For a band that had no designs on being one, Newfoundland’s The Once have accidentally stumbled upon some impressive acclaim.
The trio – comprised of lead singer Geraldine Hollett and multi-instrumentalists Phil Churchill and Andrew Dale, who also contribute vocally to the band’s much-lauded three-part harmonies – formed after working at a theatre festival in St. John’s as hired entertainment for tourists about nine years ago. They played traditional maritime folk tunes, and eventually began incorporating those sounds into original music.
They built a small following close to home, but in 2010 signed to Borealis Records and won the Canadian Folk Music Awards’ Emerging Artist of the Year title. In 2012 the band was nominated for a Juno.
The Once are currently touring Western Canada to promote their new album Row Upon Row of the People They Know. They will perform at the North Peace Cultural Centre this Thursday, Feb. 28th. Phil Churchill spoke with Alaska Highway News before the concert.
Alaska Highway News: You are travelling to big cities like Vancouver and Calgary, as well as small towns like Fort St. John and Fort Nelson. What are some differences between the audiences in smaller places versus larger ones?
Phil Churchill: It’s not as different as I would have thought it would be. Sometimes the towns we go to have like 30 people living in them and everyone comes from the surrounding areas. We find people in the smaller areas will usually travel longer distances for the most part. But the people are basically the same.
The division I would make is that people in the North isn’t whether they’re from small towns or slightly larger centres, it seems to be more of a divide between the North and the South.
I don’t know really what that is, but I can tell. If I had a blindfold on and was just dumped into a town I’d be able to tell. Even if the weather was nice there’s a difference in the folks. There’s an attitude and a comfort with discomfort, I guess, that you end up finding.
The idea that to travel a long distance on a snowy road to sit in a stranger’s living room and just kind of walk through the door and go, “hi, I don’t know you, I’ve never been here before but I’m going to share your personal space and enjoy this band,” seems like something that city folk are a little less inclined to do.
And because of that, the response you end up getting from the crowd is you don’t have to coax them very much to just close their eyes and sing along with you. They’re a little more ok with being kind of ready to let go sometimes. Which is nice for us.
AHN: Are there any characteristics that unify the people who come to your shows, regardless of where you are?
PC: No. We’re almost always pleasantly surprised.
I had one gentleman come up to me at a festival last summer and say he hadn’t heard our music before but had bought our album for his eight year old daughter and his 80 year old mom and they had both told him about this band. And he was just going, I had no idea who the hell these people are but my daughter and my mom both do. So that was kind of neat in terms of being able to unify anything, when you’re looking at a difference of 72 years it’s difficult to figure out what that thing is.
But ultimately I think it comes down to, and even we’re noticing it’s starting to catch on in the UK a little bit, is even though we’re a band from Newfoundland, ultimately I think people see us as Canadian.
And I think because the Canadian music scene has gotten so good in the last little while. There was that whole CanCon thing where people were forced to play Canadian music, and now people choose to hear Canadian music.
I think Canada’s feeling a bit smaller, in a good way, musically. There are now names you can say across the country, and even small level bands like us and people are starting to hear it.
AHN: What new things might you want to try musically in future?
PC: It’s a real delicate balance what we do, because we’ve managed to get our fans with this traditional old Newfoundland, English, Irish kind of stuff, but we never really saw this band coming for us with this career. Having that opportunity now, making a lot more of our own music, we’re writing a lot more voraciously now.
I’d like to make that old school kind of all our own stuff, just standing around a microphone in the middle of a church, you know? I’d like to make that and sometimes when you’re touring and on the road a lot it’s difficult to do that, you sort of record bits and pieces where you can.
I’d like to make that classic record that just goes down in the annals of Canadian music history, not to put too fine a point on it.
We get lots of letters from people about our music affecting their lives in a really positive way or getting them through something and I don’t know, I guess sometimes we feel a little unworthy of that.
We just want to make that record that makes us feel we deserved all the good fortune that’s coming to us. And I think that record is still in us. Getting a Juno nomination for the last one at least let us know we’re moving in the right direction.
AHN: What is the most exciting thing your level of attention so far has brought you?
PC: Our ex-premier Danny Williams back home was a super hero. He did everything he possibly could for Newfoundland, made it a “have” province, kind of put it in the future and really let us be something we haven’t been able to be in Canada before which is a true contributing member to the country.
In his retirement speech he gave us a shout out. He singled us out and said people like this who are carrying the torch for Newfoundland and getting us to go forward. Then he signed one of our own albums for us and signed his retirement speech, and gave it to us. That was pretty awesome because he’s a pretty big hero.
He took his most special and memorable point of his career and chose to share it with us for some reason so that was a pretty big honour.
AHN: Does The Once have a strategy for the zombie apocalypse?
PC: Yeah. We’re an incredibly well-oiled and self-contained machine and being zombie-obsessed like I am, I would just like to say, when the zombie apocalypse comes just stay as close to me as you can.
PC: I am not going to go for any weapons that cause any jam-ups or any reloading of any kind. They’re all going to be blunt force trauma weapons that are easy to find, easy to carry and won’t slow me down.
AHN: Aren’t you afraid you’ll have to get close to them to use those?
PC: Oh, I want to get close to them, man. As soon as they start taking over and eating my people, I want to get close.
AHN: Anything else you want to say ahead of your show in Fort St. John?
PC: I would like to say thank you so much for whoever want to talk to us and anybody who takes enough time to listen to what we’re doing and give us an invite to your town. We don’t take that stuff for granted, we don’t take it lightly and we don’t expect it so whenever it happens we are incredibly thrilled and we will work our asses off for you, I promise.
The Once perform at the North Peace Cultural Centre in Fort St. John on Thursday, Feb. 28.