Ken Har­ri­son and Roberta Carter Har­ri­son get back to mu­sic.

Grand Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Bar­bara Ag­ger­holm

IT’S NOT UN­USUAL for Dr. Ken Har­ri­son to leave the homes of psy­chi­atric clients with a list of tunes they’d like to lis­ten to on their iPods.

“People find it re­fresh­ing not to talk about their symp­toms,” he says. “Some­times they pre­fer to talk about nor­mal things, about the mu­sic they like.

“It’s nice to be able to give help that isn’t med­i­ca­tion.”

The songs on their re­quest lists aren’t usu­ally his, but they could be. Be­sides be­ing a mem­ber of a Toronto psy­chi­atric health team, Har­ri­son, 49, is a gifted song­writer and mu­si­cian.

Roberta Carter Har­ri­son, 47, a trained phys­io­ther­a­pist, has a voice that melts hearts. To­gether, they’re the Wild Straw­ber­ries. You may know the Wild Straw­ber­ries from their third re­lease, Bet You Think I’m Lonely, from the early 1990s. That CD won them a Juno nom­i­na­tion, a cross-coun­try tour and a con­tract with an in­de­pen­dent record­ing la­bel. Their next al­bum went gold.

Take a look at Bet You Think I’m Lonely on YouTube and you’ll be blown away. Lis­ten to their 2005 al­bum, De­for­ma­tive Years, cre­ated in a stu­dio in their home, a con­verted church, and Ken’s smart, po­etic lyrics and Roberta’s haunt­ingly beau­ti­ful voice will im­press you all over again.

To­day, mu­sic is just as im­por­tant to the cou­ple as it was when they were per­form­ing in clubs in front of cheer­ing fans.

But it’s dif­fer­ent, be­cause their lives are dif­fer­ent.

They’re par­ents of four chil­dren, Ge­or­gia, 16; Ruby, 13; and eight-year-old twins, Oliver and Fin­ley. Ken loves his psy­chi­atric work at the Cen­tre for Ad­dic­tion and Men­tal Health where, for the last 16 years of his 22-year ca­reer there, he has been the doc­tor on a treat­ment team that vis­its people in the com­mu­nity.

Twice a week, he com­mutes to Toronto from Haysville, west of Kitch­ener, and meets with clients, many of whom have schizophre­nia.

Roberta worked as a phys­io­ther­a­pist un­til Ge­or­gia was born and the grow­ing fam­ily got busy with school, swim team prac­tices, piano lessons.

The fam­ily is carv­ing out a life in the coun­try, liv­ing in a 160-year-old church on which they’re build­ing a three-storey ad­di­tion. The Nith River flows un­der a

bridge just down the street from their side door where the fam­ily’s bi­cy­cles are propped against a wall. They de­scribe their neigh­bours as “wel­com­ing, salt-of-the-earth” people and the fam­ily at­tends Hill­crest Men­non­ite Church in New Ham­burg.

Their Toronto friends didn’t think the Har­risons, whom they con­sider “city people,” would last long in the vil­lage. Ken’s com­mute to Toronto is a 1½ hours long.

But he trav­els late at night when the traf­fic is lighter and if it’s a long day, he stays overnight in a small loft they own in Toronto. Some of their Haysville neigh­bours know the cou­ple for their Wild Straw­ber­ries fame; oth­ers don’t. “If you men­tion a song, they might rec­og­nize it and not know us,” Roberta says.

It’s not sur­pris­ing be­cause they’re not showy about their mu­si­cal tal­ents in this small com­mu­nity, though they lend them when­ever they’re needed. Ken leads and ar­ranges the mu­sic for a small orches­tra at church made up mostly of young people play­ing vi­o­lin, cello and tuba.

“His fo­cus is it’s a place where kids can learn and ex­press their mu­si­cal talent,” says friend Sh­eryl Kinch, who plays piano in the orches­tra with her two violinist daugh­ters.

“He plays piano, vi­o­lin and ac­cor­dion and banjo, ukulele — he plays it all so beau­ti­fully,” she says. But “he stands back and lets ev­ery­one shine.”

Friend Kathy Ben­der re­mem­bers the first time Roberta sang at church. It was Ben­der’s favourite hymn, Lo, How a Rose E’er Bloom­ing.

“I re­mem­ber al­most weep­ing be­cause she sings with her heart,” she says.

Friends, many of whom at­tend the same church, re­spect Ken and Roberta for mak­ing the choice to leave Toronto and its vi­brant mu­sic scene to raise their chil­dren in a small com­mu­nity. They praise them for be­ing down-to-earth, gen­er­ous, cre­ative people.

“I see them as city people, lov­ing the mul­ti­cul­tural part of life and lov­ing all that the city of­fers,” says Ben­der, who lives on a dairy farm in Punkey­doo­dles Cor­ners with her hus­band and four chil­dren.

“But I ad­mire the fact they want to raise their chil­dren in a com­mu­nity that’s safe and closer-knit and also a bit qui­eter than the city had to of­fer,” she says.

“I tease Roberta for be­ing a rock star,” Ben­der says. “Her life is so dif­fer­ent from mine. I wear rub­ber boots and over­alls most of the time. She can look so glam­orous,” par­tic­u­larly in the mu­sic videos, she says.

Ken “is like a deep run­ning stream. There’s a lot there,” Ben­der says.

“I would de­scribe them as be­ing very down-to-earth, fam­ily-fo­cused people, but the other side of them is re­ally funky >>

>> and ur­ban,” says Kinch, a lend­ing ser­vice rep­re­sen­ta­tive at Men­non­ite Sav­ings and Credit Union in New Ham­burg.

“Roberta showed me the CDs and it was so neat to see that side of her on the videos. It is so dif­fer­ent from the side we get to know.”

These days, the Har­ri­son chil­dren are vy­ing for their pre­ferred new bed­room in the church ad­di­tion while the mu­sic com­ing from the sec­ond-floor record­ing stu­dio, with its vin­tage VCS3 made-in­Eng­land syn­the­sizer – Pink Floyd’s kind of syn­the­sizer – ex­pands to fill the space. And be­lieve it, the mu­sic is ex­pand­ing. Long known for their ver­sa­til­ity, the Har­risons are now fo­cus­ing on elec­tronic dance mu­sic or EDM where they’ve been hav­ing great suc­cess. Also, they’re writ­ing songs for Gel, a name given to the com­bined tal­ents of Ken and Roberta and their friend, mu­si­cian Ash­win Sood, who has toured with the Wild Straw­ber­ries, Delerium, Ja­son Mraz, and for­mer wife, Sarah McLach­lan.

Gel al­lows them to fea­ture “more freaked­out sounds than the EDM world,” Roberta says. “It’s fun,” she says. “I can see the three of us on stage. . . . We could be a tour­ing en­tity.”

For Roberta, a re­turn to some per­form­ing would be wel­come.

She was re­minded how much she loves to sing for an au­di­ence when she per­formed a cou­ple of old hymns, ac­com­pa­nied by Ruby on the cello, at the church’s ladies’ salad sup­per.

“It hit me. I miss be­ing on stage,” she says. “I was slow to de­velop a stage pres­ence, but I love it. “I just love to sing and Ken loves to write.” But per­form­ing has played sec­ond fid­dle to rais­ing four chil­dren. Not to men­tion the fact that the boy ba­bies es­pe­cially weren’t the sleep­ing sort.

“We had some tough years when the boys were lit­tle,” Roberta says. “There was not enough sleep and there was no time.”

Now that their chil­dren are older, they’re not think­ing of jump­ing in a van to tour any time soon, but “if Gel could get us some live gigs, it would be a blast,” Roberta says.

They’re wiser, less tired, more ex­pe­ri­enced as par­ents and mu­si­cians. They have per­spec­tive that comes with years of chil­drea­r­ing. “There isn’t the same ten­sion,” Roberta says.

“I think we’re in a re­ally good place now.”

Ken and Roberta will have been mar­ried 26 years this sum­mer. They dated six years be­fore that.

As teens at their Cam­bridge church’s youth group meet­ings, Roberta and Ken would pass se­cret notes to each other in their Bibles.

“It was like sub­terfuge,” Roberta says,

laugh­ing. “He also wanted me to learn Morse code.” Roberta was 14; Ken was 16. Dat­ing was limited to writ­ing letters to each other and hold­ing hands at the skat­ing rink. They had an ar­range­ment when Ken worked at his fa­ther’s of­fice af­ter school.

“If I called, I was to ask, ‘Is this Pepi’s Pizza?’ If he said ‘yes,’ I could talk,” Roberta says. If no, it was “wrong num­ber” and she hung up. From the be­gin­ning, Roberta, born in Cam­bridge, set her sights on Ken, who was born in Thai­land where his par­ents worked at a lep­rosy hospi­tal. Ken moved from Toronto to Cam­bridge when he was in Grade 3.

Later, “I was friends with his sis­ter,” Roberta says. “I was around the house when I was younger. I had a crush on him so I went af­ter him.” Ken started writ­ing mu­sic, mostly church praise songs, when he was 16. The youth group per­formed at church. Roberta con­vinced the choir di­rec­tor to let her sing tenor so she could sit with Ken. “We needed tenors,” she says. By his late teens, Ken was rent­ing syn­the­siz­ers. He used his $1,500 schol­ar­ship money to buy a four-track recorder.

They both went to the Univer­sity of Toronto; Ken for medicine; Roberta for phys­io­ther­apy. They con­sid­ered med­i­cal mis­sion­ary work un­til Ken dis­cov­ered his love of psy­chi­a­try. “Then mu­sic hap­pened,” Roberta says. Ken was en­ter­ing his songs in con­tests. In 1987, one of them, May I Call You Beatrice was in the fi­nals for a pop­u­lar con­test of Toronto rock ra­dio sta­tion CFNY. The band was called Myrrh Sweet Bleed­ing, a name de­rived from Ed­mund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene. Ken’s pre-med elec­tive, by the way, was English.

“English was his big love and that came out in his lyrics and song ti­tles,” Roberta says.

They mar­ried Aug. 20, 1988, at their Bap­tist church in Cam­bridge. Ken con­tin­ued writ­ing songs, some­times as a re­lease from the stress of study­ing for med­i­cal school ex­ams.

A friend and gui­tar player from their Cam­bridge church, Rob (Braz) King, joined them in Toronto and they be­came the Wild Straw­ber­ries in 1989. They made the trek to Eto­bi­coke in the mid­dle of the night in or­der to af­ford stu­dio record­ing time. They re­leased their first record­ing, the cas­sette Carv­ing Wooden Spec­ta­cles, in 1989.

“It gave us con­fi­dence,” Roberta says. “And Ken’s mom would sell it to any­body who came by. She was our big­gest fan.”

About the same time, they won the CFNY con­test with the song, Cry­ing Shame.

Ken was do­ing a psy­chi­atric res­i­dency through McGill Univer­sity at Mon­treal’s Jewish Gen­eral Hospi­tal. Roberta was a >>

>> phys­io­ther­a­pist at a con­va­les­cent hospi­tal. “We drove back to per­form at the Phoenix” (con­cert theatre) in Toronto.

Af­ter they moved back to Toronto to prac­tise medicine and per­form gigs, record la­bel A&M signed the Wild Straw­ber­ries to dis­trib­ute their third re­lease, Bet You Think I’m Lonely. They trav­elled across the coun­try, won a Juno nom­i­na­tion and got a con­tract with Net­twerk, an in­de­pen­dent Van­cou­ver com­pany.

Fast for­ward to a gold al­bum, gigs with Lilith Fair, a con­cert tour co-founded by Sarah McLach­lan. When their first child was born, Roberta’s sis­ter, her mother or a nanny helped on the tour bus.

Ken stayed home with the girls for awhile when Ruby was born 3½ years later. Roberta toured with the band to On­tario gigs. Two more al­bums and a split with Net­twerk came, and they re­leased al­bums in­de­pen­dently, in­clud­ing De­for­ma­tive Years of 2005.

The name al­ludes to the “hugely overwhelming, daunt­ing task of rais­ing the lit­tle people and try­ing to do a good job,” Roberta says.

The cou­ple’s lat­est Wild Straw­ber­ries al­bum, Go Project, a name that al­ludes to their twin sons’ love of rid­ing the Go train, was re­leased last year. The tracks have ti­tles of Go Tran­sit sta­tion names from Hamil­ton to Union Sta­tion in Toronto.

It has been awhile since they’ve done a Wild Straw­ber­ries show. “There are fans, but I don’t know if there’s enough de­mand,” Roberta says. “We let it go for the kids.”

But their mu­sic is very much alive, es­pe­cially in Europe.

They have a hugely suc­cess­ful col­lab­o­ra­tion with pop­u­lar Ger­man dance pro­ducer and DJ, ATB (An­dré Tan­neberger). One of their dance sin­gles, an ATB remix writ­ten by Ken and sung by Roberta, rose to No. 7 in Ger­many. “It was a huge hit,” Roberta says. The song was also nom­i­nated for an Echo award, Ger­many’s ver­sion of the Grammy awards.

More hits fol­lowed in Europe.

“We re­al­ize that Canada by com­par­i­son is a small mar­ket and if you get a hit in a Euro­pean coun­try, it’s so dif­fer­ent,” she says. The cou­ple record their mu­si­cal con­tri­bu­tion at home and email it to ATB. They’ve been to Ger­many sev­eral times to per­form. Last year, Roberta toured with ATB in the United States.

Since their in­tro­duc­tion to ATB, they’ve worked with about 15 DJs, in­clud­ing Richard Durand, Alex M.O.R.P.H. and Kenneth Thomas. “The DJs send a track with beats . . . and we write melodies and lyrics and I sing, and then they do their thing,” Roberta says. “In the past 13 years, we’ve strongly dab­bled in this.” “Now, we are try­ing to do a solo record of dance mu­sic,” Roberta says. “We have four or five songs fin­ished and nine or 10 ready.” They’re work­ing with English trance mu­sic pro­ducer Matt Darey who is “writ­ing amaz­ing tracks for us. We have a lot of hope.” The fam­ily left Toronto in 2003 to move to Haysville. They bought the con­verted church in 1997 and used it as a weekend place and record­ing stu­dio be­fore mov­ing there. Squeezed for space, they bought a home in Kitch­ener, where their chil­dren go to school, and lived there be­fore re­turn­ing late last year to the church in Haysville where the needed ex­pan­sion was un­der­way. “You have to be will­ing to get in a car to drive,” Roberta says. Ev­ery morn­ing, she drives the teens and twins to Rock­way Men­non­ite Col­le­giate and Lau­ren­tian Hills Chris­tian School. While she’s in Kitch­ener, she goes to a hot yoga stu­dio. At home, she goes run­ning. They like to cy­cle as a fam­ily, though they’re dis­cov­er­ing that driv­ers on coun­try roads aren’t ac­cus­tomed to chil­dren on bikes. In their home record­ing stu­dio, Ken is in­spired by new sounds, much like Roberta is in­spired by new cook­books and cool kitchen gad­gets. With the chil­dren play­ing vi­o­lin, piano and cello, “there’s mu­sic all >>

(Right now) we’re not tour­ing, we’re rais­ing kids and I don’t want to tweet about that. I’ve said lately, I’m too busy liv­ing my life to tell people about it. Roberta Carter Har­ri­son

>> the time here,” Roberta says.

“Ken will blast a track and I’ll be do­ing dishes and I’ll run up and sing a cou­ple of times.”

They’re won­der­ing how they would han­dle so­cial me­dia when they tour again. They’re leery of the self-pro­mo­tional qual­i­ties of Twit­ter and the time that tweet­ing de­vours. “I won­der if we make kids into nar­cis­sists” when they use Twit­ter, Roberta won­ders.

Right now, “we’re not tour­ing, we’re rais­ing kids and I don’t want to tweet about that,” she says. “I’ve said lately, I’m too busy liv­ing my life to tell people about it.”

While the mu­sic is per­co­lat­ing, there are still the de­mands of home own­er­ship – a new sep­tic sys­tem, paint for the ad­di­tion.

But no mat­ter what is hap­pen­ing around the house, there will al­ways be mu­sic.

They’d like to be known “not about suc­cesses in terms of the num­ber of records sold,” but about feel­ing com­pelled to make mu­sic, Ken says.

And now, “dance mu­sic has struck a chord,” Roberta says. “It’s given us a venue to do what we love to do” for as long as pos­si­ble – maybe like the Rolling Stones, she says, smil­ing. “Who knows?”

Eight-year-old Fin­ley, for one, as­sumes mu­sic will be in his life for a good long time. At school, Roberta learned that Fin­ley and his class­mates were asked what they wanted to do when they were grand­par­ents.

“He said, ‘I want to have a band and I hope my grand­kids will see me on stage,’” Roberta says.

Pho­tog­ra­phy Mathew McCarthy

Ken Har­ri­son and Roberta Carter Har­ri­son en­joy the quiet life they have forged in Haysville. Their home is a con­verted church, com­plete with a record­ing stu­dio. A re­cent ad­di­tion added ex­tra bed­rooms and bath­rooms.

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