January 23, 2018

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Plumbing poetic highs and lows

Band fine-tunes sound ahead of Winnipeg show

PHOTOS BY RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Heavy Bell performers Julie Penner, Natalie Bohrn, Tom Keenan, Matt Peters, Todd Martin, Derek Allard and Aja McMillan rehearse ahead of Saturday night’s show in Winnipeg.</p></p>

PHOTOS BY RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Heavy Bell performers Julie Penner, Natalie Bohrn, Tom Keenan, Matt Peters, Todd Martin, Derek Allard and Aja McMillan rehearse ahead of Saturday night’s show in Winnipeg.

It’s a week before their debut performance in Winnipeg, and duo Heavy Bell — along with five of their six auxiliary band members — are crammed into small rehearsal space above the Good Will Social Club.

Despite the looming concert and subsequent seven-city tour, this rehearsal is the first time the majority of the band has been able to run through most of the songs on Heavy Bell’s upcoming release, By Grand Central Station, an homage to Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart’s lauded novel of prose poetry, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, published in 1945.

The core pair of the project — Royal Canoe frontman Matt Peters and actor/singer-songwriter Tom Keenan — make small tweaks as the musicians, who play everything from trumpet to violin to French horn, work through some of the more complicated passages, of which there are many. It’s clear the composers are after a very specific tonal feeling.

Peters and Keenan later explain they began working on this project more than eight years ago, but much of the songwriting came out in a burst right at the beginning of the process as they pulled text, in some cases full passages, directly from Smart’s poetry, which often already carried its own melodic flow.

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It’s a week before their debut performance in Winnipeg, and duo Heavy Bell — along with five of their six auxiliary band members — are crammed into small rehearsal space above the Good Will Social Club. 

Tom Keenan, vocals and guitar. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Tom Keenan, vocals and guitar. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Despite the looming concert and subsequent seven-city tour, this rehearsal is the first time the majority of the band has been able to run through most of the songs on Heavy Bell’s upcoming release, By Grand Central Station, an homage to Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart’s lauded novel of prose poetry, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, published in 1945. 

The core pair of the project — Royal Canoe frontman Matt Peters and actor/singer-songwriter Tom Keenan — make small tweaks as the musicians, who play everything from trumpet to violin to French horn, work through some of the more complicated passages, of which there are many. It’s clear the composers are after a very specific tonal feeling.

Peters and Keenan later explain they began working on this project more than eight years ago, but much of the songwriting came out in a burst right at the beginning of the process as they pulled text, in some cases full passages, directly from Smart’s poetry, which often already carried its own melodic flow. 

Todd Martin, French horn, vocals. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press) </p>

Todd Martin, French horn, vocals. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

"That’s kind of the unique quality of this book, is that it is so poetic and flowery, and the imagery is so vibrant that for some of the songs we literally took every word in a paragraph and without a lot of effort on our end," Peters says.

"…Our weirdest song, it has all these time-signature changes because we just followed the prose and made the changes based on what word dictated that change, and it came really easily. But then we had to teach it to everybody," Keenan adds with a chuckle. 

Tom Keenan (left) and Matt Peters worked for eight years on the latest Heavy Bell release. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Tom Keenan (left) and Matt Peters worked for eight years on the latest Heavy Bell release. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

The content of Smart’s novel is densely emotional and partially autobiographical, believed to be based on her affair with fellow writer George Barker. But while there is the through-line of a torrid relationship between the narrator and her married lover, much of what is discussed is not plot-based, but instead the narrator’s reaction to it — the exasperated highs, and the very deep, dark lows. It’s 10 chapters of intensity and fire, as she marinates in the kind of love we all want and the kind of hurt we all fear.  

Julie Penner - violin, vocals. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Julie Penner - violin, vocals. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

That emotional arc is what drew Keenan and Peters to the novel so many years ago, and what they hoped to capture with the album — which was recorded two years ago — and live show.

"Our intention with writing the songs was never to tell the narrative story, and I don’t think that’s necessarily her intention, either, with the book. I mean, there is a story, but really, what we’re doing is highlighting the emotional undercurrent," Peters says.

Peters and Keenan were also the songwriting brains behind Am I Not King, a musical interpretation of Shakespeare’s King Richard II. While By Grand Central Station, too, works with a source text, it’s a very different type of performance. 

The format of the show is mainly musical — the album will be played front to back with the addition of three or four dramatic readings of passages from the novel performed by local actors in each of the cities the band will travel to. In Winnipeg, the readings will be done by Sarah Constible and Alissa Watson.

Aja McMillan trumpet player and vocalist. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Aja McMillan trumpet player and vocalist. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

"The dramatic readings further tell the emotional story of the book and highlight the book in a way we just couldn’t do on the record," Peters says, noting there are recordings of readings done by Smart on the album.

The songs themselves were arranged for chamber ensemble, and members of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra — as well as other local musicians from acts such as Begonia, Chic Gamine, Royal Canoe, Slattern and Imaginary Cities — lent their talents to the recorded versions, while the live shows will be anchored by a crew of six top-notch musicians who also provide most of the backing (and sometimes lead) vocals.

Peters and Keenan agree it’s apt for the show to hit the stage in the dead of winter. For many of the past eight years, it was this stretch of time — the December/January freeze— when the two would meet up and play through the songs, not necessarily to work on anything new, but more so to just "keep them alive," as Keenan says. 

Matt Peters, vocals and piano. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Matt Peters, vocals and piano. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

"It’s interesting — when you have a project you haven’t completed or have an idea that you haven’t realized, on one hand it’s a frustration. But on the other hand, it’s a feather in your cap, it’s something you’re working on, it’s part of your identity… so on one hand, there’s a frustration with how long it’s taking. But on the other hand, I’m almost sad to see it leave the nest," Peters says.

"But I’d say more than anything, I’m relieved and proud of this thing we’ve made together, and all the time we’ve put into it."

"I remember there was a point where Matt was expressing a bit of anxiousness about losing momentum in our own parts, but it never did, because I think we both always felt it’s one of the best things we’ve ever done," Keenan echoes.

Heavy Bell’s performance of By Grand Central Station runs for one night only at the West End Cultural Centre on Saturday, and also includes an opening set from Christine Fellows.

erin.lebar@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @NireRabel

Read more by Erin Lebar .

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