Thursday, June 29, 2017

Canada's music: Catherine MacLellan

Prince Edward Island, just north of Nova Scotia in the maritime provinces of Canada, has an understated beauty and a depth of story which draws people in.

The same could be said of the music made by songwriter Catherine MacLellan, who comes from Summerside on PEI.

She is an excellent musician in her own right, with a Juno award along with East Coast Music awards and Canadian Folk Music awards in her resume. She is also, as she points out in the notes for her most recent album, a songwriter’s daughter.

That album is called If It’s Alright with You: The Songs of Gene MacLellan. On it are thirteen tracks written by Gene MacLellan. There are country, pop, gospel, folk, and Americana songs songs in the choices, fittingly enough, as his music has been covered by artists from all those genres. What pulls through is the thread of story. What also pulls through is the thread of poetry. Those are elements Catherine understands in her own work, and which she brings to her interpretation of he father’s music.

The songs range from lesser known to well known, enigmatic to straightforward, reflective to forthright. Catherine MacLellan honours her father’s work, while gracefully and graciously putting her own stamp on them.

It took her a while to get to making this album. As she established herself with her own work, she knew it was important to step outside the shadow of her dad’s career. Gradually, she had begun including some of Gene’s music into her live shows. It was the recognition of her music with the Juno award for her album The Raven’s Sun that pointed her toward this recording. "The Juno made me feel as though people know me and appreciated my music,” Catherine says.”Now I want to share my dad's music. It's also an opportunity for me to get to know him better. The more I get to know his songs, the closer I feel to him." Gene MacLellan died when Catherine was a teenager.

The blockbuster hit for Gene, and for Anne Murray, whose signature song it became, was Snowbird. As with any good song, it stands up to differing interpretations. As Murray sang it, the focus -- and the arrangement -- was on the brighter side of things. Catherine, who had added the song to her live shows several years back, decided to slow things down and take a more somber, reflective approach when she sang it. For this album, she was thinking about how to do it in an original way. The result is a thoughtful, quiet version of a song which has become a classic in several genres. “Snowbird was the first song of my dad's that I started performing regularly, and I had already recorded an album and a live version,” Catherine says. “I wanted to do it again, but differently. I got out the Wurlitzer and played it as simply as I think this song needs to be. It's very honest. I also was able to finally record the extra verse that only my dad ever recorded.”

While researching her father’s music, Catherine followed up on something else she’d heard about Snowbird. She kept hearing that it was the second song he ever wrote. What, she wondered, was the first? “Turns out, it was Pages of Time, a real country heartbreak song and we produced it in a throwback sort of way. I always wanted to be a country singer!” Catherine says. She and producer Chris Gauthier decided to make Pages of Time the first track on the album.

Of the title track of If It’s Alright with You, Catherine says “For me, this sums up my dad's songwriting and his personality. He always wanted to make sure everyone was ok, and put others first.” She adds that the song also reflects Gene’s searching for peace. That’s a journey which led him to prefer writing songs to performing them.

Gene MacLellan’s gift for creating memorable stories in just a few words comes through in his most covered songs, as well as his less widely known work. There’s the stone country with a twist drinking song in Face in the Mirror, the poetry of landscape and wandering in Lonesome River and Thorn in My Shoe, and another sort of search, a spiritual one, in Won’t Talk About Love.

Another aspect of that spiritual side comes through in what has proved to be Gene MacLellan’s most recorded song, Put Your Hand in the Hand. That so many had recorded it, artists ranging for Elvis Presley to Ocean to Loretta Lynn to Anne Murray gave Catherine pause when she was considering how to do it for this album. Insight came in collaboration with two musical friends. “When I was on tour this spring with Dave Gunning and JP Cormier, we played it as an encore and it was so fun, just two guitars and three voices,” she says. “We took an afternoon [on the road] in Calgary and recorded our version in three hours and I think it is perfect. I'm very happy with what we captured.”

Among other tracks are Bidin’ My Time, The Call (with guest vocals from John Connolly), and Shilo Song. The production is spare when it needs to be and more complex when that serves a song’s idea. Through it all, Catherine MacLellan’s understanding and respect for her father’s work and the stories told come through.

What would Gene MacLellan think about this recording? "He would be happy to know his songs continue on, being remembered and given a new spark," Catherine says. "It’s a testament to what a young guy from very humble beginnings can do."

You may also wish to see
Catherine MacLellan and Chris Gauthier with a song she’s written, Frost in the Hollows. She has recorded it on her album The Raven’s Sun

Scotland’s music: Karen Matheson: Gaelic, story, and family
Cathie Ryan: Through Wind and Rain
Music in Times of Change: Songs of Hope 4
Celebrating Cape Breton’s Heritage, Music, and Connections Catherine will be part of a Songs from Scratch concert at the Celtic Colours Festival on Cape Breton this coming October. That concert will be in Sydney River.

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