Photo: Stefanie Atkins
Photo: Stefanie Atkins

Five Questions With… The Small Glories

On their latest album Assiniboine & The Red, The Small Glories celebrate the Canadian Prairies, specifically their hometown of Winnipeg where the convergence of the two rivers referenced in the album title mirrors how the duo comprised of folk music veterans Cara Luft and JD Edwards found themselves making music together.

Recorded in Winnipeg during a bracingly cold Canadian spring, the album reunited Luft and Edwards with producer Neil Osborne, who, despite his long history as frontman for 54-40 felt it was important to keep the project rooted in the folk tradition and allow the songs speak for themselves.

Assiniboine & The Red does play out like travelogue of sorts, offering a rich sense of geography, as evidenced by the two songs that bookend the record. Opener Alberta is a love song to Luft's home province, while the closing track, Winnipeg, is a spirited celebration of a city of many languages and cultures.

Luft has long been a familiar face on the local Winnipeg scene, having co-founded The Wailin' Jennys, while Edwards has fronted his own eclectic roots-rock band in the city since 2006. But when the pair found themselves spontaneously on stage together in 2012 during the 25th-anniversary celebration of Winnipeg's West End Cultural Centre, they felt immediate chemistry and The Small Glories were born. They released their debut album, Wondrous Traveler in 2016, and have toured the world extensively since then.

Assiniboine & The Red is available now through Red House Records, and The Small Glories will be playing throughout the fall in western Canada. For full dates and info, go to thesmallglories.com.

What makes Assiniboine & The Red different from your past work?

Cara: When JD and I went into the studio to record this album, we had over three years under our belt of non-stop touring and performing together. Something happens when you work that much and that closely with another person. You can lock in pretty darn quick and take educated guesses about where the other is going vocally or instrumentally.  For instance, we instinctively knew when the other would breathe. So with this batch of new songs, we could delve deep into the arrangements right away, and go further than where we went with our first album. We didn’t need to spend time trying to understand how the other person sang or played or perceived a song, we already had a pretty good idea. We had built up years of trust in each other’s musical instincts. 

JD: The other thing is that all the songs on this record are co-written with other artists. The majority were written on the east coast of Canada. We spent some time writing with James Keelaghan, Lynn Miles, Bruce Guthro, Ashley Condon, Catherine McClellan and a wonderful poet from Boston, Glenn Bowie. Our producer, Neil Osborne, also had a huge part in developing these songs into what you hear on the record.

What songs on the record are you most proud of and why?

Cara: It’s hard to choose, but Sing is a particular favourite. There's a general level of anxiety and desperation in our world these days—this sense that we're running out of time, that we need to get the fire going. That's where we started when tackling this song.  We wanted to find a way to roust ourselves and others out of our complacency and our indifference; to challenge our era's divisiveness and polarization, and to remind us all what “it” is all about, and what it's not. And what we do best is sing. We all need to protest these days, regardless of where we're from. The future of our earth and our common humanity depends on all of us doing something. We feel singing is one of the ways we can support our greater community and help bring people together. And dare I say, this is a song that I feel my leftist-leaning Pete-Seeger loving folk-singing parents would be proud of. I finally deserve to wear my “folk singer” badge with this one. 

JD: I’d agree that Sing has become my favourite song because of the journey it has had. It was written in response to the negative news and world stories we had been exposed to during the time of the writing. Catherine [McClennan], Cara and I had been wanting to write a reply but felt it was best to fill the song with lyrics of love, encouragement, positivity and a call to action.

How would you describe your artistic evolution so far?

JD: Cara and I have had many years of work with other bands and tons of solo work. We have wanted to make our two voices sound as one and thus we have tried to evolve our sound together.

Cara: You never stop evolving as artists, which is a beautiful thing. I feel that this recent incarnation of my musical expression with JD has allowed me to tap into some things that were hovering near the surface during my solo days and with the Wailin’ Jennys, but hadn’t quite fully emerged. There’s something about harmony singing, especially when it’s with someone who can meet you on the same level, and who can also get you to up your game. I think that’s the gift we’ve stumbled upon here; we both encourage the other to stretch and grow in ways we maybe haven’t experienced before. 

What's been the biggest change in your life over the past year?

Cara: I’m sorting out where and what to call home. I have a tiny house on wheels that I designed and had built out in the Kootenays, but it’s been an intensely stressful process, and it’s a difficult part of the world to get back to between tours, especially during those times when we only have three days off in a row. So I’m in a bit of transition, of possibly needing to let go of a dream to find a more “normal” housing option. 

JD: The biggest change has been the birth of my third child. I have three kids now, and they fill my heart with so much joy. It’s hard being a parent, let alone a parent on the road as a touring artist. But I have been inspired to continue the work we do as The Small Glories

What's your best touring story?

JD: About a year and a half ago we had the chance to tour Australia, all through parts of Tasmania, New South Wales, and Queensland for about six-and-a-half weeks. We were part of a travelling show called The Festival of Small Halls, which also included performances at the Woodford Folk Festival, Cygnet Folk Festival and the Illawarra Folk Festival. At Illawarra, we were all billeted at different houses around the community. When the festival ended, our tour manager came around to pick us all up one by one, and Cara happened to be picked up last. A few houses down from where she was staying, a family was—we assume—getting rid of some stuff and had things piled on their lawn.

Cara: As we were slowly driving past, JD noticed something sparkly, and he yelled, “Stop the van!” He leapt out, ran up to the pile of junk and picked up a trophy. It was a dusty ballerina trophy, most likely from a past life of the youngster who had grown up and moved away. It seemed the family was purging old things from their home. He brought it back to the van and showed it to everyone and mentioned that there were about 70 more in a garbage bin. Everyone said, “Go get them!” So JD ran out, grabbed the bucket, jumped back in and we peeled out of there laughing and wondering what the heck we were going to do with 70 old dusty ballerina trophies.

JD: The next morning we decided to give them away at our concerts. We gave them to all sorts of folks: the dirtiest hippie who showed up that night, the father who Cara overheard talking to his daughter about how to dance the cowboy properly…. We even had dance-offs between old folks and young kids. One little boy, about four years old, received a trophy after winning the dance competition and he was in shock. The local newspaper was there, took his picture and put it in the paper the next day. His folks were overjoyed! We gave one to a wonderful woman who hosted us at one of the small halls.   She pulled a speech from a secret pocket and mentioned how she had been waiting 66 years to receive an award for the work she had done, and said, “These two beautiful Canadians came all this way to give it to me!” We even gave one to an incredible dog that did tricks for the audience between sets. People just loved it. One night we were hungry after a gig and while going through a drive-through fast-food joint, we pretended to be from the main office in North America. We told them we were on a secret mission to find the best drive-through attendant and gave a trophy to the person at the window. While she handed us our food, we gave her a trophy and the look on her face was one for the books!

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Twitter: @TheSmallGlories

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Publicity: Eric Alper, 

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