You cannot deny Alan Neal’s enthusiasm for Canadian music. Watching him watch musicians is to fall instantly in love with his pure, measured delight. At the Neal-hosted musical finale of the Writersfest, I watched a stream of smartphones make their way close to the stage, capturing not the star-studded stage, but Alan, watching, in their illuminated frames.
The All in a Day Songwriter’s circle has been part of the Ottawa Writersfest for four years now, its popularity quickly moving it into the festival finale position. Alan Neal, host of the popular drive home show “All in a Day,” brings quirky themes and a rich roster of Canadian musicians to each show. The loose structure provides a great set of music as well as the opportunity for conversation between artists that do not normally appear on stage together as well as with Neal.
This year, the theme was “Namedropper,” the recent album of cover songs written by Canadian artists and performed by Toronto singer Oh Susanna. Suzy Ungerleider (Oh Susanna’s real name). Ungerleider was inspired to do the album when she realized that the music she listened to was slowly orienting itself away from “dead musicians” to people she actually knew—and was friends with! Jim Bryson, the indie pride of Ottawa and producer on the album, came up with the idea of having each artist write new material for the album. This resulted in fourteen tracks of fabulous new songs by artists such as Joel Plaskett, Jim Cuddy, Ron Sexsmith, Whitehorse, Amelia Curran and more. Amelia Curran referred to the album as Wrestlemania, Canadian Indie edition. “It was honestly just a random thought I vocalized,” Bryson remembers, “and dang me if it didn’t work out great!”
The format for the evening featured a number of songs off the Namedropper album, followed by songs by each artist. Oh Susanna performed each one with the author of the song, although she performs them solo on the record. The camaraderie between the artists grew as more and more of Canada’s indie elite appeared on the stage. “This is my chance for Jim [Bryson] and I to stare into each other’s eyes and pretend we’re lovers,” joked Ungerleider before their performance of Royal Wood’s “Goodnight.” “It pisses off my husband [her drummer].” “Is Luke here?” someone asked, referring to the second half of the husband and wife band Whitehorse, as if Luke Doucet might have just been hanging out somewhere, maybe whipping up some pancakes in the kitchen, and should come join the fun. A nifty fedora was stuck out from back stage and waggled a hello at the audience. “Oh right, there he is!”
The insight into the performers was a rare opportunity for music lovers – or anyone who loves the creative process. The musicians, unused to performing the pieces together, watched each other closely, bobbing carefully in time, breaking into that iconic musician smile-and-nod when a particular section came together. They described how they reacted when they got the call from Ungerleider, revealing intimate details about their songwriting process and habits. “Who took the longest?” asked Neal with a gossipy glint. “I would never say …..that Jim Cuddy took forever,” Ungerleider shot back.
The Songwriters Circle concept is ideal for the Writers Festival because it is a concert with words. All of us word lovers, who instinctively memorize lyrics and bore our friends with our analysis – Alan is our ally. Neal knows these lyrics. He juggles them and tosses them at the artists right and left, noting that weather appears in the majority of the songs, that Amelia Curran specializes in evoking tactility, and that Jim Bryson’s song Oregon might have special meaning for former West Coaster Suzy. “Jim, what were you describing when you said ‘the city squirms and the city screams’? Suzy, what does it mean to you?” Bryson answered with his trademark depressed bedroom burr: “Well you know. Oregon is a town. With people and streets and weather. So yeah.” Ungerleider enthused: “I love Jim’s words so much. Because…. because I DON’T know what they mean!”
Neal had more luck probing some of the other artists as to their motivations and meanings. Ron Sexsmith in particular provided magnificently melancholy insight into his beautiful song “Waiting ‘til the Sun Comes Up.” “Sometimes, with the music industry like it is, I feel as if no one cares. Like I’m making antique chairs and peddling them around town: ‘won’t anybody buy my lovely chairs? I think all of us have times where we need to remind ourselves that we’ll feel better tomorrow.”
By the end of the night, everyone in Knox Presbyterian had a sense of chummy familiarity. In comparison to music, words are a laborious way to form a connection (although Neal’s expansive hosting does help). As one, the crowd grew appreciatively silent, laughed easily and leapt to their feet after the group finale. Even Neal’s new baby, huge headphones on, dancing with the help of his mom (musician Jill Zmud) loved it. And he didn’t understand a word.