By Stew Slater
With its stunning vocal harmonies and complex tempo changes, the opening track, “Snowy Soul,” of the newly-released debut album by St. Marys/Stratford-based trio Trent Severn harkens back to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young — the female version.
Move on to track 2, “Bluenose on a Dime,” and you encounter the following lyrics: “Everything just got better/living in an NHL sweater all the time/Bluenose on a dime/and you were mine.”
The CSNY comparison? It’s not surprising, considering the woman who first pitched the Trent Severn concept to her soon-to-be-bandmates over a year ago, St. Marys musician Emm Gryner, admits to having loved strongly vocal-dominated, Canadian or Canadian-influenced bands — The Guess Who, The Band, Spirit of the West and, of course CSNY — for a long time.
But what about all those Canadian lyrical references (and, without a doubt, “Bluenose on a Dime” is not alone among the album’s 10 tracks in having strong Canadian content; other song titles include “Like a Donnelly”, “Muskoka Bound”, “Mulroney Times”, and “Truscott”)?
Gryner — who is joined in Trent Severn by Stratford natives Dayna Manning (now living in British Columbia) and Laura C. Bates (now based in Toronto) — has the perfect explanation.
“When I pitched this idea to Dayna, I said it was like CSNY meets Stompin’ Tom Connors,” Gryner said in an interview last week. “And that’s maybe not quite what it has turned out to be. But that has served as a guideline.”
Gryner clearly recalls first getting in touch with Manning, who gained nationwide exposure in the late 1990s as a teenaged folk/pop singer/songwriter and has since settled into a busy life as a guitarist and vocalist working with a variety of west coast musicians.
“I still have the original email where I wrote to Dayna and said, ‘I have this idea’.” And, although Gryner has proved herself over the years to be a prolific songwriter of subtly-crafted pop gems, she stresses she had no material prepared at that time that she thought would suit the band. “The idea just spawned the material,” she said.
Hearing her explain the origins of Trent Severn, however, it’s difficult to believe there weren’t at least some themes and melodies floating around her musical brain prior to finally sitting down together in a room with Manning and Bates in the spring of 2012.
“There were so many things that pointed to being in this band,” she explained. Some were recent: repeated performance tours of Ireland (a country with a definite musical sense of place); performing in the movie “One Week,” which was — like the Trent Severn album — chock-full of Canadian references. But others happened 10 years ago or more: renting a room in Montreal in a house occupied by the late Kate McGarrigle; and subsequently moving to St. Marys, where she underwent a shift in her concept of what a run-of-the-mill Canadian might perceive as a great night out hearing live music; even as recent as last fall, performing a benefit concert in Goderich for that town’s tornado recovery efforts, at which the opening band’s strong three-way harmonies had her yearning for some on-stage vocal companionship.
Gryner says she began formulating a vision of a band playing traditionally-influenced music, with a fiddle and other traditional instruments, and strong vocal interplay.
“I also realized how much I was being held back by the pop music model compared with what some other Canadian performers could do,” she said. “Having somebody play music accompanied by some great piano is nice but, to me, hearing somebody like Stompin’ Tom or Natalie McMaster is that much better.”
Gryner says she probably never would have pursued the idea further if Manning hadn’t responded positively to that September, 2011 email. “She’s a great guitar player. Her playing guitar became a big part of what I saw this band becoming . . . She’s also a great songwriter.”
Wanting to ensure a strong fiddle presence in the music, the women got in touch with Bates — whom Manning had babysat years ago in Stratford. Bates agreed to join, and Trent Severn — a name taken from the iconic pleasure-boating waterway in central/Eastern Ontario, that Gryner had thought about years ago, thinking it would be an ideal stage name for a country singer — was born.
All the material came together in a short time, written, recorded and produced (by Gryner’s now St. Marys-based brother Frank, who recently relocated from California) for the release of the eponymous debut album within a year.
“I have so much experience being independent that I knew, if we got down to it and put our energies into bringing our ideas together, we could get it done,” Gryner explained.
It all seems like too much — the kind of musical output that even Gryner’s role models like Neil Young or Tom Connors might not be able to match. And that was while Gryner was raising her young son and then, soon after getting the ball rolling, going through a pregnancy and giving birth to a second child, a girl.
But Gryner takes the “busy mom?” question in stride, saying working on Trent Severn’s launch was the ideal project for somebody taking on the domestic responsibilities she found herself facing.
“I want to be doing something that I really love when I’m raising (my kids),” she said. “Because if you’re not, you’re not happy, and it can take a toll on motherhood and on childhood.”
“I have a family and, with Trent Severn, I kind of fit the band in around (my family). And that’s kind of the opposite to what I did with my solo career, where I had a career and I fit my family in around that. And I don’t know that (doing that) necessarily helped (the solo career).”
She sees a lot of young people who are aiming for success in the pop music realm doing the same thing. But at this stage in her life, that’s not for her. “There’s not a lot of ego wrapped up in this project.”
An official CD release concert will take place at the London Music Club (470 Colborne Street; call 519-640-6996) on Friday, Nov. 23. But Trent Severn will also perform the following evening closer to home: Saturday, Nov. 24 at the Stratford-Perth Museum on Highway 8, just west of Stratford. Concert tickets for the Stratford-Perth Museum show are available at the Museum or at Music Sebringville.
The album, meanwhile, is available at Music Sebringville as well as The World’s Coolest Music Store and Deep Waters Music in St. Marys.