ElisapiePlanting one’s roots only to uproot oneself over and over again. Feeling truly at home only inside oneself. Revealing one’s concept of the world to someone else only as a path to freedom. All that and much more inhabits the thoughts of Elisapie, who recently offered us her story of running away: The Ballad of the Runaway Girl.

“In the Great North, we appreciate more quickly,” says Elisapie serenely. Six years after her Travelling Love, album, she’s back with a new one that sounds like an immense cry of love that reaches those who most deserve it, as best it can. “I had new experiences that needed to be expressed,” she says. “They’re not big adventures, just my inner life.” After 20 years spent in the “South,” going back North only occasionally, Elisapie feels she’s become one with her environment. And although a sense of belonging to a place informs us, she felt a deep-seated desire to re-acquaint herself with the territory that welcomed her into this world. “When I go back up North to play shows, I feel like a baby being cradled by her mom,” says Elisapie.

Her music is at home everywhere, and can be understood any way one wants, but one thing is certain: it’s marked by a constant sense of place. “Up North, our notion of time, and of our bodies, are different” says Elisapie. “There’s this vastness. I just got back from there, and it was late-summer tundra: yellow, with just one kind of green. And now in Montréal, all I see are lines, partitions. Streets, major arteries, buildings, and all those shades of green. It’s impossible to find the meditative aspect of such immensity. I went back often, recently, because it’s much more powerful than the words of a shrink.”

The runaway girl traces her album back, on the road that led to it, while saluting those who were there along the way, and those who should’ve been there. “I’ve always run away from problems, so that I could paint something beautiful elsewhere,” she says. “I always felt I needed to protect my little world, and it hasn’t been that long since I’ve allowed myself to move on.”

The Challenges We Face Together

Now that the First Nations are finally at the heart of Canadian politics, Elisapie says it loud and clear: it cannot stop. Born of a Native mother and Newfoundlander dad, she was given up for adoption to relatives in the North. “We did go through extremely difficult times, and people always think Natives are victims, but go and see them in 2018,” she says. “What you’ll see is a people of incredibly hard workers. The territory, the language, all the stakes are still the same, but the drums are coming back. The younger generation is learning how to use them in a ceremonial way. It’s going to be a very powerful healing process. We increasingly get the impression that we’re being heard, and I felt I had to speak to my people in a language they know. I needed to make music, still.”

On the opening track, “Arnaq,” Elisapie pays homage to the Inigenous women and girls that are missing or murdered in Canada. The words immediately hit us, and leave us shivering until the end of the album. You’re a man, you’re a young boy / You’re a father, you’re a grandfather / No, don’t do it / You’re the protector. Through her words, Elisapie wished to remind men that they are extraordinary. “I’m telling them they are the balance in women’s cause,” she says. “In our history, women have always been close to their families, to care for them, while men had the duty to hunt and understand the territory while respecting our rites. Ultimately, at the end of this role that was central to who they were, men lost a part of themselves. I want them to know that it’s possible to have both that strength, and the kindness of modern men.”

The music composed by one of her uncles started to resonate loudly in he, so she covered his song “Quanniugum,” from the 1970s. “At one point, I was in such bad shape that I couldn’t tolerate any kind of pressure, everything scared me, tears ran down on his music,” says Elisapie. “I purged myself. “Wolves Don’t Live by the Rules,” an iconic song of Inuit culture written by Willie Trasher, one of Elisapie’s main influences, is another cover. “The sound of this album is as close as possible to this notion of foundation,” she says. “Almost everything was recorded live, together. That’s essential, this togetherness.”

How a Team Is Built

After one of her gigs, Elisapie distractedly said “hello” to one Joe Grass, backstage. “When you meet someone like that, you want to know what they know how to do,” says Elisapie. “I did my research. For this new album, I wanted a guy who picks up his guitar, and that’s it. I had the same feeling with him as I had with Patrick Watson, for example. He’s very close to folk, bluegrass, and blues and there’s something vintage about his sound. He’s the one I needed.”

She called him about her album and he said yes almost immediately. “I had this idea of having two guitars dance together, complete each other,” she says. “But Joe Grass told me he wasn’t going to dance with just anyone!” she remembers, laughing. He chose Nicolas Basque. And then Robbie Kruster, one of Elisapie’s longtime collaborators, joined them on drums. Sound engineer Paul Evans added his own magic touch. “He works in Iceland, and is very strong in intellectual or classical music, and he brings a touch of modern to the mix,’ says the artist. Joe Jarmush (SUUNS) co-wrote “Darkness Bring the Light” with her. “I wanted something with a gospel feel to it and we sat down to talk about it,” she says. “An hour later, we had recorded the song on our iPhones.” Elisapie built a strong family around The Ballad of The Runaway Girl, a family that also includes Gabriel Gratton, Leif Vollebekk and Manuel Gasse.

After a journey that’s both soft and rough, we get to the end of the story with a song in French. “I think we wanted this album to be like a journey, and with ‘Ton vieux nom,’ we have a soft landing,” says Elisapie. There’s no doubt writing a song in French was no small feat for her. “My rapport to Francophones is special,” she says. “It’s a window on the rest of my life, because I live among the Francophones.” Her striking interpretation of “Moi Elsie,” written by Richard Desjardins, quickly became iconic, yet she was afraid of making a mistake by singing in French again. “I wanted to sing about the North in a poetic way that was different from ‘Moi Elsie,’” she says. “Instead of being the little girl who watched her white man leave her with her dreams, I wanted to sing about an experienced woman who talks with her Inuk man whom she left up North. People wrongly believe that Inuk men are hard, but when they’re in love, they’re the most sensitive ones.”

Chloé Lacasse and Natasha Kanapé-Fontaine helped the singer-songwriter create a finished song that lived up to her expectations. The poetry is transcendent: Dis-moi comment tu plantais la neige/ Comment nous sommes faits de pierre/ Je veux t’écrire une chanson/ Pour te rappeler ton nom/ Ton vieux nom (Tell me how you sowed the snow / How we are made of stone / I want to write a song for you / To remind you of your name / Your old name).

The album comes out on Sept. 14, 2018, via Bonsound and Yontanka (Europe).
Later this month, Elisapie will undertake a nearly 50-date tour throughout Québec and Canada.

On Cape Breton Island, the music flows like water.

Despite its relatively modest population, at 132,000 residents, this Northeastern tip of Nova Scotia, spread over 10,311 square km, has launched a number of tuneful tributaries surnamed MacMaster, Rankin and Sampson: artists that have impacted lands and listeners far beyond its borders.

The Island’s musicians are largely known for Celtic music, folk, and roots, whose traditions stretch back hundreds of years to their origins in Scotland, Ireland, and France. Those old ways are celebrated through such cultural ambassadors as The Barra MacNeils, The Rankins, and Natalie MacMaster, as well as such gatherings as the Celtic Colours International Festival, Gaelic College Ceilidhs (kitchen parties) and the Acoustic Roots Festival.

The Barra MacNeils

The Barra MacNeils

The current generations of such established musical families are widening their options and exploring additional genres, from the indie rock of the now-Toronto-based Alvvays, led by the voice of former Rankins fiddler Molly Rankin, to pop trio Port Cities, whose members include Dylan Guthro, son of folkie Bruce Guthro. Lately, hip-hop has also been a going concern, with rappers Mitchell Bailey from Glace Bay and SHIFT FROM THE 902, a.k.a Todd Googoo, from Eskasoni, working to add their voices to the international mix.

“There’s something in the water, indeed,” chuckles professional songwriter Gordie Sampson, the SOCAN, JUNO, and Grammy Award-winner best known for co-authoring two Carrie Underwood chart-toppers “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “Just a Dream.” “It’s undeniable, given the small population and the ratio to musicians that come out of there. Simply making a career as a musician of any kind, whether you’re a songwriter, player, fiddler, or singer, you’re held in high regard in that community. It’s viewed as an important vocation.”

There are many reasons why Cape Breton has been the breeding ground for so much renowned music – from Glencoe Station’s legendary John Allan Cameron and North Sydney’s Matt Minglewood in the ‘60s and ‘70s; to Creignish’s fiddling wunderkind Ashley MacIsaac; Glace Bay singers John Gracie and Aselin Debison; and Mabou’s The Beaton Family and The Rankins (both collectively and individually).

The most obvious is lineage, with the music fermenting from the influx of French, Scottish, and Irish settlers during Cape Breton’s 18th century colonial days, and Islanders continuing to preserve those sounds.

“It’s popular because it stems from a time and a place where it was almost necessary for [Islanders’] survival,” notes Troy fiddling sensation Natalie MacMaster, niece of Judique fiddling legend Buddy MacMaster. “Scottish settlers came to a place that they’d never been to before, and the music was the joy, a piece of home for them.

“[Cape Breton] artists are serious storytellers. They know how to write songs that impact and resonate with people.” – Sheri Jones, of Jones & Co. Artist Management

“This cherished music just kind of took root in Cape Breton and spread through the land. There was a lot of that Cape Breton-style fiddle music that blossomed in other pockets of cultures. Like the French, a small bit of Irish, and even the First Nations people, that mixed different dialects, depending on where you were on the Island. Now, 250 years later, I think people just really have that joy for the music, and it’s what feeds the soul.”

Heather Rankin says solitude shouldn’t be discounted as another crucial component to the evolution of Cape Breton music.  “I think it has to do with the fact that Cape Breton was isolated for a long time,” says Rankin. “We weren’t that accessible, really, until the ‘50s when they built the Canso Causeway.”

Port Cities

Port Cities

Rankin suggests that music also became a major concern because there was little else to do. “A lot of people had theatres, and bars, and restaurants,” Rankin says. “We had nothing like that growing up. So I think it’s partly to do with the small-community environment, and that’s how people entertained one another for generations. It was still very quiet where we were growing up in the ‘70s in Cape Breton… and I think even for kids that are coming up today… It’s still out of the way, and there’s not that much to distract you, although there’s a lot more technology these days.”

Port Cities’ Carleton Stone agrees with Rankin’s assessment. “There’s a very strong storytelling, singer-songwriter tradition there, and you’re isolated,” says Stone, who shares the stage with his fellow Port Cities singers and songwriters Breagh MacKinnon and Dylan Guthro. “A lot of the year it’s winter, so I think a lot of people have a lot of time to gather around and play music together.”

Adds Guthro, “There’s not a whole lot to do, other than get together and jam. Cape Breton is famous for its kitchen parties, with everyone getting their instrument out and just playing. I’m sure that contributes to the talent.”

Also contributing to the high standard of Cape Breton musicianship are scrutinizing audiences, says Gordie Sampson, who hails from Rita MacNeil’s home community of Big Pond, population 47, and who annually returns from his Nashville base to run his Gordie Sampson Song Camp (which is where the members of Port Cities actually met, and started writing together).

“The crowds can be tough, in the sense that you really have to move them,” he says. “They’re not going to clap for you just because you’re there… When you’re cutting your teeth in that community, you can’t really fake it, or phone it in. It makes everybody dig in a little deeper.”

Cape Breton musicians can make a living in what’s generally acknowledged as an economically depressed part of Canada – The Cape Breton Post reported in April 2018 that Nova Scotia receives $1.838 billion annually from the federal government in equalization transfer payments, $15 million of which is received by the Island. Still, the allure to travel outside its borders is irresistible.

“If you want to take it to the next level, you end up moving away, because there’s a ceiling,” says Sampson.  “Whether it’s money you want to make, or wanting to go on the road, you will reach that ceiling. It’s a very small demographic.”

What they’re up to
Heather Rankin:  After releasing her second solo album Imagine in 2017, Rankin has been touring, and this summer performed with the Nova Scotia Tattoo. She’s playing live in Alberta and Ontario in the Fall, and gathering material for her next album.
Natalie MacMaster: After recently giving birth to her seventh child, MacMaster and husband Donnell Leahy have organized the second annual Green Ridge Celtic Folk Festival in Keene, Ontario, August 24-25 – a celebration of Cape Breton, Scottish, and Irish roots music.
Gordie Sampson: Sampson hosts his annual Song Camp yearly in early July, and is also working in Nashville, co-writing with such up-and-coming artists as Claire Dunn, Ashley Hanbrick, Hunter Cage, Tenille Townes, and Caylee Hammack.
Port Cities (Dylan Guthro, Breagh MacKinnon, Carleton Stone): The trio is currently touring, and preparing material for a follow-up album to its self-titled debut, produced by Gordie Sampson.
Celtic Colours International Festival: Runs in multiple venues on Cape Breton Island from Oct. 5 to 13, 2018. Local and international artists booked for 2018 include J.P. Cormier, Howie MacDonald, Men of the Deeps and Edwina Guckian.
The Acoustic Roots Festival: Held annually in Cape Breton near Marion Bridge from Aug. 31 to Sept. 2, this year’s headliners include Buddy MacDonald, Harold MacIntyre, and Meaghan Blanchard.

Heather Rankin discovered the global appeal of traditional Cape Breton music when The Rankin Family struck out on their own in 1989 with an eponymous album. “We thought it was just something for people in our backyard, and that it was old-time music,” says Rankin. “But we were able to touch and enrich people in far corners of the world, as far as Australia and New Zealand, and parts of Europe and the United States. That music resonated with people.”

Celtic-flavoured folk and roots music also brings people to Cape Breton, especially through annual festivals like Celtic Colours International, which runs October 5-13 this year. The festival features both international and local talent, and draws more than 20,000 attendees annually. “Locals come to see the visiting artists, and foreigners come to see the locals,” says David Mahalik, the festival’s information officer, adding that Celtic Colours’ attendance continues to grow. “We’re consistently climbing,” he says, adding that the ticket split ratio between locals and foreigners is “60/40 now for people coming from off-Island.”

Crediting the internet for attracting audiences around the world, Mahalik says the reputation of Celtic Colours is attracting tourists. “We hold the Gaelic culture in high regard and recognize it as a basis for the music, the dance, and it all gets rooted back in the culture,” he says. “We’re very careful to respect that, because that’s our origin story.”

Gordie Sampson says music and tourism are irrevocably intertwined. “Music is part of the fabric of tourism,” he says. “Part of the experience of coming to Cape Breton for the first time involves a heavy music component: People come and want to see music, and hopefully want to buy it.”

Veteran manager Sheri Jones, of Jones & Co. Artist Management, who counts Sampson, Port Cities, Mary Jane Lamond, and Wendy MacIsaac among her Cape Breton clients, says the area’s music scene will continue to quench the thirst of music lovers in the foreseeable future.

“The musicianship is intricate, and these artists are serious storytellers,” says Jones. “They know how to write songs that impact and resonate with people.”

It’s a little unusual for a songwriter who grew up on a varied diet of records from Bob Dylan to Fleetwood Mac, Metallica to Madonna, and who has co-written for artists just as diverse, to cite two of the most influential composers of, um, the 1700s as her main inspiration, but that’s what Maia Davies says.

“I come from a very classical background, and I base a lot of my melody choices on Mozart or Bach, because I think that they wrote all the best pop melodies already,” she laughs. “And then we carry that over musically for the instrumentation.

“Folk music has a lot of acoustic guitars; pop music has synths; rock music has big drums, and for the lyrics it’s always clear communication of an emotion, and a story that someone wants to tell. Then it’s really a lot about the artist, and who they are, and in what genre.”

Davies is a former member of all-female country-pop quartet Ladies of the Canyon, which was managed by Warner Music Canada’s new division at the time, and put out two albums, 2010’s Haunted Woman and 2013’s Diamond Heart. She’s co-written for Monster Truck, Jill Barber, One Bad Son, Serena Ryder, Mother Mother (whose song “The Drugs” earned a SOCAN No. 1 Song Award), Delhi 2 Dublin, Clayton Bellamy, and more.

Does the genre matter, in terms of approach? Davies puts it this way: “In Jill Barber’s songs you say the word ‘love’ a lot, and in One Bad Son you probably won’t.”  She adds, “On the face of it, any good song that nears the realm of rock, or folk, or pop music, is just a communication of emotion – so there’s two parts of it, the lyrics and the music.”

In Ladies of the Canyon, which formed in Montreal in 2005, the four members had typically contributed their own songs to their repertoire — a process Davies says was very solitary — but “halfway through the first record, we started co-writing, and it was something I really enjoyed.”

“A lot of times if they’re coming to me, they’ve figured out what they’ve already done, but they want something they’ve not already done.”

While touring with Ladies of the Canyon throughout Québec, where she has family roots dating back to her great-great-grandparents, she was inspired to make a Francophone solo album, which she appropriately titled Héritage and released under her first name, stylized as MAÏA. That project led to lyric work translating — or as she says, “re-writing” — two songs from Serena Ryder’s 2012 album, Harmony, for the Québec market.

Ryder showed her the French-language versions she already had and Davies — whose parents are both translators and editors — took another crack at it. “I think we can do better,” she says she told Ryder, explaining, “I believe you shouldn’t translate songs, but you should keep the intention and meaning of the song intact, take some liberties, and write accordingly.”

Three Tips for Novice Songwriters
1) “Every idea and every song that you have is not always the greatest, and you have to be okay with that. They become your children, but you have to let some of them go. That’s how you grow and get better.”
2) “Get a mentor, someone you really look up to. Just sit in the room next to them, and you’ll be amazed what you absorb.”
3) “Creativity and inspiration isn’t something that happens to you. It’s the culmination of being awake and looking around you: Looking at colours, going to a concert, going for walks, and all these things – synthesizing them into what you think is “accidental” inspiration. If you get writer’s block, change what you see. I like to go to a museum exhibit anytime I feel stuck, or surround myself with creative, vibrant people, and share ideas with them. That’s how you’ll never lose inspiration.”

The opportunity to launch this new phase of her career, writing and producing for and with others, came after Ladies of the Canyon started working on their third album with JUNO Award-winning producer Gavin Brown (Billy Talent, Metric, Barenaked Ladies, Mother Mother, Three Days Grace, Tragically Hip). But that album was never to be. The band went their separate ways, but Brown became Davies’ mentor, and helped open up the world of co-writing to her.

He gave her invaluable advice, especially about lyrics: Who are you saying this to, and why do you have to say it in a way that’s trying to be flowery or poetic? Have a direct conversation in the song.

“He offered me a job to stay on his team, and learn to be a producer and professional songwriter. At first, it was like bootcamp, which turned into a creative partnership,” says Davies, who now works with Brown out of Toronto’s Noble Street Studios.

Brown is also producing MAÏA’s second solo album, an alternative pop record, again en français. “I can express myself more emotionally clearly in French,” she says. “This album has a different lyrical flair to it. It’s a destination. I went through a crazy breakup, so it ended up becoming a record about love, heartbreak, and healing. There’s a lot of images and emotion in it.”

The first single was “Echos,” and the follow-up, “‘Laisse-moi libre,” is out Aug. 17, 2018. The album, still untitled, will be out Oct. 12, via Brown’s Inside Pocket label (the company also manages Davies), distributed by Warner Music Canada. Meanwhile, Davies continues to co-write and produce, with releases on the horizon from Monster Truck, League of Wolves, Delhi 2 Dublin, and Clayton Bellamy.

“A lot of times if they’re coming to me, they’ve figured out what they’ve already done, but they want something they’ve not already done. So I try to envision where music is going; where it is right now; where I think it will be tomorrow; where that artist can sit in that landscape; and how I can help bring them there.”