Looks Like Rain: How the weather has shaped Canadian music

Posted: September 5, 2011 in Articles, Creative non-fiction
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Published as feature in October 17 2008 issue of Discorder, music magazine of CiTR 101.9, UBC’s campus radio station.

These days, weather can’t come up in conversation without being almost immediately dismissed as the lowest grade of small talk. We forget in the modern era of urban supremacy that not so long ago, weather was at the centre of most people’s concerns, and could therefore be discussed with impunity. Back when everyone and their kitchen sink lived on a farm, human society was at the mercy of the changing seasons. In a lot of ways, it makes sense that our conversations still revolve around the weather; most of us don’t depend on it for our livelihood anymore, but the effect that the weather has on our moods, activities and entire consciousness is much bigger than we give it credit for.

Canadians are particularly disposed to make weather-related small talk for two reasons. First and most obvious, we inhabit one of the most northerly countries in the world, and as a result we tend to be either feeling cold or preparing ourselves for the cold most of the time. Second, cultural stereotypes paint us as shy, unassuming beasts who would sooner take our own lives than meet a stranger’s eyes on the bus – unless, of course, it’s below freezing and you want to complain to that stranger about your commute from Surrey.  In an era of fractured regional ties and individuals starving for human contact, weather is sometimes the only thread that holds us together as a nation.

Is it so strange that the same principle should apply to Canadian music? Since the phrase “national identity” has been so overused as to become political rhetoric, and almost all the achievements that defined us to the rest of the world have been irrelevant for decades, it is only natural that music would, as usual, serve as the primary medium for creating an authentic sense of community. But when did our famously atrocious climate become the common denominator for Canadian-ness? In 1963, Ian and Sylvia Tyson recorded “Four Strong Winds,” now the unofficial anthem of Canadian heartbreak. It drew together the wistful winds and biting winters of the prairies, and somehow this made it a classic worth being voted the greatest Canadian song of all time on CBC’s series 50 Tracks: The Canadian Version. Clearly there is more to the Canadian cold and snow than just parkas, shovelling, and muffled expletives.

More recently, John K. Samson (of Winnipeg heroes the Weakerthans) has championed a brand of gritty regionalism that focuses on celebrating the stumbling, unbeautiful face of his hometown and the poetry that he finds there. The undercurrent of this creative ethic is – you guessed it – the Manitoba climate, which appears in much of Samson’s evocative storytelling. In the curling player in “Tournament of Hearts,” the tormented bus driver in “Civil Twilight,” the many grumpy Winnipeggers in “One Great City!”, Samson sees and draws out what the French call jolie-laide, or “beautiful-ugly,” which is used to describe something with a character that, although not beautiful, is somehow so vivid and compelling that you can’t help looking at it.

That sense of a dismal atmosphere providing a backdrop for great music has inspired other Canadian artists to produce some of their best work. The bone-chilling spiritual isolation that comes with Montreal’s bitter winters lives in the Arcade Fire’s music, even informing which instruments they use – aching strings and echoing organs. The Be Good Tanyas, a Vancouver folk trio, constantly invoke the powerful dreariness of the rain in their music, sometimes going so far as to record songs overtop of the sound of rain. Vancouver’s music scene runs the gamut of perspectives on the city’s climate, from a West-coast sun-and-surf sound, replete with harmonies as lush as the city (often associated with the New Pornographers), to a mere wistful gloom (as in the case of the Be Good Tanyas) to the downright misanthropy of the punk and noise scenes, which are often reacting to the Vancouver authorities that restrict the music scene as well as the oppressive weather. Josh Rose, a Vancouver abstract noise performer, addressed this negativity sanguinely in an interview with Exclaim!: “It’s harsh music for a harsh environment.”

Another important effect of a cold-weather climate is the mass retreat indoors that happens at the first sign of bad weather. While reduced activity outside of the home, and therefore a downturn in the live music scene, might seem like a killer of creative impulses, it has actually helped to shape an important Canadian contribution to music: the pop collective, or the New Pornographers Effect. Harsh winters force people to find new channels for entertainment, and for the musically inclined, this usually entails a bunch of friends seeking warmth in someone’s basement and bringing their instruments with them. These hours of playing music together and sharing musical influences are the foundations for future collaborations and the formation of new bands. While this happens in warmer climes as well, the number of supergroups spawned across Canada in the last decade – with the New Pornographers based around Vancouver, the Arcade Fire based around Montreal, and Broken Social Scene based around Toronto – would seem to indicate a trend. So many of these collectives have generated several successful solo acts and further collaborations that they are essentially responsible for creating entire nebulae of musical activity.

The historical precedent for this phenomenon is obvious in the parts of Canada where the people are largely of Irish descent. Mention of East-coast winters still conjures up an image of a ceilidh: droves of people crowding into a kitchen, pulling out instruments and jamming, just as a means to escape the cold. This impulse has existed as long as humans have had to wear more than one layer of long underwear in the winter. While Canadian music is often defined to the rest of the world by introspection and solitude, the cold climate can also spawn a uniquely social and collaborative ethic.

In Vancouver, that spirit of collaboration has had a greater impact than anyone could have realised. A city that has become notorious for its crippling lack of support for venues and performers alike shouldn’t be able to sustain one of the most vibrant and prolific music communities in Canada, but in many ways this discouraging environment has challenged musicians and friends to the scene to create a self-sustaining community, where the ingenuity and experimental spirit of its members are rewarded with audiences and likeminded peers.

Is the mark of Canadian weather on artists an answer to the regional, homegrown pride found in much of American music? Almost certainly not. It’s time we faced up to the fact that Canadiana is really a meaningless word that was made up in an attempt to step out from the shadow of the American music identity. As usual, trying to define Canada in relation to the circumference of American culture misses the point of identity entirely. The impact of the Canadian environment on Canadian music is just the mark of a scene that has grown up and accepted the conditions that have made it what it is – which is a pretty good way of defining identity, Canadian or otherwise.

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