Named for a unique Newfoundland phrase that means ‘imminently’, now is indeed the time for The Once.
From their beginnings as three actors who also loved to sing together, The Once has embraced a different vision of Newfoundland music. Their sounds do not come from the noisy pubs and dockside taverns that fuel so much of the Island’s energy. Instead, their music comes from a quieter and more thoughtful place. Hope and tragedy are intertwined in their music, whether they are singing an old lament from World War I, original songs that speak of love defeated, or tasteful songs from the artists whose music inspires them.
Their title of their new album comes from a poem by poet George Murray, a poem that so inspired them they built a song around it. Song For Memory speaks of the power of words and music to freeze time and emotions, to make small moments large, and large moments small. The song’s climax features the memorable line, "row upon row, of the people you know", life’s expectations writ both in a personal and expansive way at the same time.
As a trio, the band has kept it uncomplicated, depending on the power of their voices and acoustic instruments. Lead singer Geraldine Hollett, has an instrument of rare power; she is a singer who can still a noisy room, so expressive she can tell a novel-length story with a few words. Accompanied by Phil Churchill and Andrew Dale on guitar, mandolin, fiddle and bouzouki, they create a perfect blend of voice and melody. Sometimes melancholy, sometimes funny, always poignant,The Once sound like nothing else that has ever come from Newfoundland.
Their debut album has built a gradual but fervent following, and their live show is unique in its combination of intimacy and power. They have won several East Coast Music and Canadian Folk Music awards, and the country is slowly waking up to just what an amazing band they are. Since they signed to Borealis Records in 2010, they have toured through out the country and Europe, drawing huge crowds and glowing reviews wherever they go. With Row Upon Row of the People They Know, The Once will take their place amongst Canada’s finest performers.
the once – in their own words
The Once has only been a band for a few years. They did not grow up dreaming of playing music together - it was more of an after-hours hobby, an adjunct to busy acting careers. Over time, it became more and more important. The busy years since they recorded their first album have allowed the band to grow and mature, and Row Upon Row of the People They Know represents the full flowering of that growth.
"We've definitely learned more about each other, what makes each of us tick (in good ways and bad ways), but also what each of our strengths and weaknesses are," said singer and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Dale. "We're also a bit braver with our music. We've gained confidence with our own abilities, both on our own and as a band."
Singer and instrumentalist Phil Churchill made similar points: "We are much less polite and have stopped trying to impress each other. We are more open, more honest, more relaxed, more confident around each other. We work faster. We decide smarter. We dream bigger."
All three members agreed that this album represents a massive step forward for them.
"We were participants in the making of the first album - we are the creators of this one. The songs that we played together before releasing The Once, our self-titled debut, were the songs that we had learned in order to make up a long enough set to fill a night. They encapsulate a very short and very specific period of time for us”, said Churchill. "Row Upon Row of the People They Know is made of pieces of the three of us as individuals over kitchen tables full of tea and happiness and pressure and frustration. It's each of us putting ourselves out there in front of each other like we've never done. It's the first step towards becoming the band we want to be rather than the band we're expected to be."
Lead singer Geraldine Hollett explained that the two years of extensive touring and intense creativity have changed the way they collaborated.
"I think we have learned to really listen to each other, and make an album that represents who we are individually, and as a group, without compromising too much. We are all very strong-minded. Or stubborn – it’s a fine line."
The new album represents a crossroad in the bands creative process. All are fond of traditional Newfoundland music, but the quiet and moving songs they sing are miles away from the rowdy drinking songs and shanties that often represent the Island’s music.
"Songs like I’se The B’y are already provided with great enthusiasm and capability by other bands," explains Dale. "Our focus tends to wander down many different avenues underneath the folk music umbrella. We have a fairly wide range of interest musically and we believe the variety of material on the new album reflects that."
Churchill sees the traditional songs on Row as being part of an ongoing narrative, one which began in the band’s first album.
"My Husband's Got No Courage felt like another chapter in the life of ‘The Girl’ – that guilt-trippin’, death-wishing woman from Nell's Song, the Venus Man-trap from Maid on the Shore, the black widow wannabe from Willie Taylor and the un-murderable Marguerite kind of became the same girl to us. This seemed like another perfect scenario for her."
For Hollett, traditional music represents part of her musical DNA.
"We basically love these old songs, and felt we could do something fun and interesting with them to keep them in the present."
The album’s centerpiece is the vast Song For Memory, an enigmatic and powerful piece of music. It started as a small poem, and in the band’s hands turned into an emotional symphony. The images and melodies are both complex and memorable, leaving both band and audience alike to find their own stories.
Churchill prefers not to intellectualize it, explaining that the song is just about "making the last stand at ‘Fortress Pub’ against the inevitable and impending onslaught of loneliness and old age."
Dale sees it differently, believing "To me, it's about a group of men sitting around a table playing a game of cards, while they quietly ponder what their lives have meant and will mean, if there is more to life then the people and objects around them in the room, or if what surrounds them in the room is in fact all they need to be fulfilled."
Hollett, as in many things Once, gets the last word:
"I believe its about the same old hard working folk working in the same old worn down towns thinking and dreaming about days gone by and living through regrets in the company of those dong the same. There’s comfort in that, don’t you think?"
Geraldine Hollett - Vocals, Percussion
Andrew Dale - Vocals, Guitar, mandolin, Tenor Banjo, bouzouki
Phil Churchill - Vocals, Guitar, Percussion, mandolin
Row Upon Row of the People They Know Oct 2011
The Once (debut album)
You're My Best Friend October 2011
Maid On The Shore (radio airplay)
The Once Upon A Time
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The Dictionary of Newfoundland English defines "the once" as: "as soon as possible, right away." ...The Dictionary of Newfoundland English defines "the once" as: "as soon as possible, right away."
Used in a sentence, one might say "Let's go see The Once the once."
The other "The Once," of course, is the young folk trio of Geraldine Hollett, Phil Churchill and Andrew Dale, which is taking Newfoundland's folk music scene by storm.
Their self-titled debut record, released in July, has spent a number of weeks in the top position for album sales at Fred's Records in St. John's.
In a period of just five weeks the band has sold nearly 1,000 copies, a visibly excited Hollett tells me as she, Churchill, Dale and I discuss the band, their album and early success.
Seated on a futon in the living room of Hollett and Churchill's downtown top-floor apartment, she tells me about how the couple met and began singing together, as she occasionally peers out the window at the rain.
It all began a little more than a decade ago, she says, when she and Churchill met at Grenfell College in Corner Brook where they were studying theatre arts.
"Phil was the first person to say to me 'You should belt it out. That's what people want to hear,'" she recalls, laughing.
The pair met Dale while working for the Rising Tide Theatre Company in Trinity.
Now, the three are singing their way into people's hearts in St. John's, around the island, and across the Maritimes.
"The chemistry was there from the start," explains Dale.
"If we had to make an effort to make music work between the three of us it probably wouldn't have gone this far, but because there was chemistry right from the start and things just clicked, we got a charge and just wanted to keep going."
The focal point of the group's album and performances are the jaw-dropping three-part a capella harmonies that characterize much of their music, an attribute that caught the attention of Festival 500 organizers, who later invited the group to perform during the 2009 choral festivities last month.
"I remember the first time (singing harmonies), we were having a few drinks and learning one of these songs, and going 'Let's sing it again,' purely for the enjoyment of hearing that sound again," Churchill says.
"From this moment on we're the tiniest choir in Newfoundland," he jokes.
With a solid cohesion and each member's strengths harvested - Hollett's strong, but silky smooth vocals, Churchill's guitar, mandolin and violin playing, and Dale's multi-instrumental capabilities, including bodhran, banjo, bouzouki, mandolin, organ, accordion, bass, guitar, percussion, and piano -the only significant missing were the means to make a record.
As luck would have it, after a performance at the Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival in Nova Scotia last summer, the band received a generous offer to help finance their album from a stranger who saw their performance.
"It just capped off the whole weekend when a complete stranger believes in what you're doing so much, having just heard you that weekend, and is willing to offer up a substantial amount of money to make an album and help you go to the next level," says Dale. "It's a pretty good pick-me-up."
The album's content includes remakes of both traditional tunes like "Maid On The Shore," "Three Fishers," and "Willie Taylor," and contemporary material such as Tom Waits' "The Briar And The Rose," Amelia Curran's "What Will You Be Building," and a pair of Leonard Cohen songs, "Coming Back To You" and "Anthem."
Dale and Churchill each contribute original compositions on "Nell's song," which features the lyrics of Al Pittman's "My Handsome Lad."
"I like to say it's sort of a snapshot of where we've been and elements of what's to come," says Churchill, explaining the band's careful attention as to how to introduce their music.
"When we put out the album we were looking to show people that we're not about any one specific style of music," Dale says.
"It's still folk roots," Churchill adds.
"If we did heavy metal that probably wouldn't go over very well," jokes Hollett, prompting Churchill to add "To do a nice three-part folk version of a Metallica song, I always thought would be - 'Oh my god, what a beautiful song! What is that?'"
After sharing a laugh, the trio say they're already thinking ahead to the a followup album, which will include a more balanced mix of original compositions and cover songs.
Although, calling The Once's versions of tunes like "Anthem" and "Three Fishers" cover songs is highly misrepresentative of the work on their debut album.
"You listen to our three-part a capella version of "Anthem,"" says Dale, "we came up with our own arrangements and put our own stamp on it."
Despite having already sold nearly 1,000 copies of the album since July, The Once are finally hosting the official launch of the record Aug. 18 at The Ship Pub in St. John's.
Ten dollars gets you into the show, but $20 gets you in and a copy of the CD. If value is your thing, then take The Once up on the latter offer.
For more information visit The Once's web site at www.theonce.ca.
Debut album from The Once leaves me floored, elevated
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First a caveat: there is nothing in the way of criticism I can offer on this, the debut, self-titled...First a caveat: there is nothing in the way of criticism I can offer on this, the debut, self-titled album from The Once. The first time I’d heard it, I was floored, the second time elevated, and every time since enthralled. Here’s why:
The album opens on a briefly mournful note with the first few bars of Sail Away to the Sea, then dusts itself off and moves on. It’s as though there is an understanding here that while the path of our lives may be difficult at times, often leading us away from the things we most cherish, we mustn’t lose sight of the road ahead.
There is a deep and real life lived in this album. From song to song, prominent themes of loss and remembrance are ultimately challenged by fierce bouts of strength and determination. Geraldine Hollett’s voice, as soft and sweet as it is dense and determined, carries us through. While many an accomplished singer can do a fine job of conveying emotion, it’s clear Hollett lives it, at times so much so that you feel yourself living it, too.
The songs comprise a refreshing mix of traditional and contemporary Newfoundland folk music along with some nice choices from larger, more established artists. All songs are arranged by The Once, with a level of instrumentation that you would expect describes a band of far great than three.
Most of the dozen or more instruments are handled gracefully and articulately by Phil Churchill and Andrew Dale, who also lend their vocals to some incredibly haunting, at times beautifully cascading harmonies.
Our bittersweet journey with The Once draws to a close with a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem. In tones both certain and understated, The Once leave us on a resonating note of perseverance.
For a debut album, The Once demonstrate an impressive and mature range of talent, including the wherewithal to work with the best and the brightest in their field. Rising star in the music production world, Mark Neary, mixes nuance and subtlety with big, bold strokes deftly and to perfection. Right down to the design and packaging of the CD, this album gets every detail right.
I expect to see many great things from The Once with this, their debut album, being the first offering from what will no doubt be a long and successful career.
You can find The Once at Fred’s Records and O’Brien’s Music Store in St. John’s or by contacting the band by e-mail. The Once are expected to show up on iTunes soon, too, along with a previously unreleased track.
For more information on The Once, including photos, show dates and streaming music, be sure to check out their website.
Typically two 45-50 minutes sets, flowing seamlessly between original songs, traditional folk material and covers, all with fresh and original arrangements.
There are no upcoming dates at this time.