Today I came across an extraordinary song written by a musician from Newfoundland called Wince Coles. Aunt Daisy’s Pussy Cat is ostensibly about a pensioner who owns 19 cats but, a verse or two in, it becomes blindingly obvious what Coles really had in mind. Think of the 1970s TV sitcom Are You Being Served? and you’ll have an approximation of what we’re talking about here.
I don’t, you understand, spend my days surfing the web for feline-related innuendo-laden tunes (although I am partial to anything featuring cats on treadmills/in sinks/bearing a striking resemblance to Hitler). I’d just interviewed Newfoundland trio The Once ahead of their UK tour and was curious about the song By The Glow Of The Kerosene Light. Having seen the band perform this melody on two occasions, I’d come under its thrall and, in a throwback to my 14-year-old self when I’d listened unrelentingly to Tracy Chapman’s acapella Behind the Wall, I couldn’t stop playing it. And so I came to the songwriter Wince Coles and his eclectic oeuvre.
Like many rugged and rough places, Newfoundland has spawned a distinctive musical sound. Coles and his contemporaries – and now younger folk roots acts like The Once – sing of community, honesty, strength and stoicism, their lyrics laced with sea fret and heavy with heartache. Over three albums, The Once have combined hope and tragedy, love and loss. Above all, they sing of a people infused with a strong sense of their own mortality: the women who wait futilely for their menfolk to return from the sea in Three Fishers, the lament of wasted youth that is Nell’s Song, the man who watches his wife die by the glow of the kerosene light.
“The melancholy songs seem to be where the best stories are,” says Geraldine Hollett, lead singer of The Once. “We live in a culture where we are told to smile all the time but that is unreasonable. If you’re facing mortality every day, you understand the world a little bit more.”
To date, many of The Once’s songs have been their interpretations of traditional compositions and I get the impression that this re-imagining of their country’s music was an attempt, subconscious or otherwise, to keep it alive.
“Even ten years ago it seemed like the culture [of Newfoundland] was disappearing,” reflects Hollett. “But there has been a revival in people embracing what is wonderful about Newfoundland. It’s full of stories and beauty. For example, in my family, a lot of people believe that if you see a crow you should cross yourself.”
But The Once play happy songs, too. From the toe-tapping upbeat shanty that is Jack The Sailor to the group’s unique take on Queen’s seminal song You’re My Best Friend, they’re nothing if not versatile.
Hollett says: “In the beginning we did traditional songs but we do some contemporary ones as well and we do our own stuff. The next album is our own spin on stuff. It will be more of our own written songs as well. It’s weird to see what we are turning into [they signed to Borealis Records in 2010].”
“We met Mike last year at Celtic Connections in Glasgow,” explains Hollett. “There was a radio station in a church with artists sitting in the pews. We did Kerosene Light and Mike and his crew came in. He came up us afterwards and asked us to stick around. Then he asked us to come to Edinburgh because he wanted to work with us. So we did and did a video the next day.
“It wasn’t until we got home and got onto the internet that we realised, holy crap, this guy is a big deal. He called us and said he wanted us to sing on his next album. So we spent ten days in Australia.”
But The Once are no strangers to success – they have already won several East Coast Music and Canadian Folk Music awards. Anyone who has caught one of their live shows will be in no doubt that they deserved the accolades. The band has a magical ability to bond with the crowd, sing sad songs but still send the audience home with joy in their hearts.
“Playing live is my favourite thing,” says Hollett. “I get to connect with people on a level I didn’t even know existed. People come up after the shows just to give us a hug and to say thank you, sometimes to say ‘I just lost someone and that song really helped me’.”
She adds: “This is now our fourth time over here. When I was 16 I came over here for the first time. I always thought I would live here. Something about this country is magic. Whenever I come over, it seems so romantic and not of this world.”
Hollet says that The Once is a Newfoundland phrase that means ‘imminently’. Well, their slew of UK gigs is imminent. Get yourself along to a show and let the sea fret envelop you.
The Once are touring the UK and Ireland until April 8, 2014. You can see them at The Met in Bury on March 23, 2014. For ticket information, log on here: http://themet.biz/event/the+once/1833/. For more details about the tour, click here http://theonce.ca/site/shows/
The Once’s next album is due out in June.