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Fans convince Nolan, Miller to put stripped-down duo performance on disc

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After 15 years of touring together, local Americana duo Scott Nolan and Joanna Miller have finally recorded a live album.

North/South, which is officially being released at a show on Friday, Dec. 13, was recorded at a hometown gig at the Park Theatre (North) and an away show in Duluth, Ga. (South).

Nolan initially had misgivings about immortalizing the live show on record. "I've always had mixed feelings about them," he says. "I don't have any favourites in my collection or anything."

For one thing, there are a lot of variables. Depending on the room, the crowd and the set list, gigs can differ a lot from one night to the next. (In fact, Nolan hesitated on the Park recordings because he felt they sounded too reserved, which is why he and Miller decided to record the Georgia show.) "I just think that when you're trying to capture the banter, and the mood, and the performance, you end up failing a lot of the time," he says.

Luckily, Nolan and Miller had a prime example of a live album to inspire them. Earlier this year, the duo spent several months south of the border supporting roots troubadour Mary Gauthier, who was touring in support of her live album, 2012's Live at Blue Rock.

Nolan was already coming around on the idea when he was given an added push by their new fans.

"People would come up to us at the merch table after the show and ask, 'What's closest to what we just saw?' In the States, they only know us as a duo."

He and Miller have flirted with the idea of going into the studio to record a stripped-down duo album that reflects what they do onstage, but Nolan knows himself too well. "I'd always want to flesh things out with other players," he says with a laugh. "I have trouble leaving things alone. The only way we could do it was live. It made more sense to be in front of an audience."

North/South captures the essence of a band that has spent the better part of the year on the road; Nolan figures he's played 200 to 250 gigs in 2013. While their live show has been honed, Nolan and Miller have learned they're not road warriors. On the Gauthier tour, Nolan found himself doing press nearly every day. "I started fearing the narcissism," he says. "It burned me out a bit. All the shows were great, but we had no balance."

The duo was grateful for the opportunity and experience but, as Nolan says, "this isn't who we are. I think it took us a while to reconcile that."

So, in the fall, Nolan took a break from the touring grind to focus on another passion: working with youth. He got involved with the Winnipeg Folk Festival's Musical Mentors Program, which pairs up a local musician with groups of high schoolers who don't have access to music programs and whose needs aren't always met by traditional education systems.

"It was just what I needed to feel OK about (music) again," Nolan says of the program. "I can't rave enough about it. It makes a difference in the world. Showing them they have something to offer and share is so enormous. That's what helped me."

Nolan knows just how life-saving music can be; he struggled with drug addiction as a teenager and did stint at rehab at 16. He credits elder statesmen like local blues musician Big Dave McLean with helping him find direction in his life.

The healing power of music also emerges as a central theme in Chasing a Song: Scott Nolan + Friends, an hour-long film by local documentarian Charles Konowal that premièred at Cinematheque in April and aired on MTS on Demand in the spring. Initially, Konowal wanted to make a film that shed some light on the songwriting process -- but owing to the personal nature of Nolan's writing, another narrative developed.

Scott had a long-running pen-pal relationship with his late cousin Patrick Nolan, who, at 19, was sentenced to life in Folsom State Prison in California for killing a man. After spending two years in solitary confinement for stabbing a fellow inmate, Patrick turned his life around and founded the Arts in Corrections program at Folsom. Inmates divided by race and socio-economic status would meet and share songs and stories. For an hour, they forgot where they were.

While the program saved lives, it was risky. Nolan admires his cousin's temerity.

"A lot of people in my cousin's position -- doing life without parole -- they make these transitions and it's very dangerous. The gangs were against him. It's not like he got points for good behaviour. It was such an uphill battle. Once the gangs left the arts room, they weren't friendly outside of it."

During the making of Chasing a Song, Nolan was invited to Folsom to lead songwriting workshops in his cousin's program -- a life-changing experience for Scott which is documented in the film. He got to meet the men whose lives were changed by his cousin.

Inspired by Patrick's legacy, Nolan is interested in working with more youth music programs.

"Going from visiting a prison to working with these kids with Folk Fest -- that's the answer. The system lets a lot of these kids down. Programs like this are great for everyone, for the artists and the kids. It's humbling."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 12, 2013 C1


Updated on Thursday, December 12, 2013 at 6:40 AM CST: Changes headline, replaces photo

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