MADVIOLET with JONATHA BROOKE , MELISSA FERRICK , EDIE CAREY , SARA KAMIN and VYLETZ as part of the Open Door Festival at the Opera House (735 Queen East), tonight (Thursday, December 11). $10-$20. 416-466-0313, www.opendoorfestival.com Rating: NNNNN
Here in Toronto, most people may not know their names yet, but grrrl-pop duo Madviolet have drunk wine with Brian Eno and gone camping with Sinéad O'Connor and her daughter, and they owe it all to Instant Karma. I'm not talking hippie-dippy "fated to be" flakiness here. Instant Karma happens to be an indie label on the other side of the pond and the catalyst that caused Brenley MacEachern and Lisa MacIsaac to start making music as a team.
In the late 90s, MacEachern, then the frontwoman for dreamy Toronto indie trip-pop outfit Zoebliss, shared her clam chowder with Indigo Girls drummer, O'Connor producer and Eno pal John Reynolds on a rainy night at the Newport Folk Festival. Fuelled by red wine and chowder chatter, a charmed Reynolds invited MacEachern to send him some demos.
A short time later, Reynolds's own band, Ghostland, signed to Instant Karma, and he decided MacEachern should fly over and record some vocals for him. Meanwhile, at the height of the post-Spice Girls craze, Instant Karma decided to throw together an all-girl insta-pop group.
"I'd been given an opportunity to audition for a band in London," MacIsaac recalls. "Rob Dickins, the label owner, didn't know John was flying a Canadian girl over, and John didn't know Rob was flying a Canadian girl over. But we ended up there together. Funny enough, it didn't work out for me..."
"Or for me," interrupts MacEachern. "But John actually said, 'Hey, you guys should start a band together and I'll produce it. '"
The Madviolet story is characterized by such crazy coincidences. Like the time Zoebliss were looking for a violinist and MacEachern, whose father hails from Cape Breton, overheard MacIsaac talking at the Green Room and approached her to find out if she was the fiddle-playing younger sister of Ashley from Creignish. MacIsaac wound up playing with Zoebliss shortly before they folded.
Or like the time Reynolds accidentally lost their entire album and Madviolet had to start again from scratch. But they managed to recruit all the original musicians plus accordion and whistle-playing Pogue Kieran Kiely, who couldn't make it to the first sessions.
Listening to their tunes, you do kinda feel like the duo was meant to be. The ethereal gauziness of Zoebliss is still present in MacEachern's dreamy vocals and swirling melodies, but it's grounded by MacIsaac's earthier roots background.
While Madviolet's definitely not straight-up Celtic pop, the underlying folkie rhythms and hints of traditional instruments make 2002's self-titled, Reynolds-produced EP sound fresh and organic. It doesn't hurt that both women are super-talented musicians for whom performing is second nature. See for yourself when they play Friday's benefit for the Red Door women's shelter.
"I grew up on fiddle music," offers the Cape Breton-bred MacIsaac. "Playing fiddle was the cool thing to do when I was growing up. On Monday night I'd drive down to the community hall and meet up with all my friends, and we'd go in to our fiddle lesson, just like Tuesday we had soccer, Wednesday we had hockey."
Considering she'd been touring since she was 13 or so, it seemed only natural for MacIsaac to ditch her plans to study pharmacy at Dalhousie in favour of pursuing a music career. Her parents were completely supportive, which might seem shocking when you consider the cost of fame for her infamous older brother.
"It's always hard to read bad press about a family member," she sighs. "When people come up and say really negative things, you're like, 'Don't you realize you're actually talking about my blood?'
"I'm sure Janet Jackson was sick of being Michael's little sister for a while. But I've been OK with people comin' out to a show to see Ashley's sister in a band, cuz when they leave, what they remember is Madviolet."