Adrian Chamberlain, National Post
With files from Mike Devlin, Times Colonist
Monday, December 23, 2002
From literature to architecture, 2002 has been a remarkable year for the arts in Canada. Over the next two weeks, the National Post will examine the year's key cultural happenings from Victoria to St. John's. Today, good news and bad from British Columbia.
It's tempting to peg Vancouver Island as a rain-splashed hot-house for musical talent.
After all, the fittingly named Hot Hot Heat -- a Victoria neo-new-wave act -- has rocketed into the international scene like fiery coal. And they're not alone. Fledgling Nanaimo songstress Allison Crowe just teamed up with hot-shot manager Jack Ponti, the U.S. industry veteran who was instrumental in guiding pop singer India.Arie to seven Grammy award nominations this year. Speaking of Grammys, Victoria's Nelly Furtado scored one last February for best female pop vocal performance. Two months later, Swollen Members, also from Victoria, carried off their second Juno award for best rap recording with Bad Dreams.
Of course, Vancouver Island's most celebrated musical export is Diana Krall. The Nanaimo native, who started plunking away at the piano at age four, recently released a briskly selling concert album, Live in Paris. Although she's sometimes criticized as a pretty face who dilutes her jazz roots to gain greater cross-over success, the Grammy-winning Krall nonetheless reigns as the world's best-selling jazz vocalist.
And there's more. Nanaimo's Ingrid Jensen is an acclaimed jazz trumpeter (Down Beat magazine once deemed her one of the "25 most important improvising musicians of the future") who's forged a busy career in New York City for a decade. Nanaimo is still home to David Gogo, an incendiary blues guitarist whose music is heard on radios across Canada. Victoria's musical sons range from the sublime (Richard Margison is an internationally heralded tenor who sings regularly at the Metropolitan Opera) to the, well, not quite as sublime (the City of Gardens does indeed lay claim to the Moffatts, a chipmunk-harmonied pop group who triggered a tsunami of preteen tears when they broke up last year).
Can it be that our West Coast island -- thousands of miles from New York or Toronto -- is truly an incubator for music heroes? In some ways it seems an unlikely locale. Although the Island covers an impressive 12,400 square miles, its two largest cities are relatively small: Greater Victoria's population is just 300,000, Nanaimo's is 72,000. Once a mecca for forestry and fishing, the Island increasingly embraces such genteel alternatives as tourism and high-tech industries. In the grand scheme of things, the music scene is miniscule. In Victoria there's only a handful of live music venues. And in Nanaimo there's even fewer.
Top-name acts rarely make the time-consuming and increasingly expensive ferry trip from Vancouver to Vancouver Island. Victoria still lacks the sort of large sports arena that ordinarily hosts touring pop stars, although we're now in the process of building one. The big names that regularly make the journey to the Island tend to cater to the over-60 set: the Rita MacNeils and John McDermotts.
And yet, seemingly out of nowhere, there emerges a band like Hot Hot Heat. Led by frontman Steve Bays, who hip-shakes like a reconstituted Mick Jagger, the foursome has attracted positive notices in Rolling Stone and Spin magazines for their twitchy, pop-punky rock. What's more, the group -- which this year released Make Up the Breakdown on Seattle's legendary Sub Pop label -- just signed a enviable record deal with Warner Bros. guaranteeing them two albums, with an option for three more.
Hot Hot Heat sounds like XTC knocking heads with The Cure, with a pepper-shaker of Strokes/Vines/Hives attitude tossed in for good measure.
The band favours a tight trousers/jacket look à la CBGBs 1978 (or maybe it's Carnaby Street circa 1967), while Bays yelps and squeals with the campy abandon of Buzzcocks singer Pete Shelley.
Bays has said the smallness of Victoria's music scene worked as a freeing effect on Hot Hot Heat.
"It's hard to start a fresh sound if you come from a city where there's a lot of specific rules, whether it's socially or musically," he said. The sentiment is echoed by Adrian du Plessis, a Saltspring Islander who manages Crowe. Du Plessis, who in the '80s woodshedded as a Vancouver punk-rock promoter, says Vancouver Island's musical community is less cliquish than those of Canada's larger metropolises.
"In the bigger centres, people can more easily get sucked into following trends and wanting to copy, or react against, what is around them daily."
The idea appears to be that Vancouver Island -- with its slate-grey winters, miles of wave-splashed beaches and hectares of rain-heavy evergreens -- is the equivalent of a pioneer cabin in the wilderness. To some extent, Islanders must make their own fun. You can't be part of a musical movement if there aren't enough people form one.
That may account for the startling diversity of the Island's musical success stories: Margison (opera), Krall and Jensen (MOR jazz, bop-influenced jazz), Swollen Members (rap), Furtado (pop, hip-hop, Portuguese fado), Crowe (passionate pop influenced by Fiona Apple and Eddie Vedder), Gogo (soulful blues-rock) and the now defunct Moffatts (teeny pop).
A more prosiac reason for Vancouver Island's headline-making musical progeny is the quality of its schools and teachers -- especially those in Nanaimo. Krall, Jensen and Gogo were all taught by Malaspina University College band teacher Brian Stovell, and often cite him as a key mentor. Stovell says Nanaimo's rich musical roots date back to song-loving Welsh and English coal-miners and a still-running city concert band founded in the 1800s. He also points to Nanaimo's Pygmy Ballroom, a now-forgotten jazz mecca that in the 1930s and '40s hosted such greats as Louis Armstrong and Harry James.
"Music has been in this community since its start," said Stovell.
This summer, Crowe undertook an 11,000-kilometre tour of Canada in a rented motorhome. It was a brave move for the soft-spoken 21-year-old, who initially was nervous about the response she'd receive away from Vancouver Island. The tour -- with stops in Toronto and Montreal -- was a critical and popular success. In fact, the only mishaps were when the motorhome's tires blew up and it began leaking raw sewage.
The singer-songwriter says she finds inspiration in Vancouver Island's rainforests, the wildlife and the ocean, which is ever-lapping and never far away.
"There is a sort of nurturing environment on the Island for artists. There's this laid-back atmosphere which makes it easier to let yourself really get into doing music."
And despite what Torontonians might think, Crowe disagrees with the notion of Vancouver Island being in the middle of nowhere.
"I don't think we are isolated at all. Especially not with the Internet. And we can travel to other places and always have our Island to come home to, and reflect."
© Copyright 2002, National Post.