LP strides across the workshop stage with a cool sense of sureness and her ukulele in tow. Donning skinny black pants; a Rolling Stones t-shirt with the iconic red gaping mouth; and a grey blazer; she leans back comfortably, shaking out her curls that cascade upon her androgynous features. There is a touch of otherworldliness to her because she is so striking. However, as soon as LP takes a seat, a young girl walks to the front of the stage offering her a pink gerber daisy. LP casts her a wide smile and tucks the flower into the lapel of her blazer.
One would not automatically think of a ukulele as a rock instrument, but in the hands of LP, any preconceived notions of the ukulele being a breezy and juvenile toy are cast aside. The gentle flexibility in her ukulele lines and the whistling turbulence present throughout her songs is echoed in her pliable vocal melodies and vibrato use.
The beauty of LP is that she presents the unexpected. With her vocal range easily soaring in stratospheric soprano territories, she showcases the technical command of her entire vocal range. At the same time, her ethereal voice contrasts her masculine demeanor. LP unleashes every part of her being on stage. The audience cannot help but watch on, breathless, as LP ascends higher melodic lines, building tension, as she challenges the range of her voice or shiver at the ukulele strums accompanied by haunting whistle tones. The excitement lies in the fact that one can never anticipate what LP will do next.
Sound + Noise creator, Michael MacDonald, discusses in his PhD thesis how Western Folk Music Festivals are like a “series of festival-garden plots. Like any garden plot it is a piece of land that has a variety of connections with the land that surrounds it. But gardens only exist where there are gardeners to tend to them.” What is it about the gardeners in Winnipeg that make them different than the gardeners of other Folk Festivals in Western Canada?
After attending the Winnipeg Folk Festival (WFF), I have some hypotheses of my own on why there is such a strong Folk Arts Community in Winnipeg. I feel a large part of it is due to the creation of the WFF, which was made possible by the timing and presence of passionate individuals, Mitch Podolak, Colin Gorrie, and Ava Kobrinsky. In addition to becoming one of the premiere North American music festivals, there are Folk School education programs and Young Artist mentoring programs that help to educate and support up-and-coming local Folk Music Artists.
Another important factor is the environment and location of the festival itself. The process of going out in the “wilderness” has been reinforced by literature from “Hansel & Gretel” to Homer’s “Odyssey”. There is something about being in the metaphorical wild, whatever the wild may be, that promotes the process of self-discovery. Located in a Provincial Park, the WFF capitalizes on the isolation of the location to create a temporary community. There is a strong sense of inter-disciplinary artistic collaboration seen in the use of Art installations throughout the entire festival site. These are not static pieces of Art, but Art that is allowed to be touched and manipulated by its audience. This community energy does not dissipate once the Festival is over. The WFF serves as a retreat for the Winnipeg Arts community and they take this renewed sense of identity back to the city. The WFF also has The Folk Exchange where they host Open Mics, Concert Series, Workshops, Songwriting Circles etc. that run year-round. The summer festival is only one component of the organization.
I had a chat with Mitch Podolak, Co-Founder of WFF and Home Routes while at WFF. WFF is the Festival template of Western Canadian Folk Festivals like Edmonton Folk Music Festival (EFMF), Calgary Folk Music Festival, and Vancouver Folk Music Festival. He ventured a hypothesis at why the Winnipeg Arts scene is well and thriving:
“For the most part the population here is Eastern European. All those people brought their culture with them. In Winnipeg, there is an 80 year old Mandolin Orchestra. This is a blue collar working class culture here, combined with people holding onto a sense of tradition,” he states. “There’s something in the water I suppose. There’s something about the fusion of the cultures. There’s a certain sense of the fact that the working class people tend to hang onto that more than the middle class bourgeois…I believe in people’s power. I want to teach people they can run things. You don’t need politicians. You can just run them,” states Podolak in an inspiring tone.
The political fervour of Podolak is an important factor when considering the structure of the Western Canadian Folk Festivals. The Festivals are fueled by the volunteers, which symbolize the working class in order to promote a sense of individual ownership. There is a deconstruction of class divisions. The volunteers and artists eat in the same areas, socialize the the same backstage areas, and they are all invited to attend the same parties. Podolak believes “the festival is tied to the working class. The common peoples experience… all festivals, Edmonton, all of them, every one of them, they are going to have the next Bob Dylan’s on their stages in the next 3-4 years.” However, Podolak realizes that music festivals are prone to mutation depending on the needs at the time:
“The songwriters will become the anthem writers. That’s what this whole show is. And when this happens, [festivals] mutate because they have to. I think we’re in store for a lot of fun over the next ten years. I’m kinda hoping I’ll survive long enough to see it,” he says with a laugh.
While I have only tapped the surface of the WFF culture after being an Edmonton folkie over the past years, I have a greater sense of the historical lineage and ideology underlining the Western Canadian Festival experience. The main thing is to evaluate what unifies all of us in the Folk Festival experience. As different as some of the things at the WFF were from the EFMF, there was a sense of familiarity at the festival site. The familiarity is due to the Festival structure from the volunteer-powered initiative and collaborative workshops. The WFF is like a new friend that I have just met, but it feels like we have known each other longer. It is a friendship I intend to sustain.
Memorable Moments from WFF 2013
Twila (T), Sable (S)
Favorite Workshop Session
T: 1974 “It was amazing to see the music I grew up with there: Stringband, Sylvia Tyson, and seeing them interacting with each other.”
S: Songs I Wish I Wrote “I loved seeing artists like Lindi Ortega, Danny Michel, Bhi Bhiman, Robert Ellis, Sean Rowe covering songs by the Clash, Talking Heads, and Elvis Presley. It lets me hear their soloistic voice as they perform song covers.”
T: Nathan Rogers “It was such a beautiful venue at the Little Stage in the Forest, seeing his interaction with the audience and his daughter made you feel like you were a part of the performance. You weren’t just watching the concert.”
S: The Garifuna Collective with Danny Michel “I liked the workshop dynamic of this concert with both Artists taking turns to perform in each others songs. I am always a fan of hearing musical collaboration.”
Favorite Festival Moment
T: The Mary Ellen Carter Finale on Mainstage “The Mary Ellen Carter is one of my favorite songs. It’s was amazing.”
S: Lantern lighting at the Finale “Watching the first family of Folk Music, Nathan Rogers light the floating lantern at the end of the WFF finale with his daughter just reinforced the community strength of the Folk Fest community in Winnipeg.”
This post is part of a series detailing the experiences of Edmonton folkies, Sable and Twila, heading to Winnipeg Folk Festival for the first time. See other posts here. Cross-posted on The Choir Girl Blog.
After starting our morning with some Winnipeg sights and fueling up on caffeine at Parlour Coffee, it was time to venture out to the Winnipeg Folk Festival, located about a one hour drive from downtown Winnipeg. As we made our way north on Winnipeg’s Main Street, we joined the highway that eventually led us to Birds Hill Provincial Park Northwest from Winnipeg.
We celebrated our arrival with a high-5 and posed for a picture with our vehicle among rows of grass parking. It was a long commute from Edmonton but we had officially arrived at the Winnipeg Folk Festival!
“It’s the same, but different,” Twila remarked as we surveyed the Main Stage crowd.
Indeed, the festival energy that we know and love from the Edmonton Folk Music Festival was present but there was a secluded magic about having the Winnipeg Folk Festival nestled away in a flat clearing of Birds Hill Provincial Park. A temporary city is built in the park to accommodate the festival community. As Oh My Darling, The Avett Brothers, and City and Colour headlined the opening night of the festival, Twila and I began our assimilation process into the Winnipeg Folk Festival culture. There will be more to come in regards to this process in the next few days.
This post is part of a series detailing the experiences of Edmonton folkies, Sable and Twila, heading to Winnipeg Folk Festival for the first time. See other posts here. Cross-posted on The Choir Girl Blog.
Watching The Dunwells perform is like being a part of history and getting a glimpse into a band well on their way to making it big. If there were a documentary charting their rise to fame, I would watch it. The story would begin in the rainy city of Leeds, UK. It would show the formation of the band and detail their underdog story. It would then involve being heard by London music promoter Tony Moore, who would just so happen to be one of the few audience members at their gig (a gig that they would almost miss due to a broken-down van). Moore’s enthusiasm would convince them to make their way to the US and would lead to the eventual recording their new album, “Blind-Sighted Faith.”
However, watching an underdog story wouldn’t be the same if you didn’t get to know the characters behind the story. Of course, there would be five very different personalities. The story would revolve around how the two Dunwell brothers keep the group on track: Joseph on vocals and guitar with his pensive intensity and focus, and vocalist and guitarist David with his mega-watt smile and open nature. Together they would form the initial core of their band. The documentary would show how David Dunwell met his friend Rob Clayton, who with his wise words and innate sense of style would eventually become the bassist. Realizing that more members were necessary, Rob Clayton would introduce his own cousin, Jonny Lamb, to the Dunwell brothers, with Jonny eventually taking on the role of the drummer. Jonny’s jovial character and warm energy would allow him to diffuse group tension. Soon thereafter they would meet David Hanson, a character with a knack for challenging the norm and funneling that same fervor into his lead guitar solos. While the accurateness of my character descriptions remains officially unverified, the facts regarding their rise to fame are authentic. Isn’t this a story where you would want to find out what happens next for a group poised on becoming the next big thing in British Folk-Rock?
I met with the Dunwells following their first EFMF workshop on the weekend and they provided a glimpse into their recent rise to fame. The round table discussion showcased their dynamic as a group.
Sable: How was your first workshop session at the EFMF?
Joseph Dunwell: That was a lot fun. We didn’t know what to expect with the three bands on stage but that was a lot of fun.
David Dunwell: We’ve never done that before—where each bands takes a turn and plays. It was nice. I’ve only ever seen that on T.V. on Jools Holland.
Sable: Did anyone warn you about the format?
Group: That was the first we heard of it!
David Dunwell: We’ve always wanted to play Canada and to come to such friendly festival like this as our first experience, that made it pretty special for us.
Sable: At one point, you performed 40 shows in 20 days. How is that process?
Joseph Dunwell: You learn a lot about yourselves, you know, and the music that you play and how to perform to different sets of crowds and how to adapt to different situations.
David Dunwell: Some of the shows were plugged in PA systems. Some of the shows were purely acoustic. Small rooms, large rooms, we were crammed in a small van together travelling up and down the UK so there’s no escaping each other. It definitely taught us how to be a band, especially a touring band.
Joseph Dunwell: So now we can just walk into a room with no expectation. We just know whatever is thrown at us we can deal with… like, for example today, that was good.
Sable: Has the recent burst of media attention changed the way you approach your music or performances?
David Dunwell: You’re kinda in the eye of the storm. Although these amazing things are all happening around us, we’re still just five friends making music exactly the same as when we started out in the first place. Personally, I don’t really notice a big huge change. We just enjoy doing what we do.
Jonny Lamb: It hasn’t really changed the way we make music or anything like that. Say Joe comes up with an idea, and then the rest of the guys jump on it, and we have a jam and see what happens. But that’s always been the same.
David Hanson: I think the best thing about touring in America is the diversity of the radio. We spend a lot of time on the road: 16 hour, 12 hour journeys, so we listen to a lot of radio stations and there is such a wide variety of music, which you don’t really have access to in the UK, unless you go on the internet to find it. It’s so readily available in the States and in Canada. So for us, although [the media] is not influencing us, it is very interesting listening to [the radio] and I suppose, subconsciously, it may be influencing us.
Joseph Dunwell: It definitely is. Do you know when you’re growing up and your parents have their music in the background? That somehow influences the way that you play music. Being in the band and listening to the radio while we’re on the road is definitely influencing the way that we write songs, but the five of us are still open to put our input into it.
Sable: What does the songwriting process look like with so many different viewpoints in the band?
Joseph Dunwell: Every song is different. Some songs are written by three of us, some are written by five of us, some songs are written by one of us.
David Dunwell: Some songs are a riff that hangs around for a long time and never goes any further until, suddenly, it becomes something we all focus on.
Joseph Dunwell: The thing is that we never [leave a song unfinished]. We always play every song live at least once.
Sable: Do you ever scrap songs after playing them live?
Joseph Dunwell: Many a time.
Jonny Lamb: In some cases, we keep it in mind and then we come back to it and play it in a different way than the first time we tried it. We never throw anything away. It’s always there.
David Hanson: We’ve been playing a lot of 90-minute sets on this tour because we’ve been doing more headlining shows. It’s given us a chance to experiment with new material. Maybe it’s an old song that’s been hanging around for a while or maybe it’s something new that we’ve been writing on the road. But it just gives us that chance to test it out. A long set is almost like a litmus paper. It allows us to experiment and find out whether [songs] are going to be acidic or alkaline.
Jonny Lamb: Nice.
Sable: What are your thoughts on people labelling your sound or comparing your sound to others groups like Mumford and Sons?
David Dunwell: I’m a fan of a lot of the bands that we get compared to so it doesn’t ever offend me. We class ourselves as British Folk-Rock. We call it Folk Rock because we like story telling. We use traditional instruments and mix it with rock and roll instruments as well.
David Hanson: We call it rock because we play really loud.
Joseph Dunwell: Do you know what? Everything has to have a label. In what we’ve been living with we don’t resent it.
David Hanson: Are we a rock band? Are we a pop band? Are we a folk band? I don’t know. We have been labeled, but if someone were to ask us what we do: we play songs and we enjoy playing songs.
Sable: How do you intend to keep the momentum of the band going into the future?
Joseph Dunwell: We’ve just got to keep touring, you know? We see things happening a lot more when we’re on the road. When we go home we think, “is that it?” and we’re so ready to go back on the road all the time. It’s hard work but it’s good fun. And we’re leading our own path into our own future by touring and doing what we’re doing to every corner of the world.
David Hanson: Our album comes out on August 28. 2012, it’s called “Blind Sighted Faith,” and in support of that our plan will be to tour and we’ll be continuing our US tour to late September, at which point we’ll return to the UK. The album comes out in the UK around that time. Then we’ll be heading back over to America sometime in October and touring up there with different artists and we’ll be doing festivals like the Austin City Limits Festival and hopefully some T.V. as well.
Sable: You’ve busked and even moved your concert to a hotel after getting rained out at Lollapalooza. Does venue environment change your performance experience?
Joseph Dunwell: As long as I get a vibe from the audience that they’re enjoying themselves, then I am enjoying myself, you know? So if we’re playing an acoustic song and it’s so silent that you can tell that they’re really into it or we’re playing the loudest song in our set… as long as I’m getting something from them I’m happy.
Rob Clayton: As long as you’re enjoying what you’re doing, it’s going to be fun.
Sable: If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
Jonny Lamb: I’d be a tractor.
Rob Clayton: A tractor? Not a driver? A tractor?
David Hanson: An attractor of ladies?
Jonny Lamb: No, no, a tractor, like a farm tool.
Sable: An object?
[Group agrees that Jonny Lamb would be an object]
Rob Clayton: I’m not gonna even follow that.
David Dunwell: Lamp.
David Hanson: I’d be a fly.
Jonny Lamb: That’s a living thing, not an object.
David Hanson: On a wall, it’s an object!
Sable: What is the most rewarding thing about being an artist?
Rob Clayton: To me, personally, it’s crowd feedback. When we you see everybody loving what you’re doing it keeps you going, especially when you’re on the road. You can be exhausted and feeling a little bit down, and then as soon as you do a show that evening, you’re just back up there again and loving what you’re doing. To me it’s all about the vibe from the crowd and that is the most rewarding thing.
David Dunwell: For me it’s travelling, meeting new people, and having the opportunity to travel the world. I remember going on holidays when I was a kid if I was in Paris or wherever, and I’d be watching a band, I’d go “Oh gosh, I wish I could do that!” Now I get to travel the world and be on a stage making music and I’m meeting new people everyday.
Sable: Was there a moment when you realized that this wasn’t just a jam band and had the potential to go somewhere?
Joseph Dunwell: I think the moment I actually got our first album. It comes out on the 28th of August, but we’ve been given a hard copy now, so actually holding that in my hand for the first time and having copyright and all this stuff I see on real albums. And now we have one of them!
David Dunwell: You just like the picture of yourself on the front cover.
Joseph Dunwell: So yeah, the fact that we have our first album. It’s something that I’m proud of and looking forward to getting out there and selling.
David Dunwell: One of the very early shows that we did in London, we traveled down, we were in the van, and about 15 miles out of London the van broke down. We had a decision to make. We were either gonna have to wait for the recovery man to come and pick our van up, and take us to the nearest town to fix our van and miss the show. We decided to book a taxi and struggle to get through London traffic and leave the van at a service station on the M1. We actually got the venue five minutes before we were supposed to go on stage. We walked onto the stage and played in front of four or five people. We made all the effort to get there and play for four or five people. But one of those people was a promoter who adored us, Tony Moore; he used to play in a band called the Cutting Crew. He championed us so much that he made me believe that our band is worth fighting for. He had seen so many bands coming through, being a London promoter, and for him to have that much faith in us made me think, “yeah, we’re not just a jam band, we’re not just a band floating around the north of England,” but a band that deserves, you know, everything that is good, everything that is bad, whatever that comes to us.
Jonny Lamb: [Tony Moore] first suggested to us to come over to America as well and perform at the Folk Alliance Conference, which led to massive things for us.
Joseph Dunwell: He’s the guy.
Jonny Lamb: Without him really, we’d still be eating fish ‘n chips in Leeds…in the rain.
Sable: Is there any country that you would love to tour to as a band?
David Hanson: I think Japan would be fantastic. I’d love to go out there. I heard it’s very nice. I heard the crowds are really appreciative of music. I think we’d like to go to mainland Europe and perhaps do France and Germany and places like that.
Joseph Dunwell: We did a festival in Amsterdam. We were literally in and out of Amsterdam and then back into the UK and then straight over to America. So we’ve had a snip-bit of Europe but I’d like to go back and experience the whole of Europe.
Sable: It’s the musician’s lifestyle.
Joseph Dunwell: Absolutely!
The Dunwells are well on their way to becoming a formidable British Folk-Rock export; however, these five musicians still maintain the ease of five blokes you could approach at your local pub. Hear it for yourself in this lightening round of questions. Who knew that brollies vs. wellies would be such a highly contested issue?
The heart of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival isn’t the the evening candles on Gallagher Hill, the hillside dance parties, or the headlining artists on Mainstage—it is the workshop sessions. I remember when I was planning on attending my first Folk Fest a friend, who was a seasoned Folk Fester, told me that I had to buy a weekend pass so I could attend the workshop sessions. I took her word for it. I have not regretted it since.
The workshop sessions are constructed musician groupings by festival organizers. Prior to their time on stage, the musicians may have never even heard of each other. Some workshops may involve a very orderly presentation of songs by individual artists… but this defeats the point of a workshop session. To be a musician, one needs to be a musician within all contexts. Their musical skills should not only be isolated to performing their own personal music. However, when there is a consensus to unite the individual talents on stage, it is the ultimate aural showcase of musical synergy.
I witnessed the aformentioned musical chemistry in two Saturday sessions that I attended. One session featured Rose Cousins, Jim Lauderdale, Pokey LaFarge, and New Country Rehab. What does a folk-pop singer-songwriter, bluegrass singer-songwriter, American Roots trio from St. Louis, and alternative country group from Toronto have in common? They’re all great musicians. Upon introducing Chuck Berry’s “Thirty Days,” the artists reworked the musical themes with an organic flow of guitar, fiddle, harmonica and vocal solos to present a unique version of the song.
The same can be said for the session that included The Dunwells, who have recently arrived in Canada for the first time from Leeds, Royal Wood, and Bahamas. It took about two individual rounds of a very civil “battle of the bands” showcase before Bahamas frontman, Afie Jurvanen, invited Royal Wood and the Dunwells to play/sing as well. In my later interview with the Dunwells, they revealed they were uncertain of the workshop sessions improvisation etiquette, but they caught on soon enough with a canon of vocal harmonies. Joe Dunwell even happened to create his own lyrics at a midpoint in the song saying that he didn’t know the lyrics… and he sang this statement of fact with roaring passion. The Dunwell’s reciprocated the exchange by covering Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek,” and as soon as Joe Dunwell heard the ethereal female harmonies from the Bahamas singers, he couldn’t refrain from giving them a smile while continuing to sing. In both of these sessions, all the musicians contributed their voices to create a piece that only materialized at that one point in time. It is music-making with such transient beauty. This type of art cannot be prescribed. While it helps to arrange strategic pairings of artists, there is no way one can predict the musical outcome. All you can do is sit back and listen to the heart of the Folk Fest.
“Did you get it?” I ask tentatively as T. Nile takes a deft swing.
“Sorry buddy,” she says to the mosquito she just obliterated at the Media Tent on Gallagher Hill.
After her first EFMF appearance in 2007, T. Nile is enthused to be back at the Edmonton Folk Musical Festival this year: “There is something about the culture here…people are very openhearted, unpretentious, quick to offer help, quick to laugh, appreciative, and attentive to music… it doesn’t get any better than this,” she continues, “there are lots of great festivals but this one is really up there.” This time at the EFMF, T. Nile is taking the stage with Kim Beggs, both as separate artists but with some shared musicians between them. It was a collaborative pairing suggested by EFMF booker, Terry Wickham. Nile remarked that while working in collaboration with artists she values receptivity, openness, and creative thinking; Kim Beggs definitely has all of these attributes. As a result, the organic pairing of these two songstresses is audible.
Currently, T. Nile is working on her new record which will potentially be released in Spring 2013 to coincide with her UK and European tour. Her enthusiasm is apparent since this record has the potential to be a cross-over record for her as she develops her electro-folk sound. Following her passion to challenge herself as an artist, she states that she will always maintain the folk themes in her music but she is excited about exploring the realm of dance music. Current musical inspiration for her new album include Bat for Lashes, Fever Ray, and Chromeo: “I’m excited about synthesizers, drum machines, and the way that you can create any sound… it’s a new frontier of sound… there is this whole world that opens up to you.” T. Nile’s voice manages to penetrate the layers of socially constructed facade and into the very core of her listeners. While it is evident on her tracks from 2006 record, “At the Table” and her more recent 2009 EP release of “Cabin Song,” I definitely hear it on her song “Buddy.” Her most recent “Cabin Song” release is a series of aural vignettes which channel a back-woods energy from songs such as “Lake Irene” to “Sunrises.”
As Nile continues to explores her electro-folk sound, it will be exciting to hear the evolution of her folk roots sound fused with electronic music on her new record. However, regardless of musical genre she produces, Nile still has some hopes for audience members watching her perform: “I want them to feel like we had a connection,” she continues with a smile, “If people are dancing I feel like I’ve really done my job.”
Listen to the complete interview to hear T. Nile’s thought’s on her upcoming European tour, the Peak Performance Project she has been competing in, connecting with her fans through social media, things that she could do without as a touring musician, why her banjo is named Jolene, and what instrument she wishes she could play.