The Sound: Newfoundland & Labrador

St.John’s, Newfoundland. (Photo by Erik Mclean via Unsplash)

St.John’s, Newfoundland. (Photo by Erik Mclean via Unsplash)

The Sound explores the musical cultures of Canada’s provinces and the musicians that have been influenced by their hometowns.

Placed on the farthest edge of Canada’s east coast is Newfoundland and Labrador –– a province with a population of a little more than  520,000 people, untouched and jagged natural beauty, and home to what is possibly Canada’s most tragically crafted stories. All of this, in one way or another, is encapsulated in its music. Heavily rooted in the sounds and traditions of Celtic-folk, its music pays homage to the island’s history while incorporating new sounds from its emerging artists.

We caught up with three musicians to talk about how the province has shaped them as artists.

When ALTo asked Heather Bambrick about jazz’s popularity in Newfoundland, she couldn’t help but laugh a little.

“The first time I was releasing a (jazz) record there, I remember telling my uncle and he was like, ‘Well, no one likes jazz! Do the old standards,’” she recalls. “And that became the joke that it was the Heather Bambrick: It's Not Jazz Show.”

After more than 20 years in Ontario, Bambrick keeps an inherent connection with the island. Whether it’s releasing an album there first, or making sure that there is a Newfoundland folk song on her jazz record, there has always been a commitment to honour her birthplace.

“There’s that sense of family, and home and community, for sure. A warmth of people and natural beauty –– a bit of rugged land and rugged people that are softened by the warmth of their hearts.”

Bambrick has worn many hats in her career as a Juno-nominated singer, teacher, voice actor and broadcaster. Her recent project is the launch of online radio station JAZZCAST, which she co-founded.

Born in St. John’s, N.L., Bambrick’s exposure to music started from an early age; her father played saxophone in a dance band. Her love of jazz ignited in her community choir when her teacher encouraged her to scat.

While jazz isn’t the first of genres that come to mind when you think of the island –– Celtic-folk is dominate, you’ll hear a French-Canadian fiddle sound when you head towards Quebec and if you go north, an Indigenous influence –– it’s where Bambrick learned that the beauty of music is rooted in the idea of community. Music is a form of communication, and of course, entertainment. But in Newfoundland, it’s something you “give to other people.”

There’s that sense of family, and home and community, for sure. A warmth of people and natural beauty –– a bit of rugged land and rugged people that are softened by the warmth of their hearts.
— Heather Bambrick

The foundation of the province’s music, and something that transcends genre, is its tradition in storytelling.

Modern traditional bands like the Great Big Sea, who infused rock into sea shanties (songs that encouraged or accompanied labour) or Hey Rosetta! who incorporated the traditional sound of the piano, cello, and violin into their music, are examples of popular bands that reinforced the island’s folk traditions with an updated sound.

The Once is one of those bands.

“When I was growing up, most of the songs that my uncles and my mom would sing were the saddest songs on the planet,” says Geraldine Hollett, lead singer of The Once. “They broke me in two, they were so sad.”

The folk-trio stay rooted in the island’s music traditions while also pulling on outside influences with their country-tinged harmonies. With the “no topic is off the table” mentality, Hollett explains that Newfoundlanders are able to bring light-heartedness to some heavy situations.

“I think it’s just a known thing that Newfoundlanders make light of everything,” Hollett says. “Nothing is worth taking seriously. It’s all out of love.”

She brings this approach to the Juno-nominated group’s music and live shows. “I don’t feel like I can’t say anything on the stage.”

Photo courtesy: Kellie Loder

Photo courtesy: Kellie Loder

Newly arrived in Toronto, Kellie Loder is a singer-songwriter who weaves honest and sentimental lyrics into uplifting pop songs. Her most recent album, Benefit of the Doubt saw her transition into pop from the Christian genre. She recently released the single “Fearless” a power anthem she wrote exclusively for the IMAX documentary Superpower Dogs, narrated by Chris Evans.  

Loder explains that being a pop-folk artist from Newfoundland is not something that always registers. When she was back home, pop music was of course on the radio, but wasn’t prominent in the live music scene. Chances of seeing bigger bands come through the island were also slim.

“It was a little harder to get people on board with the pop side of it but eventually people started enjoying the music no matter what the genre was.”

Every time Loder sits down to write a song, she feels like she is telling a story and in that way, has been influenced by the island’s storytelling tradition. She says sometimes there are misconceptions about the province’s music — especially when it comes to diversity.

“There have been times here (in Toronto) where it was like, ‘Kellie Loder is playing a show, she’s from Newfoundland,’ and everyone thinks ‘Oh, she plays Newfoundland music,’” says Loder. “When people think of music from Newfoundland, they think of the traditional music, and that’s not always the case.”

When you peel back the layers of the music that has come through the province, you’ll find acts and emerging artists that are breaking presumptions around the sounds that come from the island.

Take, for example, The Kubasonics. The Ukrainian-folk family-band relocated to St. John’s from Alberta in 2011, and have found unlikely success in the province. The island also has a thriving musical theatre scene, (and we’re not just talking about the award-winning musical, Come From Away).

“You never know what you are going to come across,” says Loder. “You can’t stereotype anything in Newfoundland.”

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