IN PERFECT HARMONY I COUPLES
Ken Harrison and Roberta Carter Harrison get back to music.
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.
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.