Mu­si­cian Dunn re­flects on her 20-year ca­reer

Singer-song­writer loves to tell sto­ries through the lives of char­ac­ters

Edmonton Journal - - FRONT PAGE - ROGER LEVESQUE

Maria Dunn has good rea­son to re­flect on the life of a singer­song­writer. It has been 20 years now since this mu­si­cal trea­sure re­leased her first of six in­de­pen­dent record­ings, From Where I Stand, a fact that she cel­e­brates in con­cert Thurs­day at Fes­ti­val Place.

Dunn was just back home in Ed­mon­ton af­ter a 12-day tour of On­tario (shared in part with Chicago’s Joe Jencks) when I tracked her down for some in­sights on cre­ative pur­suits, univer­sal themes, and the joy of folk.

She left her last non-mu­sic day job in 1999. It’s no small thing to make a liv­ing in folk mu­sic for nearly 20 years and it’s no stretch to say that Dunn’s mu­si­cal ac­com­plish­ments have left us with a richer ap­pre­ci­a­tion of our cul­ture. I can think of few other song­writ­ers who em­brace the work of search­ing out and re­search­ing real-life sto­ries from of­ten over­looked cor­ners of the world, only to turn them into mem­o­rable songs.

Born in a town near Glas­gow, Scot­land, Dunn’s fam­ily em­i­grated to Canada when she was a baby. Raised with her par­ent’s love of tra­di­tional Scot and Ir­ish sounds, she had no spe­cial wish to make mu­sic be­yond camp­fire sin­ga­longs, pi­ano lessons, choir prac­tice and the gui­tar they gave her in 1988 (later she learned to play a small ac­cor­dion too). She got a Bach­e­lor of Sci­ence in psy­chol­ogy in­stead, and worked in hos­pi­tals for a while un­til mu­sic grad­u­ally took over.

Some­where along the way the story part of his­tory scratched an itch. While her al­bum de­but took place 20 years ago, Dunn dates the seed­ing of her sounds to a decade ear­lier when she was in Scot­land and Ire­land search­ing out her roots. In Dublin, an un­cle showed her copies of let­ters that fam­ily mem­bers had writ­ten, some dat­ing back to the mid-19th cen­tury.

“That was a real awak­en­ing to me. I had never re­ally stud­ied his­tory in school and stopped tak­ing so­cial stud­ies as soon as it was pos­si­ble be­cause I found it dull. But when he showed me those let­ters writ­ten by my an­ces­tors it was a phe­nom­e­nal epiphany. Given their times I ex­pected to read very im­por­tant po­lit­i­cal state­ments but they were very per­sonal let­ters, about their job, what they did on days off, what fam­ily ar­gu­ments were go­ing on, all these ba­sic per­sonal things that did oc­ca­sion­ally ref­er­ence big events like the Ir­ish po­tato famine. It brought his­tory alive for me.”

Through those copied let­ters she imag­ined her­self in the shoes of a young woman an­ces­tor gen­er­a­tions re­moved who em­i­grated to New York look­ing for a bet­ter life, and in the shoes of her First World War vet­eran grand­fa­ther who fought for so­cial jus­tice. Moved to make some­thing more of it all, Dunn was spurred on to write the songs New York 1849 and Shoes Of A Man, re­spec­tively.

“I came to re­al­ize that this was a pow­er­ful way of sto­ry­telling, of shar­ing other peo­ple’s sto­ries.”

Then she vol­un­teered for CJSR Ra­dio at the Univer­sity of Al­berta and wound up host­ing a morn­ing folk pro­gram for 13 years on the sta­tion from 1987 to 2000, ex­pand­ing her knowl­edge of folk mu­sic streams ex­po­nen­tially.

Over two decades the process be­hind Dunn’s song­writ­ing has evolved con­sid­er­ably.

“For me, it still tends to be a turn of phrase, some­thing some­body says that sparks my imag­i­na­tion, and helps me see what the core emo­tion is that I’m try­ing to get at. That can of­ten help me with the tempo, or time sig­na­ture for a song or whether it will be ma­jor or mi­nor. Some­times I’ll im­pro­vise a vo­cal melody com­pletely, but more of­ten I play around with a bunch of pos­si­bil­i­ties.”

She tends to write at the pi­ano, and like many of the older songs she grew up with, Dunn has a pen­chant for choos­ing to in­habit her char­ac­ters in the first per­son. That’s not unique but it does come off in a more ma­ture fash­ion than many con­tem­po­rary song­writ­ers.

“Some­thing can be more emo­tion­ally po­tent if it’s sung from the first per­son, and learn­ing so many tra­di­tional songs I saw no bar­rier in writ­ing in first per­son even if it’s not me. But you have to con­nect to the feel­ings that the peo­ple in those songs have felt in some way. It’s imag­i­na­tion. An­other af­fir­ma­tion that I could do that came with be­ing asked to do the Christ­mas Carol Project. I love be­ing told, ‘You’re this char­ac­ter’ and then writ­ing a song as that char­ac­ter.”

A part in the mu­si­cal adap­ta­tion of Dick­ens’ tale in 1996 cast Dunn’s pe­tite form play­ing Tiny Tim and a cou­ple of other char­ac­ters for 20 years, us­ing her tune God Bless Us Ev­ery­one.

Dunn had been per­form­ing at the City Me­dia Club open stages since 1990 and got roped into sev­eral col­lec­tives like the In­vis­i­ble Jug Band or other duos and trios. When Terry Wick­ham saw one of these and gave her a half-hour set at the 1997 Ed­mon­ton Folk Mu­sic Fes­ti­val it gave her a huge boost of con­fi­dence. That’s when she de­cided to make her first record.

While Dunn en­joys writ­ing a lone song as much as any artist, some of her strong­est work has come in mul­ti­me­dia con­cept projects that later came out as al­bums. Con­sider Piece By Piece, the col­lected sto­ries of gar­ment work­ers at Ed­mon­ton’s long gone GWG fac­tory.

It started out as one of sev­eral mul­ti­me­dia projects she put to­gether with friend and videog­ra­pher Don Bouzek be­fore Dunn col­lected the tunes for al­bum re­lease in 2012 (gar­ner­ing sev­eral award nom­i­na­tions).

Telling for­got­ten tales of the work­ing class has made for some of her proud­est mo­ments. Tak­ing those tunes on the road has brought her fur­ther suc­cess, across Canada, into the eastern U.S. and over to the Bri­tish Isles ev­ery cou­ple of years or so.

Be­tween her roots in Scot­land and Ire­land, her brief child­hood in Sar­nia, Ont., and her home here, Dunn is a cit­i­zen of the world but Ed­mon­ton has a spe­cial place in her heart.

“It’s the place where I started my cre­ative life, where I found so many peo­ple do­ing in­ter­est­ing things, and a won­der­ful com­mu­nity in­spired by mu­sic through things like CJSR, the Folk Fes­ti­val, and the arts in gen­eral. It’s very rich for the size we are, and I also sim­ply love the river val­ley. I’ve travelled to a lot of other, even more spec­tac­u­lar places but they don’t seem as liv­able.”

Ed­mon­ton seems to like Dunn. She won the Ed­mon­ton Mu­sic Prize for her last al­bum Gather­ing (2016), and the singer is also a two-time Juno nom­i­nee along with nods from the Western Cana­dian Mu­sic Awards and Cana­dian Folk Mu­sic Awards, among other hon­ours. For de­tails on all of her record­ings see

She’s thank­ful for a long list of great col­lab­o­ra­tors here, start­ing with Shan­non John­son, who has pro­duced all six of her al­bums — a mu­si­cian “who knows how to be a great sup­port player.” But the singer en­joys multi-faceted mu­si­cal friend­ships with sev­eral mem­bers of the McDade fam­ily and with vo­cal­ist Dawn Cross, among oth­ers. She’s mak­ing new friend­ships too, ex­plor­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties of work­ing with the na­tive vo­cal group Asani.

Dunn’s 20th An­niver­sary Show will in­clude John­son on vi­o­lin, Jeremiah McDade’s winds, and Cross on vo­cals, along­side bassist Keith Rem­pel, fid­dler By­ron Myhre, and per­cus­sion­ist Ojas Joshi.

Maria Dunn, who marks her 20th an­niver­sary in mu­sic with a per­for­mance at Fes­ti­val Place Nov. 15., says Ed­mon­ton has a spe­cial place in her heart.

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