Cross-Atlantic artist collaboration finds creativity on the rails

Sponsored feature: presented by The British Council

There’s a strong musical tradition that comes from life on the railways, one that stretches as far back as the founding of Canada’s own coast-to-coast system. This past summer, the British Council launched a collaborative international project called Sound Journeys, in partnership with Harbourfront Centre and British Underground. It captured the unique creative energy of train travel while connecting a broad expanse of cultural backgrounds. 

Three musicians from the UK and three from Canada were paired together for unique train residencies built around collaboration and storytelling. These duos began their journeys in one of three cities – Vancouver, Winnipeg or Halifax – and each was joined by a visual artist as they rolled towards Toronto for a live performance during the Harbourfront Centre’s Sounds of Home festival series.

Based in Thunder Bay, singer and guitarist Nick Sherman was paired with singer-songwriter Jess Morgan from Norwich, England, with Winnipeg visual artist KC Adams there to capture it all visually.

“The idea was that we would collaborate and meld our two worlds together and, with Canada as a focal point, try to share as much as we could about our countries and our own personal experiences,” he says. “I was happy to find that once we met up, we were left to explore things organically.”

His group quickly made a deep connection over one of the most important issues facing Canada today: reconciliation. “We were all coming from different places, and as much as KC and I were trying to introduce Jess to the country and to our experience here, it was also very introspective for me because I had to think about the things that have shaped me as an artist.”

Having grown up in Round Lake First Nation north of Sioux Lookout, Ontario, some of Sherman’s songwriting touches on the legacy of residential schools and how this has shaped his community. The weighty subject matter grounded the two songwriters’ exchanges as they travelled from Winnipeg to Toronto.

The performance scheduled at the end of their voyage also leant some structure for the collaboration. Sherman says he and Morgan focused their time on the train towards making the on-stage experience a worthwhile one for the audience.

“I think any musician who has travelled before and performed, they know that it’s a different kind of mindset compared to recording an album,” he says. “You’re always preparing for the show – technically and mentally and physically – to be able to perform your best.”

Another trio of artists were also heading to Toronto. Starting from Halifax, this group included Brazilian-born, Quebec City-based, Flavia Nascimento, Luke Jackson from Canterbury, England and Halifax photographer/video editor Jenni Welsh.

“There was a sky car where we spent a lot of our time,” Welsh says. “There are windows everywhere so it’s wide open and you can see the landscape.”

Her strategy for capturing the Nascimento-Jackson collaboration was to let it all happen organically and just be a fly on the wall. She says the close confines of train compartments helped their group dynamic. “More synergy happens in smaller spaces because you’re forced to be really close together at all times.”

A final group of three made the scenic cross-country journey all the way from Vancouver to Toronto. The artists included London-based percussionist and composer Sarathy Korwar, BC singer-songwriter David Morin and visual artist Sophia Burke, who lives here in Toronto. 

“What a way to see the country,” Korwar says. Having been born in the US and raised in India, he had never before seen the Canadian landscape – let alone collaborate on a train with another artist over a series of days. His group produced a free-form podcast with some of Korwar’s music compositions and Morin’s on-train performances (listen below or via SoundCloud).

“Spending time so intimately with the other participants was a great way to get an insight into what their realities are,” he says. “This was a timely and important way to understand the issues that Canada is facing at the moment and a chance to view it from an outsiders’ perspective was invaluable.”

As with the artists in the two other groups, Korwar focused in on the unique experience of performing together in Toronto at the Harbourfront Centre. “We had just spent the last week together, so we felt like we knew each other pretty well,” he says.

Find out more about Sound Journeys and The British Council here.

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