Onanole-based musician Natalie Bohrn’s last live performance was in March, struck down only a few days into a three-week run by a virus that had just made its way to Manitoba.
"As soon as it came time to start showing our work," she says of dance theatre piece By Grand Central Station, "we were in lockdown."
Record scratch. Where to go from there?
Bohrn, a member of local group Slow Spirit, remembered something a fellow musician had come up with a few years earlier — a club where members would each write a new song every week. "I really loved the idea, and I immediately started putting it together here," she said.
The first due date for the club was a Tuesday in April. "The only prerequisite is that you make the deadline," Bohrn says. If you miss it, tough luck, but no big deal: you can come back next month and start fresh.
It was a prompt that resonated with more than 40 musicians, who suddenly found themselves with ample time to make the most of a terrible situation: a weekly journey, an auditory timestamp, a forum, and a reminder that when life gives you a lemon, you can still juice it, creatively speaking.
"The idea is that if we all just show up and do the work, we can show each other and have a supportive space. There’s no criticism," says Bohrn. "Just hitting the send button is often the hardest part."
What came of that simple idea is a startlingly hopeful and tellingly unified body of work — more than 360 songs, reflecting in real time the tumult, beauty, misery, stagnancy and ever-shifting topography of the world during a pandemic.
If journalism is the rough draft of history, art is too, and the music the club created has the feeling of a found diary, a capsule of artists making sense of that which makes none.
"For the first time in my life, I feel like I have a moment," says Aja McMillan, a trumpeter and singer who’s been writing songs and snippets every week since June, missing only one Tuesday night deadline. "I had this stillness, I had room, I had time, and I said, I’m going to go for it. I’m going to write, and it’s been the highlight of my 2020.
In all, she’s written 11 songs in just over six months. "I might have written 11 over the last five years," she says.
But finished products are only part of the goal. The club is, at its core, about maintaining community and connection, elements of the music world that normally play a chief role in drawing creative people in, and for many, a life-sustaining resource.
That doesn’t mean the music isn’t enjoyable, valuable, and sometimes, wonderful: the fact that it exists at all is a testament to the club’s purpose.
Matt Peters, best known for his work with Royal Canoe and Deadmen, says for him, having a deadline or prompt was a helpful tool to keep him accountable. "You know that people you respect are going to listen to what you record, so you’ve got to push ahead and find something you’re happy with… or at least something that is presentable."
A standout of his Song Every Week output is Goose, inspired by seeing kids throwing breadcrumbs at a bird during a walk through Stephen Juba Park last summer. It’s poppy, orchestral, and a little bit brooding, and Peters can see it some day making the cut for an album. The club allowed him to write freely, he says.
"And if it stinks, the only people who will hear it are also putting themselves out there, so you kind of have nothing to lose," he adds.
Winnipeg singer-songwriter Sophie Stevens, whose last show before COVID-19 was also her biggest to date — an opening slot ahead of William Prince — says "the club forced me to reflect on how much I value my community." The songs she wrote were solo, with whimsical titles such as I’m Not Even Having Any Fun Anymore, but sharing them helped remind her she wasn’t really isolated.
"It really made me realize not only was I worthy of sharing my music with peers, but that making music is not at all an individual thing," she says. "It was a validating experience that made me realize no one can ever truly be a musician alone, as corny as that sounds."
That’s also true for Luis Ramirez, who participated in the club from Toronto, where he writes orchestral music that he dutifully sends in to Bohrn each week (He studied music with her at Brandon University and wrote 16 songs as part of the club.) His song Rainforest makes you feel like you’re in one.
"This challenge was extremely insightful since I always believed that I was not very prolific, but forcing myself to work out something every week turned out to be exactly what I needed," Ramirez wrote in an email. "Now I feel more confident about my creative process, and I am definitely interested in another challenge like this in the future. "
Local songwriter Micah Erenberg says the club has given him a consistent task throughout the pandemic, which he sorely needed. "I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like my career has been swept out from under me, and writing a song every week has at least made me feel like I am still somewhat of a career artist."
“I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like my career has been swept out from under me, and writing a song every week has at least made me feel like I am still somewhat of a career artist.”
Plus, the freedom of the club has afforded him the opportunity to get out of his comfort zone and try new things. "I do have some songwriting habits, and sometimes with these songs I intentionally try to break them," he says.
Each week, the deadline comes, and a day or so later, Bohrn will send a digital mixtape to participants, a collection of young songs that may, or may not, grow into mature ones. Listening to them, knowing that others might never hear them, makes getting the tracks feel like a real privilege.
"I feel so lucky, every time," says Stephens. "It’s one of the most magical musical experiences, as dorky as that sounds."
With the new year starting, Bohrn, who’d been running the club for free as a creative outlet, applied for and received a grant through the provincial government’s Safe At Home program, and hopes to see as many as 80 people or more sign up.
For her part, Bohrn has made lots of music she’s proud of from her home in Onanole, located just south of Riding Mountain National Park, including O.O.B.E. (Out Of Body Experience), her first — and possibly best — song of the club’s run.
Performed with her partner Eric Roberts, who sings and plays drums and alto saxophone on the track, O.O.B.E. is about wanting to go to a wedding that Bohrn knew she’d be missing. It’s a two-and-a-half minute track that sums up the past year, and what it’s taken away, aptly and powerfully.
"I wanna be free, outside my body, want to forget, where I am," Bohrn sings. "Move fast, move far, and hover there like a lodestar, somewhere in a future tense. An out of body experience."
Her musical output aside, Bohrn says the club is what she’s most proud of fostering since COVID-19 arrived. And while the songs may or may not be released some day into the wild, on stages, in stereos, and in headphones, Bohrn says the creation itself is what matters.
"Who knows what will even come of any of this music?" she wonders.
Record scratch. Where to go from here?
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.