There is a good deal of lore surrounding Alberta’s Banff Centre For The Arts and its creative heritage. There are the Indigenous stories, songs and traditions that surround the area, located in the Rockies on the side of Tunnel Mountain – known as “iniskim’ the ‘sitting buffalo’ or “big buffalo rock” in Blackfoot – a place where Indigenous peoples from all over the continent have gathered for spiritual celebration and ceremony over thousands of years. (Here is an insightful piece on the mountain’s history.)
Amongst those who have attended the Singer Songwriter Residency astride that Sitting Buffalo – which I did in March of 2019 – there are reams of anecdotes about personal upheaval and existential renaissance resulting from those creative intensives; everything from divorces to career changes to relocations and – to be sure, inspired new musical directions and alliances. My own experience there culminated with a summer tree-planting in the BC wilderness, and eventually materialized as a full-length acoustic album, and a long-conceived move to Toronto to pursue music full-time. It was only a few months after this move, while on tour playing in Hawksley Workman and Sarah Slean’s band (a dream-gig!) that the pandemic hit and all this music career momentum came to a screeching halt.
My own response to the pandemic, initially, was an almost eerie calm, and a giddy absurdist acceptance. The life of a professional musician is brimming with uncertainty – pivoting strategies and focus is a regular occurrence. A total 180 degree turn on all my best-laid plans? Nothing new for me! I hunkered down in my tiny bedroom studio and recorded an album of new songs in those first ten weeks of lockdown, buoyed by a group of fellow songwriters and a shared list of weekly song-prompts we all wrote (very different songs) from. Together we variously tried to make meaning out of this situation, or distract ourselves from it altogether. This was made easier for me with the innate levity of writing on a newly acquired Omnichord, with all its vintage video-game bleeps and bloops. Those early weeks were a lifeline and refuge, as the dust settled around the world, and the severity of the crisis set in.
(Not so) fast forward to March 2021, which marked a year since the lockdowns began here in Canada (and 3 months since I began working with Play MPE!) and I am once again tuned in to the creative muses, taking part in the Wandering Elk Rogue Residency. This online off-shoot was spearheaded by longtime Banff Centre producer/engineer Howard Bilerman (past member of Arcade Fire, and producer with credits like Leonard Cohen and Godspeed You! Black Emperor) along with songwriting mentor Kevin Welch (who wrote Chris Stapleton’s Top Ten country hit ‘Millionaire’, amongst other hits.) They gathered a group of 30-some Banff Songwriting Alumni to attend from around the world, and assembled an impressive cast of lecturers and mentors including The Weather Station’s Tamara Lindeman, indie-rocker Sharon Van Etten, Nashville staple Kim Richey, broguish Juno winner David Francey, the delightfully eccentric Mary Margaret O’Hara, new-age/jazz/folk icon and transgender activist Beverly Glenn Copeland – along with Grammy winning writer Don Henry, longtime John Prine sideman (and magician!) Fats Kaplin and Jeff Waye from Third Side Music Publishing.
I was skeptical at first, that this virtual version could deliver any of the life-changing, creatively potent experiences that pervaded the Banff residency in real life. What would this be without the music of the mountain? The individual writing huts furnished with pianos, dotted with deer and the occasional cougar sighting, the chance run-ins and kismet collaborations, movie nights, magic shows, recording studio sessions, and the extravagant dessert array in the Vistas buffet?
Turns out, it really provided a lot. A lot of sharing circle time amongst songwriting peers – playing and workshopping new material via zoom; those inspiring keynote lectures, and the one-on-one mentor sessions, with nowhere to hide any half-baked lyrics that may be camouflaged by a catchy melody or flashy guitar part. Always, everywhere, a sense that this supportive group of creative humans had trained our awareness and intention to manifest something better than we would have done alone, in the puny energy of isolation. We all returned to the mountain together, in our imaginations, channeling the energy of that big rock.
I walked away from this year’s residency (mostly a turn-of-phrase, because I walked literally across my room from my writing bench back to my work-desk) with a solid dozen new songs, a very full heart, and a renewed sense of purpose around my songwriting. Yes, there was also a bit of soreness from the virtual butt-kicking that comes from tearing apart my musical offspring and lovingly repairing their shortcomings, but I did so in solidarity with my songwriting cohort.
And yes there was – is, also – a post-residency reckoning, where I currently dwell, emotionally exhausted, fighting off a cold (hopefully?!) and reflecting on my/our current situation. There is a live music industry totally sideswiped; an economy and society in disarray; and to my mind – a widespread reassessment of life as we know it – socially, culturally, economically, environmentally – in every way imaginable. Our job as musicians and writers is to reflect our surroundings – and our surroundings have never been so tumultuous, not in my lifetime. But it is also our work to unveil the sacred that exists amongst the profane, the mundane, the painful. And so, what a gift, to parse these feelings and experiences amongst a group of like-minded rabble rousers and way-show-ers.
I emerged this year relatively unscathed – a box of tissues to accompany the Jane Austen movies that have become my real-world buffer upon re-entry (shout-out to my roommate and co-attendee Sarah) and an ill-advised home-haircut resulting from some late night restlessness, as I wrestled down a song called ‘Control’ about – ahem – not being able to stop obsessively cutting my hair. It’s yet another revelatory realization borne out of this experience, and I count myself lucky to have joined this pilgrimage – if only from my tiny Metropolitan apartment.
You can view the final concert from the Wandering Elk Songwriting Residency – including 30+ brand new songs that did not exist before it, at rogueresidency.com
Photos courtesy of Colleen Brown