Elevating Alberta’s music scene
Luka Symons ups the ambition at Epcor series
Boosterism has become taboo these days. Somehow, cynicism is now synonymous with sophistication, and wholehearted support for anything — a band, a city, a system of government — is seen not as a sign of open-mindedness, but of naiveté.
Either no one has told Luka Symons about that stigma, or she just doesn’t care. If enthusiasm was measured in words per minute, she’d be off the charts — especially when the conversation comes around to the music she likes, which is often. As a former CKUA radio host, Symons’s life and livelihood have revolved around her passion for Alberta’s music, from the established acts to the up-and-comers to the songs that are barely more than a twinkle in a bedroom genius’s eye. Rural, urban and anywhere in between, if there’s someone making sounds in Wild Rose Country, she wants to hear them.
Don’t chalk it up to mere patriotism, though. Until seven years ago, Symons lived in southern Ontario, where she was enraptured by a music scene that spawned Three Gut Records, Arts & Crafts and a new wave of Canadian indie exports. But while that scene has no shortage of supporters, Symons was surprised to see an equal amount of talent when she moved west — and she’s been vocal about it ever since.
It’s little wonder, then, that she was approached to program the Epcor Centre’s TransCanada Alberta Music Series. For the last dozen years, the series has been spearheaded by John Rutherford, who has used it as a chance to consistently spotlight the province’s finest singer-songwriters. Now that Rutherford is engrossed in other projects, Symons has stepped in for lucky number 13, and her first act has been to expand the festival’s parameters.
“John left such huge shoes to fill, because he’s so integrated in the music scene in Alberta,” she says. “So we thought, what’s our next step? The next step was to include more bands, to reflect what’s going on in the Alberta music scene. Because there’s of course ‘singer-songwriter,’ the one person on a guitar or the one person on a piano, which we have a lot of in the series this year, but there’s also bands. I mean, what is a singer-songwriter? I think the definition should be someone who writes songs and sings them, whether you’re playing by yourself or you have six people behind you that you flesh out the song with.”
With that in mind, she set about filling the schedule with an eclectic assortment of Alberta talent. While the festival is still strongly rooted in, well, roots, Symons has done her damnedest to bring in artists that specialize in everything from pop and rock to hip hop and soul. More than 170 solo artists and bands from around the province applied to the series, a remarkable number considering most were only given three weeks notice before the application deadline. But while she’s amazed by the amount of applicants, Symons isn’t exactly surprised.
“I bugged them,” she explains with a conspiratorial laugh. “We really, literally bugged them, and then I talked to people who were involved in different areas in the music scene in Canada. I talked to station managers at university stations, I talked to producers who do a lot of recording in town and across Alberta, not just Calgary. I talked to promoters. I had a chance to sit down and talk to a lot of people and say ‘give me a list,’ and so I just kept sending out invitations to people I could, and trying to compile an idea of, ‘OK, this is a snapshot of what’s going on in Alberta right now.’”
Of course, to satisfy a musical connoisseur with as much enthusiasm as Symons, that snapshot needed to be as panoramic as possible. To that end, the series has beefed up its lineup, going from 12 artists to 24 over the festival’s four days, including songwriter-in-the-round collaborations each night and ’tweeners to entertain crowds in between acts. And even still, she makes it abundantly clear that she’s not yet satisfied.
“My aim was to have an electronica night,” she says. “There’s an underground scene of people making really interesting electronica, and nobody applied in that realm. There’s no world music, and there’s no jazz music. Some members of the jazz scene did inquire about playing and submitting, but how do you [fit it all into] four nights? I know there are gaping holes, and I know I’m going to hear about it in people’s critiques of the series.”
“I thought, for the first year… you have to build it in steps,” she continues. “It’s been solo and duo sets in the past, mostly down the roots vein and the pop vein, so you have to build from there. You can’t just go 18 steps ahead, because you can lose everybody in the process and I’d hate to lose the credibility that John’s built up in the last 12 years.”
Still, Symons is convinced she’s done the best she can with the space she has, and it’d be difficult to disagree. Each night of the series has some surefire highlights — see the sidebar for our most promising picks — with enough variety to please even the most discerning music fan.
All that remains is for the audience to show up — not always an easy task in Alberta. Despite all the fierce dedication of the musicians in Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and beyond, it’s often a challenge to translate the talent onstage into ticket sales. The press and the public at large are more than happy to acknowledge the artists who’ve moved beyond Alberta’s borders, but ask them to rally around the talent that’s stuck around and the result is often indifference.
“I hear it a lot that a lot of local bands feel there’s a lack of recognition,” Symons says. “It’s more daunting for them to play a show to a hometown crowd than to play a show in London, England, or to play a show in the Netherlands where they’re doing really well and they’ve got press coverage, and they’ve got people coming up to them on busses and saying ‘I saw you in the newspaper’ like they’re famous. Whereas here, they have a hard time getting gigs. I don’t know what the disparity is, because I’m not the one booking the clubs. I don’t know that side of the world.”
The situation is improving, though. Since Symon’s been in Calgary, she’s noticed the rest of the country giving at least the occasional sideways glance towards Alberta, and she’s confident that Albertans are bound to notice the sounds coming from their own backyards. But the simple fact that things are getting better isn’t going to stop Symons from shouting from the rooftops.
“I’m blue in the face — not frustrated, but I just think, it’ll come,” she says. “People are already turning to Alberta to see what’s happening, and I think a lot of it has been because of the success of some of the artists who are able to live in Calgary.”
“There was a big exodus of Calgary musicians who went to Montreal about two years ago, but there’s always something about the geography that ties them back, or there’s mentions of Calgary that leads the super-hardcore people who want to know about the music, who just dig and dig and dig, like there’s this competition to find the most interesting information. That has drawn some attention to Calgary, I think. If musicians at this point, like Chad VanGaalen, like Woodpigeon, are able to make a home in Calgary and can book some serious tours across Canada, then I’d say we’re making it. And I want that for everybody. I want to buy a house for everybody.”
Wednesday, March 17: Mixtape Sessions
While Edmonton’s Colleen Brown has become almost frighteningly assured in her songwriting, and Eamon McGrath has whisky-soaked balladry down to an art, the highlight tonight should be singer-songwriter Clinton St. John. His raspy melodies, abstract lyrics and knife-sharp arrangements are what’s made The Cape May and Pale Air Singers two of Alberta’s most underappreciated acts.
Thursday, March 18: Poprock Sessions
Cadence Weapon is Edmonton’s poet laureate, but Joe “The Joe” Gurba could give him a run for his money. The rapper and founder of Old Ugly Recording Company spins richly detailed and deeply funny stories about the province’s capitol, and makes it look effortless. He’ll have good company in Calgary mainstays Woodpigeon, whose Mark Hamilton always makes the most of any opportunity for collaboration, as well as Savk, the intricate new folk project from Beija Flor’s Stephen Van Kampen.
Saturday, March 19: Soul Sessions
If you’re after hidden gems, well, Alberta’s always done a good job of hiding its soulful side. Fast Forward Weekly readers are likely familiar with lead Dude Dan Vacon’s other project, Dojo Workhorse, but from Lucas Chaisson, a remarkably talented singer who isn’t even old enough to drive, to the silky smooth Scotty Hills and the effervescent pop of Sonal, there isn’t an act tonight that doesn’t deserve wider recognition.
Sunday, March 20: Roots Sessions
It may be the series’ bread and butter, but that doesn’t mean the Roots Sessions can’t have some surprises in store. The one that seems most worth salivating over, though, is the inspired pairing of fearsome folkies The Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir with Jackson Phibes, the ghoulish frontman of Calgary horror-punk institution Forbidden Dimension. That mash-up should put a whole new spin on the concept of murder ballads.