A Canadian musician with Hants County roots has produced a uniquely stylized album — one that pays homage to a famous Maritime poet.
Pete Johnston, who grew up in Windsor, was well-known in the Halifax jazz music scene before leaving for Toronto in 2001 to pursue his calling.
Johnston finished an undergraduate degree at Dalhousie in 2000 and began orchestrating a move to the big city.
“I often joke that I left Halifax because I didn't want to play Celtic music and I wanted to do something else,” said Johnston in a phone interview.
“I've since softened my stance on that; I'm now quite fond of traditional music,” he continued. “But at the time, I was full on jazz snobbing it, so I got out as soon as I could, and came to Toronto to try and make my fortune as a jazz musician.”
Johnston, who was known for his bass and saxophone skills in Windsor, is primarily a composer and bassist in Ontario and teaches music at Humber College and at Ryerson University. He has a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from York University.
Since his university days in Halifax, Johnston has known he’s wanted to incorporate the works of Alden Nowlan — a beloved, self-taught Canadian poet who touched on the human condition — into an album one day.
That dream became a reality recently when Johnston released Songs of Bread, Wine and Salt officially in April 2019.
The Stranger Still record features vocalists Mim Adams and Randi Helmers, bassist Rob Clutton and Johnston on guitar (plus vocals for one song).
“I just had in my mind that they would sound good together with no evidence of why that would be, and I got super lucky as soon as they got in the room together,” said Johnston of Adams and Helmers’ rich harmony. “They sound beautiful together.”
The album is described as pairing Nowlan's rural lyricism with “music that combines plainspoken folk singing with medieval counterpoint, minimalism, progressive rock, and Scandinavian folk music.”
Johnston says he hopes the music will appeal to a range of audiences.
“I feel like it's very between the cracks. I think it's maybe, potentially, too weird for the folk music people and too folky for the weird music people. But I hope that everybody likes it,” said Johnston.
“I wanted to make the words really clear in the music, so you can really hear the poetry.”
Nowlan was born into poverty in 1933 in Stanley, Nova Scotia, and, despite leaving school at age 10 to work, he went on to publish books of poetry and receive honourary degrees from the University of New Brunswick.
Johnston said as part of his undergraduate degree at Dalhousie University, he studied Nowlan’s prose and then, for another class project, he composed musical pieces using Nowlan’s words.
“The bones were for piano and… an operatic singing style, which I don't like very much. That kind of singing doesn't appeal to me,” said Johnston. “So, I've always wanted to go back to these poems and put them with the kind of singing that I like, which is more folk style singing.”
The desire to incorporate Nowlan’s work into song has been in the back of Johnston’s mind since 1998, he said.
“I keep coming back to these poems, and then two summers ago, I decided to really make it happen,” said Johnston.
He returned to Nova Scotia, stayed at his parents’ place for the summer and wrote the majority of the record.
Johnston grew up in a very musical household — his father, Brian Johnston, is a talented, award-winning musician and big band conductor in his own right. Johnston credits his upbringing with fostering a love of music early on.
“My parents were always very supportive, and they put up with the rock and roll badly played in the basement,” said Johnston with a laugh.
“I played saxophone in high school, because I wanted to be like Mike Murley (of The Shuffle Demons and Time Warp fame),” he added.
Johnston went on to find his niche with bass and composing original pieces. While he’s quick to downplay his own accomplishments — he has multiple albums — Johnston says it’s incredible how many talented musicians have come from such a small town.
“Somehow this little place has produced… one of Canada's greatest poets and a whole lot of great musicians,” he said.
“The longer I'm away and living in Toronto, the more I think about how lucky I was, and how, in lots of ways, I miss this small, small community that let me do what I do,” he continued.
“It's a tribute to Windsor, Nova Scotia, this record."
Johnston hopes to tour the Maritimes in the future, possibly next spring, but says there are a few expensive hurdles to pass before then.
CHECK IT OUT
To order the record, or download it digitally, visit: https://seethroughmusic.bandcamp.com