The numbers involved in Eleanor McCain’s new project, True North: The Canadian Songbook, are indeed impressive.
The two CD set comprises 32 songs recorded with ten different orchestras from across Canada, featuring contributions from 14 different arrangers and a star-studded list of notable guest artists.
The music comes packaged with a lavish book featuring full-colour landscapes captured by photographers from across Canada.
One number the Toronto-based vocalist won’t divulge, however, is the cost of the project, surely one of the most expensive such undertakings ever by a Canadian artist.
McCain’s financial status as an heiress of the McCain family (of Maple Leaf Foods) provided the means for creating True North, and she stressed to FYI that the project was entirely self-financed.
“I could do this myself so I decided to take it on myself. I knew there were resources for Canada 150 projects, and we talked about that, but I didn’t want to take away from any other artists that were drawing from that.
“It is not that I have a disregard for cost, and I did think about it for a year for that exact reason as I knew it would be expensive.
"When I stopped to think about all the elements involved, though, I saw it as a contribution that I passionately wanted to make. I really feel strongly that this is an opportunity for us to celebrate Canadian music, Canadian songwriters and artists.
"I just could not get the idea out of my head and I had the ability to do it and I just didn’t want that to slip by, as I do feel passionate about this country and what we have to offer. It came from a very pure place of wanting to celebrate that.”
McCain explains that “the foundational idea was to reimagine this iconic Canadian music for orchestra. That is a space I’ve been working in prior to this project, and my last album Runaway was a similar concept, featuring classic love songs for orchestra.”
“I had recorded that album in Moscow, and there was a trend where a lot of people were recorded in eastern Europe. It is more economical, but I’m a very proud Canadian and I know we have great orchestras here.”
“I felt guilty the last time. I really wanted to work with Canadian orchestras live and in recording, so it wasn’t just about showcasing the Canadian songbook, but also about showcasing the orchestras we have here and trying to champion that.”
McCain’s song selection does concentrate on tried and true Canadian classics, but she observes that the regional nature of some of the tunes may mean they sound new to some listeners.
“There are some songs where it depends on where you’re from as to how familiar they are. Some people may not have known 'The Island' by Kenzie MacNeil or 'Song For The Mira,' which is an anthem for people from out east like me. It is written by Allister MacGillivray, an iconic Cape Breton songwriter, and people out west may not know that. Or outside Quebec people may not know Harmonium or 'Le Monde Est Stone.'"
There is one original song on the collection, “I Can See Hope From Here,” written by songwriting brothers Don and Jeff Breithaupt. Don Breithaupt served as producer for the entire project, as well as playing piano in the core band, and McCain is a major fan of his writing too.
“I’ve always admired the songwriting of the Breithaupts,” she says. “People who know of them know how exceptional they are, but they may not be as front and centre as say Neil Young or Joni Mitchell. It was really important for me to record one of their songs and they were gracious about writing something new.”
A formidable list of guest artists featured on True North includes Liona Boyd, Roch Voisine, Don Ross, The Men Of The Deeps, Natalie MacMaster, Rik Emmett, Guido Basso, John McDermott and Matt Dusk.
“Liona is obviously one of our most iconic musicians and she has become a very dear friend of mine so I was blessed she could perform,” says McCain. “John McDermott and Matt Dusk are friends and I’ve worked with them before. One person I’d always had a dream of working with was Roch Voisine. I’ve loved his music and stunning voice, plus he’s from New Brunswick, just an hour north of me.”
McCain also describes herself as “in awe” of the A-list arrangers she recruited, a list that includes Peter Cardinali, Shelly Berger, Aaron Davis, Bill Coon, Brigham Phillips, Darren Fung, Don Breithaupt, and Lou Pomanti.
“One of the most exciting things was getting these new arrangements, and that was a gift that kept on giving. Bringing them to life to life was such a beautiful process to go through.”
“I’ve always felt privileged in working with orchestras. Brigham Phillips said it really well in that when you work with an orchestra you have 40-60 musicians and different colours and palettes you can draw from to create a lush and beautiful musical landscape.”
True North was released on May 12, and initial response has been positive. “We made it to No. 1 on the iTunes Easy Listening chart, which is awesome,” McCain reports. “There is some airplay on classical and jazz stations and the CBC too. There are so many different genres on there so different songs are finding different niches, depending on the format.”
McCain is now looking forward to performing True North. “I’m off to Winnipeg next week for three concerts with the Symphony, May 26-28. I’m really excited to launch this live with them as they’ve been really supportive.”
Fall concerts will feature the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, the Niagara Symphony, and Symphony Nova Scotia. “I’ll also explore some new ways to present this live, but in a scaled-back form with some more intimate programs,” says McCain.
After this epic undertaking, she also wants to kick back a little. “I want to hang out with my daughter and my puppy for a while and then take a nice little vacation. I’ve had no social life at all for the last three years!”