandmates’ ability to ward off her encroaching anxiety attacks with well-timed doses of humour. She recalls a drive through California where she was convinced she was suffering from altitude sickness. Their response? To laugh in her face. “Sometimes,” Elle says, “just somebody pointing out the absurdity of your situation is helpful.”
Newfoundland singer-songwriter Amelia Curran can likewise attest to how small steps can lead to great strides. For much of her adult life, Curran has grappled with anxiety and depression, and in her experience, she’s learned that “sometimes, the solutions are so simple it’s disappointing. It can come down to nutrition and sleeping habits and checking your blood-sugar – and those are things you flat out lose on the road if you’re not very disciplined,” she says. “Corporate Canada and bureaucratic Canada are fast to adopt mental health in the workplace as a platform, and that’s really great for office structures. But for musicians, we have to define our workplace, and it gets really complicated, even without a mental-health struggle.”
To that end, Curran has partnered with the Unison Benevolent Fund, a non-profit charity founded in 2010 by music industry veterans Jodie Ferneyhough and Catharine Saxberg that provides assistance to musicians and attendant workers – both in the form of 24/7 counselling (by phone or webchat) and financial aid (procured through major sponsors, including SOCAN). “There was nowhere in the Canadian music community for people to go for emergency relief,” says Unison executive director Sheila Hamilton of the Fund’s formation. “Musicians are workers; they’re on the road and they have the same stressors as regular people. If they need help with paying the rent and groceries, we offer short-term assistance to get them on their feet.”
Curran is but one of many renowned artists who’ve campaigned on behalf of Unison, but her activism goes way beyond advocating for her fellow musicians. In 2014, she and filmmaker friend Roger Maunder released a video featuring various notable, placard-wielding Newfoundlanders –McCann included – to raise mental-health awareness and dispel the stigmas surrounding it. The video’s viral momentum inspired Curran to launch a website, It’s Mental, to lobby the Newfoundland and Labrador government to implement long overdue mental-healthcare reforms. “These are decades-long struggles for minimal services in a lot of rural areas,” she says. “We’re ignoring entire communities of people until something horrible happens.”
It’s an effort that would’ve seemed improbable to Curran just a few years ago, when her depression got so severe, it would sideline her for months at a time. Coming to terms with mental illness is a deeply personal matter, and many understandably opt to suffer in silence rather than deal with the potential consequences, from social ostracization to diminished employability, of disclosing it publicly. But as the likes of Curran, McCann, and Elle have seen, courage can be contagious, transforming an isolating affliction into a communal cause. And as their stories show, conversation can be just as potent a remedy as pharmaceuticals.
“I’ve talked about depression and anxiety a whole lot,” says Curran, “and it’s something that I live with and balance and manage to varying degrees of success. But even now, I underestimate the value of my own story. If that’s something that speaks to other people and helps them, then I’m not shy about it.”
Her friend McCann offers a more succinct prescription: “A secret can kill you. The only way to defeat a secret is to tell it.”