It’s been an exciting year for Nova Scotia-based singer-songwriter Mo Kenney. Her self-titled debut album came out last fall and quickly wooed new fans and wowed critics with her unique voice and original brand of quirky folk-pop.

“I started taking guitar lessons at 11 and as soon as I had my own guitar, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in music,” says Kenney. “Although at that point I pictured myself playing guitar in somebody’s band.”

It didn’t end up that way, as 2012 saw Kenney hitting the road to open shows for friend and fellow Halifax rocker Joel Plaskett (who also played on and co-produced her album). The pair played your dates and festivals throughout Canada, and she even flew to Iceland to play the renowned Iceland Airwaves Festival.

Not one to be slowed down, in March Kenney she toured again, this time opening for Canadian folk-pop icon Ron Sexsmith. This spring she’ll be recording a new album, and debuting her live show in the U.K.

If it weren’t for a growth spurt in his early teens, folksinger-songwriter Dave Gunning may never have found the guitar.

“Mom and dad ‘forgot’ to enroll me in hockey one year,” Gunning says with a sheepish laugh. “I think it’s because I needed new gear.” Looking for something to do in his hometown of Pictou, Nova Scotia, he picked up a guitar his father had brought home from a local flea market, learning a few chords from a neighbour. That’s when his parents told him that if he could learn and perform two songs, they would spring for lessons. He never thought it would lead to a career.
With eleven albums now under his belt, along with a substantial handful of prizes from the East Coast Music Awards, the Canadian Folk Music Awards and Music Nova Scotia, among others, Gunning says he still feels fortunate to be able to make music for a living.

“I’m not really built to do this,” he says, acknowledging an introverted nature and an early tendency for getting “nerved up.” (He was first encouraged onto the stage by his childhood friend JD Fortune, who went on to front INXS.) But Gunning is more than comfortable onstage these days, having logged hundreds of hours playing covers on the Maritime pub circuit until he was ready to take his own show on the road.

“I don’t think it’s uncommon in the folk world to have thousands of little moments, rather than one big one,”- Dave Gunning

Gunning, who affectionately describes his approach to songwriting as “blue collar,” says he’s drawn to the idea of telling stories and preserving history through his music. His most recent album, No More Pennies, made international headlines when the Canadian Mint wanted him to pay royalties for depicting the recently discontinued coins on his album cover. It relented, but not before Gunning amassed $6,200 through a penny drive, later donating the money to a Halifax children’s hospital.
While some have suggested he’s due for a big break, Gunning likes how things have unfolded so far. “I don’t think it’s uncommon in the folk world to have thousands of little moments, rather than one big one,” he says happily. “That’s definitely how it’s been for me.”

Saying this second Gros Mené album was hotly anticipated is probably this year’s best and biggest euphemism. Thirteen years after the quasi-mythical Tue ce drum, Pierre Bouchard, the troupe launched Agnus Dei last fall. Still firmly anchored in the stoner rock realm, the new Gros Mené is replete with rock that is all at once heavy, dirty, disjointed and groovy with thick psychedelic and blues fumes all around it. It’s still aurally corrosive, no doubt, but considerably less brutal than the previous album. Let’s attribute this to a certain refinement that comes with age. But even though the beast has quieted down, it might just as well have never re-emerged from its hiding.

“It was honestly not planned that I would ever do another Gros Mené album, says the mastermind of the project, Fred Fortin. It’s a complete accident, literally. It wasn’t important for me, but at some point I was gripped with a pressing urge to do something different from what I usually do, so I jumped head-first into this project, without overthinking it, and I just did it. I all happened very rapidly. After 13 years, we’ve all evolved considerably; the acquired experience, the wealth of influences all played in. We obviously wanted to do anything but Tue ce drum, Pierre Bouchard all over again. I gathered songs and started recording them with various people, assembling trios according to the needs of each song. Gros Mené requires different parameters and different ways of composing. Its completely different from my solo albums and that’s a lot of fun!”

Among old friends

Fred Fortin, who’s launched three solo albums since the turn of the century, has once again recruited the best. Originals from the early days of Gros Mené, Olivier Langevin and the infamous Pierre Bouchard are back on board. “We’re old friends. Music is what brings us all together. When you have friends that are this good, you make sure you keep them,” says Fortin. Desirous to increase his firepower, Fortin also recruited Pierre Fortin (Galaxie) and Robbie Kuster (Patrick Watson) on drums. Among the other collaborators on Agnus Dei are Jocelyn Tellier and Noël Fortin (Fred’s dad).

Creatively, Fortin is in charge of the skeleton for each track while the guest musicians are there create the flesh around that skeleton. “Let’s not forget Gros Mené is my project. It’s nothing but Fred Fortin in disguise. The others guys contribute with their personality in the way they play, the arrangements and their solos. Bear in mind, however, that the textures in a Gros Mené song happen on the fly. Nothing is planned ahead. We deal with a lot of unexpectedness, and a lot of spilled glasses of wine!” laughs Fortin.

Fast and Efficient

Despite his solo projects, his collaboration in Galaxie, his contracts as a producer and his countless other collaborations, Fortin thinks it’s not that hard to accomplish all of that without losing his mind. His secret? Doing things well and, most of all, fast. “You do your best with family and all the other stuff. I don’t write year-round; I need to hole up and isolate myself from the world. When I lock myself up in my cabin to work, I need to negotiate it with my wife and kids first! It is a very condensed part of my life. It all happens very fast. I don’t need to tinker on a song for very long, contrary to a lot of artists I know. When I tour with Galaxie, I also take some time to write songs and prepare my next project. Same foes for Olivier. We spur each other on to work and the rest just happens when it does. When people offer us to work on a project that fits in our schedule, we just say yes,” he says matter-of-factly.

The Ups and Downs of the Trade

The songwriter is quick to react when asked what advice he would give to a young artist wishing to make it as a musician. “That’s easy: don’t do any of the things I did since I started! But seriously, you need to be relentless, pigheaded and strong-willed to persevere and never lose sight of your goal. Nowadays, recording is a lot easier and you can promote yourself using Facebook, but planning a tour is harder for someone who’s starting out; there’s so many albums coming out. Setting yourself apart from the mass becomes a herculean task,” says the artist who was born in Verdun but is a Jeannois at heart. (NdT: “Jeannois” is the demonym of people from the Lac-St-Jean region of Québec)

And even though the Gros Mené band of brothers will tour the garage, scratch that, their cabin rock all over the province in the next few months, our favourite slacker is content with enjoying the small blessings of his chosen trade. “I don’t have anything spectacular lined up right now. I still love going off-road on weekends, playing in festivals, recording tracks at my cabin. I’ve never high big expectations from being a musician. I’ve had my ups and my downs. Then one day, you wake up as a thirtysomething and realize music is all you’ve ever accomplished with your life. You no longer feel like going back to school […] or to work a 9 to 5 job. I’m 41 and I’m not thinking about retiring yet. There are too many beautiful things to experience in this trade to stop now.”