In two weeks, I fly to what in a weird way feels like my ancestral home – St. John’s, Newfoundland. Any Newfoundlander reading that (a Mainlander referring to St. John’s as ‘home’) will probably immediately resent it – but, I hope, immediately get it as well.
When I joined Great Big Sea in 2002, I was a pure Torontonian. I spent my time cracking witty jokes (nothing wrong with that) and going to parties where I would try to figure out who I should be to impress everyone there (something a bit messed up about that). Newfoundland changed that for me. It’s not that Newfoundlanders aren’t witty – they’re very funny people – but their humour and their way of being is based on being exactly who they are. For a Torontonian, that was a revelation – I was suddenly surrounded by people who weren’t trying to figure out who to be, they were trying to project who they were as loudly as possible, usually for comedic effect.
For several years, I struggled to navigate these two cultures. I’d jump on the GBS tour bus and feel like I was surrounded by people who talked too much, drank too often and laughed too loudly, then go home and have conversations with smart, well-dressed alien robots. But eventually I figured it out, like a kid who speaks English at school and Urdu at home. I also figured out the advantages of being a Torontonian in Newfoundland and a Newfoundlander in Toronto – I’ll let you in on some of those tricks over a beer sometime.
So in two weeks I go back to St. John’s for the first time in four years. It’s a city that married its fortunes to the price of oil, and has discovered itself to have a rather moody wife. But I’m sure the spirit lives on – it always does.
I’ll be there for a five-day songwriters retreat, and we have the tremendous honour of hosting both Alan Doyle and Bob Hallett of Great Big Sea for songwriting seminars. Having been in a band with these fine chaps for fifteen years, I’ll be as eager as everyone else in the room to hear what they have to say about songwriting – with Sean McCann they were an amazing three-headed songwriting team for twenty years. Alan and Bob have promised a mix of playing and discussing their own songs, talking about their songwriting techniques, answering questions, and giving feedback on peoples’ songs. You’re welcome to join us if you just so happen to be in St. John’s in mid-June, especially if you’re a local Newfoundland songwriter looking to get some pro-level tips.
I’m going to St. John’s nominally as a songwriting instructor, but I’ll really be there as a tourist, a Newfoundland enthusiast, and a GBS fanboy. There’s a magic to Newfoundland – if you haven’t gone, you should go.
– Murray Foster