Arts & Entertainment

Press Pass: Great Big Sea

presspassThough they’ve been crafting tunes for over 17 years, Canadian outfit Great Big Sea’s history serves as a mere blink of an eye relative to the New Foundland folk tradition on which the band bases its sound. Blending aspects of the island’s musical past with a more modern pop approach, Great Big Sea’s unique compositions hook listeners with their mix of the familiar and foreign.

presspassThough they’ve been crafting tunes for over 17 years, Canadian outfit Great Big Sea’s history serves as a mere blink of an eye relative to the New Foundland folk tradition on which the band bases its sound. Blending aspects of the island’s musical past with a more modern pop approach, Great Big Sea’s unique compositions hook listeners with their mix of the familiar and foreign.

As the band swoops through the D.C. area, performing at Wolf Trap on Aug. 22, founding member Bob Hallett chatted about the band’s roots, as well as its most recent chapter following the release of new album, Safe Upon the Shore.

Mike Hume: For those unfamiliar with New Foundland folk music, how would you describe it?

Bob Hallett: It’s a mix of English, Irish and French folk music, which has percolated here for 500 years. It uses similar instruments and has similar rhythms to Irish folk music, but what’s different in New Foundland is the songs and the instrumentals have different melodies. The Irish players that come here are always struck by how familiar it seems, but also stymied by how different it is. The French element brings a lot of the quirky rhythms. English and Irish folk music is very strict about tempo and New Foundland is almost jazzy in its disregard for such things.

 

MH: What first attracted you to New Foundland folk?

BH: Well for most of us, we grew up with it. We heard it every day of our lives in our houses and in our communities. It was the family trade for a lot of people. Their families did this for a living or if it wasn’t an income thing it was still a very important part of their lives. It’s like if you grow up on a farm, whether you tend to the farm or not, you know a lot about farming.

 

MH: You just reached 17 years together in March, what’s sustained your passion for this band over all that time?

BH: There’s a bunch of things. The first is that this was our career. We abandoned our other career plans in favor of this, so right off the bat we were determined that this is what we were going to do for our lives, so that’s helped us through many a low point.

Plus, we have a real passion for this kind of music. It wasn’t just something we stumbled across when we were university students. We were doing this long before then and even if this band didn’t exist I suspect we’d still be playing this music.

 

MH: You all collaborated as writers and had some 100 songs available for Safe Upon the Shore, how were you able to edit it down?

BH: Sometimes bands really struggle with that self-editing process. It’s hard to say to your friends and your partners, “Hey, your song stinks, mine’s better.”

 

MH: So how do you say that to them?

BH: Well, you say, “Your song stinks. I hate that song!” You try to be positive about it, but you’ve got to be honest. If a song is going to succeed with a band everyone has to like it. You can’t just stand there rolling your eyes while somebody else is doing their song. You’ve got to be able to buy into it.

 

MH: You travel all across the continent to perform, how do the crowds vary?

BH: The more we play a place, the more people are familiar with the nuances that we bring. There are definitely places in Canada and the U.S. where people go out and listen to live music more and are more spontaneous. But there are places in Canada where people don’t spend a lot of time together. So I don’t know if they’re just self conscious or they don’t know how to sing along or clap along and be spontaneous. It’s funny to see people sometimes looking from side to side and wondering, ‘Is it okay to enjoy myself?’ So our job is to bring that to life because New Foundland is about as spontaneous as you can get.

• Great Big Sea performs at Wolf Trap Aug. 22. For more on the band, visit www.greatbigsea.com.


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