Winnipeg litpop project Heavy Bell wants you to sit down with a good book and listen

Tom Keenan calls it a “long game.”

Add a few extra “o”s and you get a better sense of the life of his not-so new project Heavy Bell and their debut By Grand Central Station.

We could go way, way, way back — or loooooooong ago — to the inspiration, itself, which is the 1945 novel of prose poetry written by Canadian author Elizabeth Smart, titled By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.

It is based partly on her affair with English poet George Barker, which produced four children, and is considered a literary classic — so much so that Man Booker Prize winner Yann Martel included it among the works he sent to Stephen Harper during his years-long campaign to get the former Canadian prime minister to crack a book and open his mind.

That, actually is the more direct connection to Heavy Bell — so maybe just looong? — when a friend of a friend heard that eight years ago, read the novel, and gave a copy to Keenan, a Winnipeg actor and singer-songwriter.

He, in turn, gave it to his friend, Royal Canoe frontman Matt Peters — the pair having just completed work writing music for a theatrical production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and “keen to do another project right away.”

Kennan says Smart’s novel was the perfect launching point for that, one that immediately struck him as musical, although not necessarily in the traditional sense.

“The music of her language we found very striking. It’s not written in verse so it made for some interesting songwriting,” he says.

“It made for songs that were unpredictable because we were following something that was not structured in that way.”

That said, he admits the songwriting process — lo those eight years ago — was a relatively quick one, the inspiration that both men found from the book so great.

But, well, add a few extra “o”s for how inspired they were and how busy they were with their other careers and you can also add a few extra years to the creative process.

“The songs all came out really fast, like in two sessions I think at my house,” Keenan says. “We just came out with all of these songs and then decided that we should try to arrange them for a chamber ensemble because we just thought it needed something larger than what either of us had done before.”

So for the next seven years they took a “couple of weeks out of the year to work on it” with an incredible array of musicians including some from the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra as well as others from the ’Peg indie rock community including Begonia, Slattern, and members of Imaginary Cities, Chic Gamine and fellow Royal Canoers.

Their intent was to tell the very personal story of Smart — hell, her mother tried to buy up all of the copies in Ottawa and burn them — with a “bigger sound … dynamic range.”

And that they got.

By Grand Central Station is an epic work of art, stunning in its scope, feeling and emotional range. It’s gorgeous. Almost, itself, literary. In fact, it’s already been lumped into the litpop genre.

Yet, in keeping with that, when you listen to it, it’s such a remarkably intimate experience, as if you’re holed up in the house on a cold winter day, on the couch, in front of the fire, with a glass of wine, the dog at your feet and a good, good, good book in your lap.

“I’m really glad to hear you say that, because in production, in mixing we really wanted the vocals to be right in your ear … we wanted it to feel like everyone’s in a room about the size of my living room,” says Keenan, who provides most of the vocals together with Peters.

“We wanted a lot of instruments, but we didn’t want to go for that concert hall sound, we wanted to go for a chamber sound, and I think that’s part of the intimacy of the book and the act of reading. So I’m glad that came across.”

Now, though, they’re tasked with taking the music out of the living room and into other venues across the country, including the National Music Centre’s Studio Bell for a show Friday, Feb. 16 as part of the Calgary Folk Music Festival’s Block Heater festival.

They perform the album in its entirety from beginning to end, which posed the question of: “How small can we make it without sacrificing what we think is essential for the arrangements?” The number they came up with was eight musicians, which includes the vocals, guitar and piano provided by Keenan and Peters, along with six other artists who add trumpet, French horn, violin, cello, double bass and drum.

“It actually ends up being just as big and full as on the record, it’s just that different instruments are taking different parts,” he says.

And on the album, the now deceased Smart also makes a couple of appearances — they acquired snippets of her reading the novel from the CBC — which required Heavy Bell to make another adjustment when it came to live shows. In each city, they ask actors from the theatre community to participate, some speaking the parts and passages from the album, others that are selected by the local actors, with the musicians then improv-ing around them.

“We really wanted the local performers to bring their connection to the novel to the show. We wanted an element that’s not controlled by us just to bring a sort of wild card element to the show. It’s been really exciting.”

In Calgary, the two actors accompanying them are Jamie Konchak and Elizabeth Stepkowski, who were recommended to the group by others, but who Keenan has done his research on and is excited to work with.

And in keeping with the literary genesis of the project, at all of their shows Heavy Bell have attempted to partner with book stores in each city to share Smart’s novel with the audience. At Studio Bell, Shelf Life Books will be selling copies of it and other works.

“We just want to celebrate this book,” Kennan says. “We’re still so excited about it and whenever people come to the show they’re really curious about the source material. So it’s really nice to see these books getting sold and new people reading it.”

Which brings up another important question for Heavy Bell: What’s next?

After painting yourself into the litpop corner, how do you follow it up? What’s the next book?

Keenan laughs, noting that he brought the subject up with his musical partner last year, when this album hadn’t even been completed and they were in the midst of other projects, and he was shut down quickly.

“I do have a couple of ideas for a next project, but this has been so much work making this happen that we just haven’t really had the mental energy to focus on the future,” he says.

“But definitely, I don’t want to give away my secrets, but there are some definitely literary and maybe mythological possibilities in the future.”

Heavy Bell perform Friday, Feb. 16 at Studio Bell as part of this year’s Calgary Folk Music Festival Block Heater. For tickets and information please click here

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Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for Follow him on Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at