Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Musical class of 2012

This year's crop of local singer-songwriters gets an A for playing well with others

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Keri Latimer's children don't get a credit on her new album, but if you listen closely, they're on it.

"You can probably hear footsteps and stuff because they were running around when I was recording it," says the Juno-winning songwriter, who recorded her debut solo album, Crowsfeet and Greyskull, in the kitchen/dining room of her Fort Rouge home.

The album title is not a Masters of the Universe reference (that was Castle Grayskull, FYI) but how she sees herself and her husband Devin Latimer -- who plays bass on her album and in their roots band Nathan -- in the future.

"I was thinking of being an old lady in my kitchen when my children leave me. I was picturing myself and Devin when we're older with crow's feet and grey hair. We would become these superheroes," says Latimer, whose album came out Tuesday and got its live unveiling Friday at Pop Soda's.

The release of Latimer's album marks an extremely busy time in Winnipeg's folk/singer-songwriter scene with nine different artists (and possibly more) releasing albums within a two-month period.

Each artist recorded his or her album in a different way and it is a testament to the spirit of non-competitive collaboration among local musicians, as many appear on each other's albums. Scores of Winnipeg musicians would stop by Latimer's house to lay down their parts, while out-of-towners emailed her files. Cara Luft recorded her new solo album in a series of churches, homes and studios between Toronto and the Rocky Mountains, but has guests from as far away as London, England, on it.

Latimer appears on Luft's album, as does JP Hoe, who will release his new album, Mannequin, at the West End Cultural Centre this week.

"It was a collaborative effort. I was overseeing it and bringing the people together," says Luft about Darlingford, her first solo effort in five years.

Winnipeg's singer-songwriter scene stretches back 100 years, says local music historian John Einarson. Bob Nolan, who wrote Tumbling Tumbleweeds and Cool Water, was born here in 1908, Oscar Brand started his career in the 1940s, and in the 1960s Neil Young was hanging out at the Fourth Dimension coffee house on Pembina Highway, where most singer-songwriters got their start during the folk boom.

Today, there are open-mike nights at churches and book stores like Sam's Place, and many musicians draw inspiration from artists at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, but the hub of the city's singer-songwriter scene is the Times Change(d) High & Lonesome Club (on Main Street and St. Mary Avenue), which holds a weekly Sunday night blues jam and regular songwriter sessions known as Campfire Nights, where anyone is invited to bring a guitar and play around a fake fire.

"When I go to other cities, people always ask me what it is that makes Winnipeg musicians so incredible," Times Change(d) owner John Scoles says. "I think the answer lies in the question: we've built up a kind of authority; we've managed to become definers of what's good. There's a particularly strong respect for heritage. We really champion our musical heroes. This is a town that's really connected to its musical past and feels an obligation to that level and to keeping that level strong.

 

"You can't really hide here. It's a city, but it's not so big that there's a bunch of different things going on that people aren't aware of. People are challenged by the fact they're a part of it all rather than a bunch of divergent parts."

So while there isn't necessarily a competitive spirit, performers know they have to reach a certain level to get up on stage and sing for people. It's that kind of quality that has produced numerous award-winning folk and roots artists over the years, and although the genre doesn't get played on commercial radio, each artist has a devoted fanbase.

One of the city's brightest young hopes is Del Barber, 28, whose third album, Headwaters, came out this week on respected Toronto label Six Shooter. (Unfortunately, sometimes bigger isn't always better: Barber's new Winnipeg-based management team declined to make the 2011 Juno nominee available for this article.)

JP Hoe isn't shooting for massive fame and fortune, but would like things to progress so he could tour six months of the year and write for the rest.

"Up to this point, it's been about trying to develop the craft and figuring out what I want to be doing and what I want to put out. Now I'm happy with my skill set and songwriting in general," he says.

"Every record is another start for an artist.... I would love to make any sort of impact to get that foothold to be able to do that for the rest of my life."

Hoe calls his new album the most singer-songwriter-oriented of his career -- which has veered from folk-pop to rock -- but he expanded his palette by featuring members of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra on eight songs.

A scaled-down version of the album's lineup -- including a six-piece string section from the WSO -- will perform at his CD release show at the West End Cultural Centre on May 10, before hitting the road for tours of Canada, the United States and Australia.

One of the more unusual goals on his 2012 to-do list is to pay more taxes. Yes, Hoe hopes to have a year so successful the government will want its share.

"I have no interest in being a homeless starving artist. I want to have a family and a life. You're just taking a skill set, some sort of natural thing built into you, and making a living at it; that's what an accountant does, that's what a scientist does, so the goal is to pay taxes, lots and lots of taxes," he says with a laugh.

Luft didn't express a preference for being taxed, but finances came into play when it came time to record. She raised money for her album using the "crowd funding approach," which means getting fans to help cover the costs of recording.

"My goal was to raise $15,000 -- that probably wouldn't cover everything, but figured that would be a good start. I ended up raising $33,000. It kind of blew the top off everything once the Europeans got into it," says Luft, who received donations from more than 450 people.

"It really is about a community and collaboration and people supporting one another, and not so much a typical business model," she says.

The album was recorded over a period of several months as Luft continued to tour and explore locations to set up mobile recording equipment with co-producer/engineer Lloyd Peterson (who also appears on Hoe's album).

The Juno-winning former member of the Wailin' Jennys had just left a relationship prior to recording and wanted to get away from her usual studio routine, so she sought out venues with good acoustics in out-of-the-way places.

"I needed to go somewhere I felt comfort and beauty and safe; for me, a lot of old churches and chapels have a vibe about them," she says. "They are built for people who sing and musicians. There's warmth in the wood there."

Luft is originally from Calgary and moved here in 1999 because of Winnipeg's reputation as a place where a songwriter could get a fair chance with an audience that would pay attention.

That's why the scene is thriving here, says Scoles.

"When I started being a promoter I thought, 'Wow, the generation I'm dealing with makes me feel lucky. I'm glad I'm here at this time,' and I wondered what the next generation would be like -- and it's equally fantastic," he says. "It comes out of the fact people are listening to other people. Good music requires good listeners and it seems the people that are making that music are good listeners. They are just as much brilliant fans as brilliant songwriters."

rob.williams@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 5, 2012 G1

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