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RICH AUCOIN 1 Thomas Murray Photography

With heart and camaraderie, Nova Scotia Music Week continues to buoy up the region’s musical talent

10 December 2023, 11:00

John Bell heads to the scenic Atlantic province of Nova Scotia for its annual showcase of new music and finds a music scene bursting with health.

Long before New England settlers gave the town of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, its more familiar name, the First Nations people recognised it as Keespongwitk, meaning ‘Lands End’. It’s a feeling that is shared today after the four hour journey from Halifax along a lonely, pine-lined highway, though the local tourist board offers a more positive outlook: On The Edge of Everywhere.

The town emits the endearing kind of modesty you’d expect for a place at the end of the road. One of the first signs that comes into sight on entry is a furniture store called Nothin’ Fancy. Its small downtown is built on Main Street, its harbour on Water Street. During the Age of Sail, Yarmouth was a global shipbuilding powerhouse, but now a relic of its maritime stature stands in the form of the Cape Forchu Lighthouse. Though much of the filming took place at a local, disused airport hangar, the black, jagged peninsula beneath it today provided the setting for Robert Pattinson’s spiralling madness in Robert Eggers’ 2018 folk horror The Lighthouse.

That said, these days the town has become one of Canada’s key outposts for a billion dollar lobster fishing industry. Weathered, salt-crusted cages line its harbour, though it’s a few weeks out from dumping day – when hundreds of boats depart from the harbour hoping for another lucrative season – so the town feels especially quiet when I arrive.

Its residents carry a similarly humble smile and, maybe just happy to see some new faces, seem strikingly friendly and eager to talk. At a local brewery a bearded man recounts the town’s lore through the medium of a flight of ales, such as Rusty Red Truck, which honours the state of the brewery owner’s previously white vehicle after the long journey from Alberta. I’m suddenly reminded of something a friend told me in Toronto a few days before: “You’ll like it there. Nova Scotians are good, chill people; they like to drink good beer and play music.”

That’s handy for me, because I’m here for Nova Scotia Music Week. Now in its 26th year, the festival boasts a selection of the region’s talents to the local communities as well as a significant number of delegates from wider Canada, America and Europe. In turn, these industry guests make up the conference side of NSMW, and through pitches, speedy meets and mentorship sessions give these musical acts advice, contacts and sometimes simply their ears – something that isn’t always guaranteed at these showcase-style events.

Each year NSMW contributes around $2 million to the region’s GDP, which might be a drop in the ocean to lobster fishermen, but to the Nova Scotian communities it has become an institution. Supporting local economies is one of the reasons the event moves around the region each year and avoids the provincial capital of Halifax, a city with far more venues and resources. Another is that when there are fewer places to go, people inevitably bump into each other more and hopefully form more meaningful connections.

“Yarmouth is an interesting place,” explains NSMW’s executive director Allegra Swanson. “It is not easy to get to and you have to be very intentional in your travel there. Once you’re there, you’re there. It’s a chance for us to experience that town and build relationships, and artists get an opportunity to play outside of their hometown.” Given that some towns in the region can be separated by a seven hour drive, this does add another level of excitement and experience for a lot of the up-and-comers at the festival.

Logan Edward Mac Kay K Speiran DSC 4900 1
Logan Edward MacKay by K Speiran

One such act is Logan Edward MacKay, a Halifax-born singer-songwriter I meet who is playing his first NSMW this year. Having played solo in small cafes and bars in his 20s, this show is also his first with a full band. It’s a big deal for him. Logan was introduced to the festival while studying a music business programme at Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC), and first visiting as a student exposed him to the scene on offer. “It was like… here’s everybody all at once,” he says.

Many of the acts performing at the festival have come through the NSCC route, Logan explains, and a solid grounding in the industry side of things has become vital to sustaining a network or scene of artists in the area. Unless you're an established or international touring artist playing some of Halifax’s bigger venues, he says, “bars don't really act as promoters anymore, you have to be that. They are not willing to take a risk as much as they used to be, especially after the pandemic, right? So there is definitely a big gap, there are no promoters for young bands, new bands, small bands. It's all up to us pretty much.”

Baba No Baby Pam Samson Photography
Baba No Baby by Pam Samson

Each morning begins with five minute pitches, where we are introduced to a selection of ten artists who each get to play us one song and quickly bullet-point their experience and accolades. Some seem a tad awkward with the latter at ten in the morning, such as the sardonic rapper Baba No Baby, who admits as much and gets on with his understated but hard-hitting flow. (Unfortunately for him, his festival performance is in the same brightly lit venue space, but he rides it out and pokes fun at people leaving before the end of his set). By day three, another rapper Shanii is so hungover that the whole thing is a bit too much, though he also takes it on the chin with a charm those giggling at the front seem to recognise.

But most seem more seasoned in this kind of thing, listing off their recent releases as well as past and potential prizes and nominations at the Music Nova Scotia Music & Industry Awards, which take place at the end of every NSMW. As such, the vibe at first feels pretty competitive. The festival’s hub is in a 70s-built hotel, Yarmouth’s only space big enough to house such an influx of guests and provide convention and concert spaces, and though it serves this purpose excellently, it does at first add to the sense of formal competition. (The hotel isn’t without its own music history, though: rumour has it Meredith Wilson wrote “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas” in the original Grand Hotel that stood here before its rebuild.)

Giving elevator pitch a new meaning, posters advertising artists’ set times line the walls of the lift, each vying for attention. Some keep it traditional, while others get inventive, attaching Reeses Cups for bribes or sticking 3D glasses (“wear at our show!”) or coloured string to creatively convey their aesthetic. During speed dating-style sessions, acts and delegates have five minutes to connect and strike up a potential professional connection – or at least a new friend.

Nicole Ariana Pam Samson Photography
Nicola Ariana by Pam Samson

I’m interested in what these artists hope to gain from the conference side of NSMW. “You can’t really force yourself on anyone, people are going to gravitate towards what they gravitate towards,” says R&B singer-songwriter Nicole Ariana, another Halifax-based artist playing this year. “It’s a great way to make one or two solid connections, but you can't expect this to change your life, though it could if you meet one person who wants to help you. But I think it's definitely a stepping stone and a way to learn about the industry on a more global scale.” Nicole is an independent artist and her own manager, and was also introduced to NSMW through a course at community college, but is further along her career than Logan; this year she is nominated for both R&B/Soul Recording of the Year and Music Video of the Year awards, and has performed in Paris, Berlin and London. She even has co-writing credits on Russ’ Billboard No.1 album Shake the Snow Globe. These opportunities have come from engaging with NSMW, but have grown into something else by the Nova Scotian music community collecting together, she says.

“Because we are a smaller place, there is the opportunity to lean on each other, write together, get together; I’m always trying to work with younger artists, especially younger women female artists. I think that it all comes back around.”

Moira Claire Clare Thomas Murray Photography
Moira & Claire by Clare-Thomas Murray

As I get to know some of these artists better over the course of the festival, it becomes clear that the vibe is one of camaraderie and not competition as I first suspected. There are no headliners as such, but there are a few performances that feel it. Daniel James McFadyen opens the festival on a high, hitting the sweet spot between country and indie rock. Like A Motorcycle’s serrated jab of queer punk on Thursday night shares the energy of a high school homecoming. Rich Aucoin’s mixed-media, meta performance is a euphoric rush that includes a parachute game – if only he could fit more of it into his allocated thirty minutes. Art Ross and Aaron Green’s Saturday performance at Th’YARC theatre is a stripped-back, acoustic version of their Pillow Fite project, but is easily one of the most captivating moments of the festival. They joke that they’re looking increasingly like Moira & Clare, another acoustic duo fifteen-odd years their junior whose own harmonious indie-folk would (and should) land well here in the UK.

All of these acts can be found in the audience supporting newer, up-and-coming artists, of which there are plenty. The upstairs room of the family seafood restaurant Rudder’s is a particular hotspot on Saturday, if you get used to the smell of hot lobster rolls. Siblings The Gilberts channel the glossy country pop of Kacey Musgraves with the emotive twang of Pinegrove, lulling the room of diners to a silence with their three-way harmonies. Straight after are Steel Cut Oats, whose Yukon-inspired garage rock is layered with textural surprises.

Nurturing young talent is clearly important to the festival. This year sees the inaugural youth conference, with the intention of “supporting underage performers and getting them into the space where they can understand the music industry and choose music and want to be a part of it,” says Allegra. Fall River’s DeeDee Austin is at the centre of this youth campaign, a highly decorated 17-year-old on the JUNOS committee who uses her growing platform to proudly represent the indigenous Mi’kmaq people.

REENY SMITH Pam Samson Photography
Reeny Smith by Pam Samson

But the line-up at NSMW 2023 admirably spans many age groups and demographics. There’s a strong Acadian presence, both in festival and conference, so that French-speaking audience members can look at the stage and identify with themselves. There are jazz, classical and Gaelic acts – the latter a key part of Nova Scotia’s cultural history – and plenty of Canadian Country. To British ears like mine, Elise Aeryn’s happy-go-lucky country rock feels like letting your hair blow in the wind while driving along this country’s open, endless roads. Tide & Timbre, my own personal winner for the most Nova Scotian name I’ve ever heard, are endlessly fun: two hirsute brothers in dusty baseball caps singing about small town life with masterful control of bluesy guitar licks.

The most reliable place for a surprise, I soon learn, is Johnny Patch’s, the kind of dive bar full of wacky and wonderful characters you’d expect to find in a place called Johnny Patch’s. It’s here that a local in her sixties hugs me in the smoking area on the first night because “sometimes it’s just nice to hug, you know?” I do. But it also boasts the most eclectic billing of the festival venues, at one moment booming with the heavy bass of Jah’Mila’s big band reggae or the tight jazzy R&B rhythms and cascading vocals of Reeny Smith, the next thumping to the chugging four chords of Acadian pop-punks Peanut Butter Sundae.

Back at Rudder’s, I catch Logan on cloud nine as he performs his driving rock ripper “Second To Talk” with his band for the first time. I recognise a few of the other artists playing NSMW in the crowd watching him alongside members of the public, and see there’s not just camaraderie but heart here in Yarmouth. Logan aspires to tour the UK before hitting the US, and his Sam Fender-inspired anthems would certainly be well received at home. But, importantly, he has no plans to jump ship to some bigger music metropolis. “I want to stay here. I love Nova Scotia,” he tells me over a coffee. “I feel like in the new world of music, you don't have to move necessarily, I feel like that's not really as big of a challenge as it used to be. But people are still stuck in that mindset. A lot of people want to move to Toronto or Montreal because our music scene isn't as big or successful. But we should stay here and build this music scene rather than just walk away from it. Yeah, I feel like that's more productive for Nova Scotia as a whole.”

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