Back in 2017, Canadian singer Eleanor McCain released True North: The Canadian Songbook – a two-CD set of 32 songs by Canadian artists, reimagined by 14 Canadian arrangers and recorded by 10 Canadian orchestras. Twenty-eight noted artists made guest appearances on songs made famous by Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Sarah McLachlan, Bryan Adams, kd lang, The Guess Who, and more.
But 2017 seems an eternity ago. Now, with the world still in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and needing hope, McCain revisits her impressive compendium to offer exactly that with I Can See Hope from Here, a 14-track selection from the Songbook collection that aims to provide solace, hope, and inspiration.
McCain was kind enough to speak with us about her career and the project.
The original “True North” project appears to have been an enormous undertaking. What was the genesis of the idea? And how long did it take to arrange and record?
The original idea came from two places.
I was first inspired to celebrate Canadian songwriters, and Canadian music in general, in conjunction with the 150th anniversary celebrations of Canada’s confederation in 2017.
Second, I had been working with orchestras across Canada in recent years and felt it would emphasize the Canadian story of this album to ask 14 arrangers from across the country to reimagine 32 iconic Canadian songs for full orchestra and then record them with 10 symphony orchestras from coast to coast.
I spent all of 2014 thinking of this potential project – whether I wanted to or even could undertake such a mammoth endeavour. It was daunting to think about, and I spent a long time thinking it all through.
By early 2015 I couldn’t let go of this idea. It had captured my heart, and I felt compelled to do it despite its epic nature and the challenges that would be involved in making it happen.
The entire project took two and a half years from start to finish. Choosing the repertoire and arrangers, initiating pre-production, and building the team happened in the first year. Recording the band, symphonies, and guest artists happened in the second year. Mixing took place towards the end of the process along with creating the packaging and developing and executing a marketing plan.
In tandem with the recording, I also created a coffee table book of landscape photography by 22 photographers from across Canada to accompany the double CD set, as well as a set of portraits by celebrated Canadian photographer V. Tony Hauser, set in various Canadian locations.
How did you select the tracks for this album from the larger set that appear on I Can See Hope from Here?
It was a very challenging task because I love all the tracks. It was so hard to choose – sort of like being asked to choose your favourite child. There were some tracks that I felt were “must haves” but ultimately it came down to flow and creating a diverse and informative listening experience.
The sources you drew on for these recordings are all Canadian, but they cover a wide range of styles – classic singer-songwriter fare, rock and pop, music by Indigenous artists like Buffy Sainte-Marie and Susan Aglukark, and beyond. The orchestral arrangements are also in different styles. But it all flows together. Was it challenging to feel your way to singing all this material convincingly?
Yes. The intention behind the album was to showcase a diverse group of songwriters, guest artists, arrangers, genres, and regions. My first step was to create a list of as many potential songs from across the country as I could think of and that I thought could work for me. I usually define my music as a classical crossover style that draws from pop ballads, jazz, folk, and Celtic/traditional music so the diverse track list is consistent with this. I tend to focus on the meaning and emotion expressed by a song rather than being dedicated to one specific genre. I love to fuse styles.
In 2015, I spent an intense four days with Don Breithaupt, who produced the album, working through the list to see how each one sat with my voice and discussing how I might approach each arrangement so that it would be consistent with my style while remaining true to the original intent of the songwriter. Some songs got dropped and some new ideas were added. In the end, I chose the songs that I felt I could sing convincingly while staying true to my own non-negotiable need to connect with both the music and the words.
A couple of songs (“Run to You” and “Still Believe in Love”) at first felt a little outside my wheelhouse stylistically. But with encouragement from Don and my vocal coach (not to mention incredibly crafted arrangements) they worked out well and remain two of my favourites to perform.
Ultimately, my hope was that True North: The Canadian Songbook would inspire other artists to cover Canadian music and create their own collections of Canadian songs. We are so fortunate to have a vast and very talented pool of songwriters and musicians in this country.
How did you get your start in music? Did you study voice? What were your early musical influences?
My mother tells the story that I started singing before I could talk. 🙂 I have been singing since I was a young child – singing in music festivals, church, and school. But it was seeing all the young girls in the cast of Annie on Broadway that inspired me, at nine years old, to want to perform myself.
This led me to taking voice lessons and eventually to obtaining a Bachelor of Music at Mount Allision University (New Brunswick, Canada) in vocal performance. I was more focused on classical music as a child and in university. Being a light lyric soprano, I loved Kathleen Battle and Emma Kirkby. I also loved Yo-Yo Ma. As I moved away from classical music, I found myself inspired by Eva Cassidy, Alison Krauss, and kd lang.
Two songs are sung all or partially in languages other than English. These and a few others won’t be familiar to most American listeners. Tell us a little about “O Siem,” which is sung partly in Inuktitut, and about the French-language “Aujourd’hui, je dis bonjour à la vie.”
One of the unexpected silver linings that came from creating the book for True North: The Canadian Songbook came as the result of asking the songwriters to share their inspirations for the songs we recorded. This is what I learned from the songwriters directly about the songs you mention:
“O Siem” was written by Inuit singer-songwriter Susan Aglukark. The song is an anthemic call to turn away from racism and prejudice. Susan described her inspiration for this song as coming from a conference she attended in Banff, Canada in 1994. One of the elders who welcomed everyone to the gathering outstretched his arms in an all-encompassing and trusting gesture to invite a room full of strangers into their world. In that moment, a time when she was questioning what her purpose would be for her music career, Susan realized that her music wasn’t about her as an individual but an opportunity to share her beautiful culture with the world.
This recording features Inuit throat singer Natashia Allakariallak, Sharon Riley and the Faith Chorale, and Orchestre Symphonique de Québec.
“Aujourd’hui, je dis bonjour à la vie” was written by Serge Fiori for the Québécois group Harmonium of which he was a member. The song (the title of which translates to “Today, I say hello to life”) is about being able to start every day afresh, to defeat the limits we impose on ourselves, and go for your dreams. He was inspired to write this song as he sat on the balcony of his apartment listening to children playing in the schoolyard across the street. This song always opened his shows as he felt that it created an atmosphere of freedom.
This recording features guitarist Don Ross and Orchestre Symphonique de Québec.
Clearly you have a feel for all the selections, but are some of these songs (or arrangements) especially meaningful to you?
It’s hard for me to separate them as each one has a special meaning for me – each one takes me on a journey and has its own story. This album was very cathartic for me. I could immerse my own personal experiences in each song and arrangement of this album. Many stories…
One particularly poignant moment happened about 10 days prior to the first recording sessions for the album’s band tracks. In February 2016, I was driving alone to a gig with a symphony orchestra a couple of hours outside Toronto. The songs for the album were chosen, arrangements were completed, and the studio time was booked.
I was listening to Alison Krauss’s recording of “Get Me Through December” which also featured Canadian fiddler Natalie MacMaster. I had endured a lot of personal struggles around that time and the weight of it came to the surface in those moments alone in my car listening the lyrics of the song. I cried for an hour listening to it on repeat. I realized, as well, that it was written by two renowned Canadian songwriters, Gordie Sampson and Fred Lavery.
As soon as I arrived at my destination, I sent a text to my producer, Don Breithaupt, with the message, “You’re going to kill me.” He knew what was coming. Long story short, we added this track as the 32nd song just 10 days before the recording sessions.
For me, a song that had this much impact had to be included – and to this day it is one of my favourite songs of all time to perform. Aaron Davis is an extremely talented arranger. His arrangements, apart from their beauty, always have a feeling of deep connection to the heart of the song. He elevated the emotional intensity of “Get Me Through December” with his arrangement, in a very poignant and elegant way.
A number of guest artists appear on the tracks, including, again, some whom American listeners might not be familiar with. Can you tell us about some of them?
Absolutely, and I’m happy to.
The guest artists on I Can See Hope From Here include francophone singer-songwriter Roch Voisine who enjoys a very successful international career. He wrote “I’ll Always Be There,” which we do as a duet, with world-renowned Canadian producer and songwriter David Foster.
Jens Lindemann, a much-celebrated trumpeter who also enjoys a major international career, is featured on k.d. lang’s “Constant Craving.”
“O Siem” features Inuit throat singer Natashia Allakariallak as well as Sharon Riley and the Faith Chorale.
“Aujourd’hui, je dis bonjour à la vie” features fingerstyle guitarist Don Ross.
For “Heart Like A Wheel,” I wanted to incorporate a world music flavour, so it features performances by George Gao on erhu (Chinese two-string fiddle), Donald Quan (also the song’s arranger) on guzheng (Chinese plucked zither), and Ron Korb on wooden flute.
“Angel” features a hauntingly beautiful performance by the male chorus Pro Coro from Edmonton, Canada.
Your past projects include holiday and Celtic albums, but this one has what may be the broadest theme of all: Canadian music writ large. Obviously the album is, among other things, a tribute to the country’s creative spirit. But do you perceive something uniting these Canadian musical artists in general?
Canada has created some of the best songwriters and arrangers in the world, I believe, who bring to their work a depth of feeling and authenticity that I’ve seldom found elsewhere. The honest emotion within their music inspires me and solidifies my belief that our Canadian ethos, as well as our wildly varied landscape, has influenced our music in a very unique way and perfectly symbolizes who we are as a country: a collection of cultures brought together by a sense of common values and ideals.
Music itself can be a healing thing. But you’re also donating proceeds from I Can See Hope From Here to The Unison Fund, a Canadian music industry nonprofit that provides counseling and emergency services to members of the music community. You’ve worked with other charities in the past, but this cause seems especially relevant to the present day. Do you know if the Unison Fund has seen an increased demand for their services because of the pandemic?
It is very important to me to highlight how devastating the COVID-19 pandemic has been to the music community. Music, of course, is one of the places we all turned to for solace during these very challenging times. More than anything, I think it’s critically important that we not overlook the truly amazing artists and creators among us and support them through this crisis in any way we can. To this end, the Unison Fund has created a COVID Relief Fund and yes, they have seen a very significant increase in demand for their services since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A video for the title track will be released Sept. 10. Are you also planning concerts to promote the new album? What’s next for your music career?
Performing live again will depend on the pandemic and how and when things might open up again. I would love nothing more than to tour in support of this album but have no immediate plans at the moment.
Learn more about the album’s creators: