THE ONCE at Glenn Gould Studio (250 Front Street West) Thursday (November 15) at 8 p.m. $29.50. RTH. 416-872-4255. See listing.
The members of St. John's trio The Once play various instruments - guitar, boron, mandolin, fiddle, banjo and bouzouki - but vocal harmonies remain the band's focus. "We consider ourselves a vocal band," explains guitar, mandolin and fiddle player Phil Churchill on the phone from Perth, where the band (Churchill, vocalist Geraldine Hollett and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Dale) had played a house concert the night before.
The CFMA and ECMA-winners started performing together about six years ago after being thrown together for an impromptu concert at a period costume rep theatre (more on that below).
Since then they have released two albums: an eponymous debut in 2009 and, last year's Juno-nominated Row Upon Row Of The People You Know, which includes a song based on George Murray's poem Song For Memory, and a cover of Queen's You're My Best Friend (as well as some more standard traditional and Atlantic fare).
The band is currently waiting on masters of their forthcoming Christmas album.
Can I ask you about your backstory? I've heard you were all actors, but how did the three of you meet and start singing together?
I met Geraldine in College. I'm from Corner Brook, and there's a little arts college there. Geraldine's from a super small town called Path End, Burin - there were sixteen houses in her hometown.
A number of years later we were all working together at this summer rep theatre, you know, the kind where you wear period clothing and pretend that you're drawing fish on flakes and you don't say old you say oald. Andrew had done a music degree, and he was out there as a musician. We had this artistic director who is truly amazing at employing the unemployable. She hired all these ragamuffins and vagabonds and we would speak like that and wear puffy shirts. One day she said, "does anybody know any songs together?"
And we said, "well, we are all just kind of meeting each other." Then she said, "okay, well, there's a show at 8 o'clock tonight and you're all in it and you're supposed to be singing." It was 4 o'clock in the afternoon, so we just sort of grabbed each other.
It went really well, and then we did it once or twice again, then we made a little demo with a friend. Then we took that demo to a festival in Lunenburg; on the last day that we were there, some anonymous guy signed us a cheque for $5,000 because he thought we should record an album - we didn't meet him until years later. And that's how it started. At that moment we kind of looked at each other and thought, "Okay, well maybe we should do this."
Do you have any sense of the age range of your fans?
We've always thought our fans were a little bit older and we've always really loved that. They're retired, they have time on their hands, and they have disposable income. Good listening audiences have really decided what they like and will really pursue it hard, but we keep getting surprised by the age range of our audiences. One guy we met in the summer bought two copies of each of our albums: one set was for his daughter, who was eight, cause she really wanted it. And the other set was for his mother, who was 81.
How do you decide who sings what harmony part? Do you each have parts you usually take?
For the most part I'll sing the lower stuff and Andrew sings some of the higher stuff but it all falls into place when we write a new song or pick a new song. It's one of those things: when you know you're in the right band, that pretty much the first thing that comes out of our mouths is the thing that ends up on the record. It comes out really naturally. Also, I think the lower stuff is manly.
How far back does your connection with singer/songwriter Amelia Curran go?
The first time I met her was in College, probably in the late 90s, but I didn't know she sang [or wrote songs] back then ... after Andrew started playing and touring with her we all got real tight, and she wrote a song she wasn't going to use for one of her records and gave it to us - What Will You Be Building [which is on Curran's new album, Spectators]. In exchange, she asked us to sing on her record Hunter, Hunter, which won a Juno. We've been super close friends since then, and have toured Ireland together.
Even though she was living in Halifax, the community in St. John's is super small and super supportive and very tight. Sometimes it seems like a bit of a bummer cause it is so small, but because of that there's not really a whole lot of lines drawn. All the people in rock bands know all the people in metal bands who know the people in traditional tunes bands who know songwriters. She's on the road now, and her drummer's in the Novaks. Just because someone is from St. John's is usually all you really need to be able to work with them. Our community now is thrilling.
I really like Song For Memory, which you collaborated with poet George Murray on.
The oral tradition is still really huge in Newfoundland and we have a ton of really great poets - now George isn't from there, but he had moved there for that reason - and this was something that he hadn't put in a book yet. After we did this song, he ended up making changes to the poem based on the changes we had made when we made the song. It gave it some life, which, I think, was something he was really happy about.
Is that something you think you'll do again with Murray or another poet?
Definitely. Actually, the first couple of songs that we wrote music for were by a poet from my neck of the woods named Al Pittman and there's two of them on our first record.
[Collaborating with a writer] allows you to create in a really low-pressure atmosphere because you know you don't have to torture yourself over lyrics. I think a lot of good songs stay in the bag, not because the lyrics aren't good, but because you're so nervous and tortured about them. You think, "I get this, and this speaks to me, but no one else will get this so I'm not going to bother playing it," but when you're working with someone else's work that they've already tortured and bled over, I wouldn't say it's easy but it allows for a wide berth for experimentation.
I hear you have a Christmas album coming out. Is this an outgrowth of the annual Christmas show in St. John's you've been doing for a number of years?
Christmas is an expensive time of year, so you want to do something that helps you out through that season. And it didn't hurt that we're all Christmas-obsessed. We have tight, close-knit families. A lot of the music that we all knew together just happened to be Christmas music. So it was easy for us to do this Christmas show. We did it one year and it was huge and almost immediately after, people were asking if we were going to do it the next year.
This year we went to the Junos and saw that two of the records that were up for album of the year - and one of them that won [Michael Bublé's Christmas]- were Christmas album. I had mixed feelings on it, but I still really wanted to do a Christmas album.
There's this idea that a Christmas album is something you do [between albums] as a cash grab, but it's not, if you really love that music and it's very important to you. So we went back to the drawing board and started writing a bunch of material and trying to find some more obscure stuff and more interesting ways to do it, and then it ended up being our third record.
What are some of the songs on it?
We're really inspired by these three old Irish gentlemen called The Voice Squad, and whenever they'd put out a record they'd put out two or three Christmas songs on it. We did one of theirs, Coventry Carol, and we've done Hark The Herald Angels Sing. We also did Gabriel's Message -- Sting did it a number of years ago, but it's always very much a churchy, spooky piece. [Our version] has a gypsy, Portuguese kind of feel. And Dave Matthew's Christmas Song, and a bunch of our own, including a duet called Oh, My Rudolf, a rock opera in one song about Rudolf's lady saying, "I don't want you to go out tonight ... you're always working", and a version of All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.
It's called, This Is A Christmas Album From The Once. Because that's what people are going to call it, so we might as well call it that first.