JUNO week’s most intimate event (by far) was this morning’s 2015 JUNO Songwriters’ Circle. The goal was to bring nominees from every genre together to explore the stories behind some of their most beloved songs. The event’s first circle (more of a line, but we’ll let that slide) included Big Wreck’s Ian Thornley, Jenn Grant, Lights and Mother Mother’s Ryan Guldemond. Circle two included Emmanuel Jal, Jess Moskaluke, Matt Andersen and the walking musical embodiment of every Canadian’s childhood, Fred Penner.
Not every singer has a soul-defining story behind their songs, but as country star Jess Moskaluke put it “sometimes the most well-written songs are just there to make you feel good.” There would be plenty of stories, from personal tragedy to first-hand accounts of genocide. There would also be songs that simply came from the artists’ relationship with the notes they were strumming, or made-up nonsense engineered to entertain.
In fact, Ian Thronley, the day’s first performer, didn’t have much in the way of a story for his performance of “Albatross”, one of Big Wreck’s more celebrated singles. “I was just working within the riff and the lyrics just sort of appeared” he chuckled. Meanwhile, the stories behind Jenn Grant’s “Bombshell” and Lights’ “Up We Go” came from both artists’ need to get back to music following (in Grant’s case) the death of her mother and (in Lights’ case) the birth of her daughter. And while Thornley, Grant and Lights’ earnestness came to the surface for their songs, Mother Mother’s Ryan Guldemond told a breakup story behind their song “Ghosting” that, apparently, was completely fabricated. Nobody can accuse the guy of not coming prepared at least.
All due respect to circle one’s performers, but it was by far circle two’s group that stole the show. Emmanuel Jal, former South Sudanese child soldier drew actual gasps from the crowd from his story about contemplating eating his dying friend before delivering the unbelievably powerful spoken word piece “Forced to Sin”. Next to him sat Fred Penner. Yes, “The Cat Came Back” Fred Penner. Of all the people to add perspective to Jal’s tale of the Darfur Genocide, Penner pointed out that “We’re all very privileged in Canada. It’s impossible to understand what’s happening on that side of the world from here, and we should all be very thankful for that. But we should also be thankful for stories like Emmanuel’s.”
Penner’s first song, a delightful tune about making snow angels would NOT be his most memorable. His second song of the day, entitled “Crying” was a pastiche he wrote in response to a music magazine article that challenged songwriters to do their best to emulate country legend Hank Williams. “Crying” was a song you could genuinely imagine Williams himself crooning in the 50s. Penner invited everyone on stage and in the audience to sing along to – a hallmark of any Fred Penner song. To round off that circle was New Brunswick’s Matt Andersen, who told of the sacrifice coal miners in the Maritimes make for their families in his song “Coal Miner’s Blues”. Andersen’s haunting, grizzled haunted vocals echoed from every corner of the Great Hall, receiving a standing ovation from the stunned crowd.
Songwriters’ Circle may not grab headlines the way the JUNOs themselves do, but that’s kind of the point. Within a couple short hours, the struggle and journey of artists from every corner of this country was given its own show. A chance to strip down the stage personas, the pyrotechnics and leave only the vulnerable parts. And when only the craft is left, we see this industry’s lifeblood – the raw passion that is the common thread between every artist in Canada.