Toronto is known as a music city by both residents and visitors. Folk Alley spoke to two bands who hold onto this reputation, as well as expand it, in different ways. Fiddle & Banjo, the duo of Karrnnel Sawitsky and Daniel Koulack bring out an old-time aesthetic, combining classic American folk songs with Anglo- and French-Canadian and Metis tunes on their latest set, fittingly titled ‘Tunes from the North, Songs from the South.’ The Slocan Ramblers represent the bluegrass end of the continuum, finding their influence in the gritty, real-life underbelly of the city, and their West End neighborhood. This red-hot roots band expand on these themes on new work ‘Coffee Creek.’
We spoke to both bands about their music, their city, and how these two things reflect and influence each other.
Gideon Thomas: I wanted to start off by asking you about your respective albums; to Karrnnel and Daniel – how and why did you decide to tap into an old-time Canadian influence?
Karrnnel: The old-time Canadian influence is something that came instinctively to both of us right from day 1 in this collaboration. Daniel and I both come from backgrounds of Canadian traditional music and so it was natural for us to gravitate toward an album rooted in traditional music. I would say in our individual musical projects we have both followed a similar journey: new original music rooted in traditional styles – really trying to continue to grow the repertoire and create our own sound. So with this new Fiddle & Banjo album we wanted to focus on the traditional Canadian influence that shaped us individually, but also focus on making our interpretations of old time repertoire.
Daniel: The Canadian fiddle tradition and more specifically the prairie fiddle tradition is incredibly rich. It encompasses so many styles reflecting the different populations that ended up on the prairies – Metis, French-Canadian, Ukrainian, Scottish along with the over arching influence of Don Messer and Andy Desjarlis. As an “urban” musician from Winnipeg I have only become acquainted with this music in the last ten or fifteen years, though I have been playing Appalachian tunes for forty years! Karrnnel, however was literally born into this tradition with two older sisters that are excellent fiddle players, an accordion playing father and a mother who liked to dance to Don Messer in the kitchen.
The five string banjo is not a part of this musical tradition – but as we know, banjo and fiddle sound great together, and there are so many great tunes from the North… so why not?!!!
And to the Slocan Ramblers, you’ve been described as playing ”working class’ bluegrass roots’ – can you tell us a little more as to what this means to you and how it relates to your experience in Toronto.
Ramblers: The band got its start with a weekly gig in Toronto. We played every Tuesday from 10:00pm to 1am for two years at a bar called the Cloak and Dagger. It was a rowdy bar and the audience didn’t seem to respond much to the more polished bluegrass sound. We got used to playing rowdy sets of high-energy bluegrass. That gig definitely helped shape the sound of the band. Over two years the band definitely got a reputation for hard driving high-energy shows.
(BOTH) Talking of Toronto, I wanted to ask both groups about the city – tell us about the musical scenes here and how they influence you.
K: I have been living in Toronto for just over 2.5 years now and there are 2 things that really stand out to me about this city musically. First is the amount of quality live music that happens every day and night. I have never experienced living in a city where I feel like I am missing more shows, jams or sessions that would cause me to get those little inspiration dimples on the inside of your brain. Am I the only one that gets those? That feeling of seeing/hearing something that makes you so inspired the goose bumps go right on the creative part of your brain.
Secondly is the amount of incredible musicians that live in Toronto and how friendly the music community is. Since I have not been in Toronto for too long, I am still meeting more and more musicians and it seems that if I ever have a request to find, for example, a guitar player, I end up getting a list of players that I could not have imagined living any where else. Quality people, quality musicians!!
The combination of the amazing musicians in Toronto along with the amount of great music that comes thru this great city is very positively shaping my music and my musical endeavors.
D: I am a Winnipegger, but I hear great things about the old-time and bluegrass scene there. I did live in Toronto in 1978 and 1979 (when I was 13 and 14). When I was there I was very lucky to have the great Ken Whitely as a school music teacher through a program called Mariposa in the schools. On Saturday mornings I would wake up at 5:00 AM and make my way to the St. Lawrence market to get the best busking spot. In one morning I made $75 which was really good money for a kid those days. I went to a camera store and purchased a good used camera with a bag full of quarters, dimes and nickels. The sales person was not impressed!
R: The music scene in Toronto really is exceptional. Any night of the week you can go see world-class music in almost any genre. In terms of bluegrass, there are regular weekly shows almost every night of the week. Most of us got into the music through seeing the Foggy Hogtown boys, a great Toronto bluegrass band. They have had a weekly at the Silver Dollar for something like 17 years now. That show was a definite influence. There is also a whole host of great singer songwriters in the city. Being able to go see someone like Corin Raymond play at the Cameron House on any given Thursday is definitely a perk of living in Toronto. There’s definitely no shortage of inspiration.
(BOTH) What do you think ends up being the end result of working in the city, for you own music, and for Toronto music as a whole?
K: For my own music, I find that the high quality of musicianship around the city and the bands that pass thru the city pushes me to continue to refine, practice and push my art and my musical voice. The value of this self reflection of your art form is something that I have never taken for granted, and living in Toronto makes this possible with much more frequency. I also feel that living in a city with the vast amount of music and musical styles forces me to focus on creating a unique identity as a musician. I would rather be a new body of water rather than a big wave in an existent ocean.
In terms of the result for Toronto music as a whole, I think this notion of creative inspiration is a self-fuelling growth that will continue to grow the scene in Toronto to interesting new places. Especially in the ‘old-time’ scene around town, the interesting group of people that has recently moved to Toronto makes me very excited to see where it will go.
R: Being in Toronto is great for getting inspired to be a better musician and a better writer. It’s not necessarily an overly competitive music scene; there is just a lot of talented people doing really interesting and stuff and setting the bar pretty high. As in a lot of cities with a surplus of great musicians, there’s a lot of venues and a lot of shows happening all the time but not a whole lot of very well payed gigs. Most working musicians we know make their living on the road for the most part. Toronto seems to be the place you come home to, try out new material, write, see what other people are up to and get inspired. The result is a lot of great music happening all the time all over the city.
A couple of questions for Karrnel and Daniel: How did your collaboration of fiddle and banjo come about, and why do you think you’ve maintained it?
K: The first Fiddle & Banjo album came about after Daniel and I met at a music camp in southeastern Saskatchewan – the Kenosee Lake Kitchen Party. Predictably and on recipe: meet, jam, laugh & smile (in a folk music way), exchange contact info …. and the rest is history. That’s a pretty simple explanation, but it was really about that simple. Daniel and I are both prairie people (from Manitoba and Saskatchewan respectively) so I think the prairie spirit of doing and asking questions later had a lot to do with the first album.
For the second album, it had been a few years since the 1st fiddle and banjo and I had a big US tour in early 2015 (which Daniel was on), and so we decided to record a new album and promote it for that US tour. The first album was so fun for both of us that when we were talking about a second album it was only a question of when.
D: Karrnnel and I met at a wonderful fiddle camp in Saskatchewan called Kenosee Lake Kitchen party that we were both instructing at…you know how with certain musicians you sit down to play, and it’s instant fun – it feels right. That’s what happened! We both have multiple musical projects, but this definitely occupies a special place. This is our second album together and we are beginning to develop a sound. I think that we both have the feeling that we are onto something!!!
And I am intrigued by the blending of ideas and music from the US and Canada – something I’ve not come across a great deal of. From where did you draw the songs and tunes which have gone on to the record, and why?
K: The “Songs from the South” element on the album (the 5 American old-time songs) came about after we were lucky enough to get Joey Landreth confirmed for recording. Daniel and I rummaged thru his record collection for songs that we would want Joey to sing on the album. Going thru this process really outlined Daniel’s American old-time influence in his music collection and also led us to the realization how the American old-time and Canadian old-time traditions are different, but similar.
I have been a part of the old-time Canadian fiddle scene for my whole life – I played in a family band since I was 4 and played fiddle contests, jams, workshops and camps across Canada my entire life. Clawhammer banjo was rarely present in the majority of my Canadian old-time fiddling scene growing up and yet in the American old-time scene it is much more predominant. This was an interesting insight after going thru Daniel’s records. The amount of repertoire that is shared between the American and Canadian old-time traditions combined with the similarities in sensibility of styles is really the unique idea that we were trying to capture with this album in repertoire, instrumentation and style.
D: When we were in the early stages of planning this recording Karrnnel recruited the wonderful singer and dobro player Joey Landreth to join us on a few tracks. Karrnnel came to Winnipeg, and we had a listening party at my daughter’s house where my old record player and all of my old records now reside. It was really fun. I forgot how good the records and my old stereo sound!!! We chose the songs from this session.
That is when we got the idea of calling the album ‘Tunes From The North, Songs and From The South.’ The title informed our choice of fiddle tunes – we wanted good tunes that were uniquely Canadian, a couple that were specifically from our neck of the woods, we each brought a couple of originals, and then rounded it off with the Ed Haley tunes which kind of tie it all together.
And for the Ramblers: Tell us more about the band, and how you guys came together?
R: It was kind of a happy accident. We had all been getting pretty into bluegrass and Americana music and were looking for an outlet to play. Adrian, Darryl and Alastair met in college, and Frank had met Alastair working at a local bike shop. We got together to pick some tunes and hit it off right away. We ended up opening up for a friend’s band about a week later. That turned into a weekly gig which we did for a couple years. Which grew into releasing an album and touring. Somehow its ended up being a full time occupation.
And I wanted to ask about how you selected your repertoire, and why you wanted to make the tunes on the new album, and indeed the album as a whole?
R: We select most of our material on the road. We’re always trying to keep the live show fresh, so we are always throwing in new tunes. What we add depends on the day, how we’re feeling, what we have been listening to in the van etc. Some tunes don’t work out, and some seem to just stick. They tend to evolve over time as we play them live. Sometimes we will play a tune for months before we figure out the right treatment for it. Similarly, with original material most of our writing happens on tour as well. We write and experiment a lot on the road. Last year we started doing a lot more writing, particularly getting into writing songs and lyrics. It was kind of a new thing for us, by the end of the summer we had a lot of new original material. Going into the studio seemed like the natural thing to do. It was a lot of fun focusing on our own songs. Even since recording the album we have been writing more and more.