Once upon a time …
It’s not often a snow blizzard plays havoc with an interview but that’s just what happened a firtnight ago.
We’re not talking about the skiff of snow we had last week, but a full-blown, once-a-decade force of nature.
I was waiting in vain to skype Andrew Dale of The Once, the excellent Canadian band from Newfoundland, who are playing in the Black Box on Saturday at 2pm. To give you a flavour of what conditions were like, this is what Andrew wrote when we finally made contact.
“Hi Robert. Unfortunately, there’s a massive blizzard pounding down on us here in Newfoundland right now (particularly St. John’s) and we’ve lost power. Which means I’m unable to Skype. I’m currently using my cell phone to connect with the outside world…although I have no way to charge it so I’m keeping my usage at a minimum.”
Ah, the glamour of the showbiz life!
Finally, I got hold of Andrew after he and the band had crossed the Atlantic and were in Birmingham in the English midlands.How bad was that blizzard I asked.
“This was one of the worst ones in quite some time,” he said. “People were referencing the horrible blizzard we had back in 1993 as the last time it got this bad.”
But at least, when it gets very cold we always have music to keep us warm. What’s the music scene like in Newfoundland?
Is it all Celine Dion and Shania Twain and is traditional music way out on the periphery or is it the other way round.
“Well, that’s how we started out, we were a Celine Dion cover band,” he laughs. “No, seriously, there’s a very diverse scene in Newfoundland, particularly in St John’s which is the central hub.
“People in Canada tend to associate Newfoundland more with folk and traditional music and that scene is quite vibrant and strong but there are also a number of amazing rock bands as well. “There is some really good country music, some old-fashioned singer-songwriters, great jazz players, there’s sort of something for everyone to be honest,” he says.
Growing up, Andrew’s parents would have listened to a local station called VOCM which had mainly old country music but they’d also play some of the local traditional singers as well so that was his early soundtrack growing up. But they young lad also took a lot of music lessons which led him into the Newfoundland Youth Symphony Orchestra at one point, where he was playing double bass in the orchestra on Sundays but at the same time, on Saturdays, he’d get together with a few buddies and we’d play heavy rock and metal in the basement of the drummer’s house! From Mozart to Metallica over a weekend!
Andrew’s interest in folk music started when he was in high school but only came to fruition when he was at university.
“At that time, I go into the old faithfuls – the Bothy Band, Planxty, Dé Danann and Dervish, those kind of groups, and thereafter more contemporary groups such as Danú and, basically, I fell in love with the Irish bouzouki so I listened to Dónal Lunny and Andy Irvine and others and that led me to go on a quest for an Irish bouzouki,” he laughs.
The quest led him not very far, to O’Brien’s Music Store, “the oldest shop in the oldest street in the oldest city in North America,” it is claimed.
Off Andrew went to buy a bouzouki and fell in love at first sight with one hanging on the wall and the musical journey continued.
At university, he met Phil Churchill and Geraldine Hollett and the trio got together first of all at a summer theatre festival(all three are actors as well).
One morning, the artistic director “volunteered” the three of them to sing together as part of a show that evening and it worked out really well. They went on to do a few local gigs around St John’s and people kept asking them to do more, and encouraged the band to record some of their songs.
“All this led to our first big festival outside of the Province, the Folk Harbour Festival in Lunenberg, Novia Scotia,” recalls Andrew.
“We’d never done anything like that before together and all we had was a little demo of two or three songs which got us invited into the festival. But we had the most amazing time. Up to then, we had thought it was just friends and family being polite to us, so this was the first time we had a totally unbiased audience.
“We were very warmly received, let’s put it that way, and at the end of the weekend, we were thanking everyone and their dog for showing us a really great time. We told them that hopefully we’d have an album next time and jokingly said “if anyone would like to help fund it, come and see us afterwards.”
Later, the artistic director came up to us and said, “okay, don’t freak out, there’s a gentleman who wishes to remain anonymous but who wishes to give you a cheque for $5000 to get you started on making that record’
They then freaked out!
But it also told them that music was something they had to pursue, when a complete stranger has enough faith in them after just a weekend to write out a check and say ‘just go for it.’ well, that was encouragement enough.
After getting the money, it was then up to The Once to make the album which wasn’t all that difficult because, as Andrew explains, they only really knew very well a very few songs, old ones, a couple of Leonard Cohen songs and songs they’d written themselves.
The “difficult” second album. Row and Row of the People You Know, is now out and galvanising the reputation Andrew, Phil and Gerry have been garnering.
For the most part, Row Upon Row is an original album, with a few tracks based on poems set to the Once’s music, there are others written by the band themselves and, bizarrely, a Queen cover, You’re My Best Friend, which equally bizarrely doesn’t feel at all out of place.
The harmonies are to-die-for and there is a great mix of up-tempo numbers and others of great emotional power.
Standout tracks for me include My Husband’s Got no Courage (the Once can do gritty too), Valley of Kilbride, By the Glow of the Kerosene Light and Song for Memory.
All in all, Row After Row of the People You Know o a great mixture of music, song, poetry and storytelling all in one spellbinding mix.
The Once Play in the Black Box, Belfast on Saturday, 26 January at 2pm.
Sunday 27th January Colfers Bar Festival Weekend Carrick-on Bannow County Wexford
Tuesday 29th January, The Bronte Music Club Rathfriland County Down Northern Ireland.
Wednesday 30th January, The Mermaid Theatre Bray County Wicklow
Thursday 31st of January, The Strule Arts Centre Omagh
Friday 1st February, the Squarebox Ranfurley House Arts & Visitors Centre Dungannon
Saturday 2nd February, Tobar Mhuire Monastery Crossgar County Down