Maybe it was growing up in Lloydminster, with a foot in two provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan, studying ballet, visual arts, classical piano, theatre and voice, that helped multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter Colleen Brown move through two different worlds with so much grace. Like having a foot in those two provinces, Brown is able to pivot her music from a hushed, sit-down piano concert to a jumpin’-hot, lovely mess of songs in a loud bar.
Those two worlds include her solo career, launched in 2004 with the release of her first album, A Peculiar Thing, followed by more solo albums as well a 2009 record with The Secretaries, and, since 2014, her work with Major Love, comprised of Brown and Edmonton’s Scenic Route to Alaska. While they’d run into each other around Edmonton’s music scene, it wasn’t until a gig in London, UK, that they meshed, hanging out and discovering commonalities halfway around the world.
Thus, their full-length, self-titled album released on Latent Recordings/Warner in 2018 (another one’s in the works), proves the serendipitous coming together of Brown and Scenic Route was meant to be, just like Alberta and Saskatchewan were meant to blend together in the singer’s hometown. As it was mainly recorded live off the floor, you know their live shows will deliver.
Warning: you might need to sit down when the full force of Major Love’s album hits you, so beautifully does it marry unburdened, follow-you-anywhere ballads like Motherland — which pays homage to Alberta yet sounds like it drifted out of a Laurel Canyon window in the 8200 block of Lookout Mountain about 50 years ago and got caught on a wee bit of a neighbour’s Tapestry in the wind – with chugging, bustle-your-haunches songs like Tear It Down. Sure, you might need to sit down when the wave of these astute, dauntless songs washes over you, but good luck with that. If your heart would let you, your feet sure won’t.
In advance of Major Love’s performance at the Calgary Folk Music Festivals upcoming Summer Serenade series, theSCENE caught up with Brown to understand more about how she creates such unbridled, positive music without ever veering anywhere near the sugar factory.
Q: How do you keep everything so positive on this album in a way that doesn’t just seem saccharine and fake? It’s an astounding feat, really.
A: It’s all an act (laughs). I’ve been working on it. It’s a work in progress to try to be more positive.
There were a lot more dark moments or heavier songs in the previous albums that I’ve done with my solo project. It’s been introspective and some of it’s a bit heavy.
With Major Love, I had the decision that basically the band was going to be where I put all my happy, fun songs, and have a live experience that will be a lot of fun for everyone and not always go to the heavy places.
Some of it’s sometimes just a choice. I might wake up feeling heavy and sad, I’m not going to pretend I don’t feel that way, but I may try to access other feelings by putting on a song I love and moving my body around a little bit or going outside and looking at the flowers. Those things just remind us of the other side.
Those were definitely things I wanted to access because as a singer you sing the same words over and over again and it felt like it was a self-fulfilling prophesy, if I continue to sing heartbreak songs, I will create more heartbreak in my life.
Q: A sense of humour permeates a lot of areas of your career.
A: My previous band, The Secretaries, our stuff was always like a party. I wanted to have a little piece of that. I knew I could never replicate that band with another band and I didn’t want to try but I wanted to take a little piece of that fun time and good vibration band element and bring it into this new project.
The Secretaries was really a formative time for me and I think that (bandmates) Natasha (Fryzuk) and Amy (van Keeken) are two of the funniest people you will ever meet. I basically just giggled the whole time I was in that band.
I grew up in a big family — I’m the fourth of six kids — and as a middle child you always struggle to be heard and to feel seen, so there’s definitely some element of that at play. My family, sarcasm is definitely very present, the sense of humour about ourselves is a common theme.
Q: It’s amazing that a chance encounter with people you met halfway around the world turned into such a perfect mesh of musical styles. How does the collaboration work?
A. When I met these guys – I’m sure I had crossed paths with them before but we’d never actually talked – as soon as we were on that stage, it just felt like (wow). If you know those guys at all you know that they are a joy. They just carry that around with them everywhere they go, too. Everything began to mesh.
I had written the words and mostly had the chords and melody. And the guys, their part was mostly arrangement, although there were a couple of places where they changed form or changed a chord. It did feel collaborative. I’ve been in a studio with different players in different recording situations quite a number of times.
And this really felt like we were all really engaged.
That’s why this wasn’t just a studio project, but a band, because of the sounds that came out weren’t things I would have directed session musicians to do. Really any of the things that they did naturally fell into place in a way that sat really well.
Q: You tend to work on and off to keep your music going. What jobs have you had?
A: I worked as a nanny when I was 20. I worked at a firehall one summer, at a crate company that packaged oil field equipment, as a server at an East Coast-themed bar in Edmonton, as a music teacher, at the box office of Winspear Centre, and as a tree planter. I worked in horticulture with the City of Edmonton. A lot of things I’ve been doing in the past several years have been seasonal work, so I can work up a new set of songs.
(Currently) I started a job with a music tech company, doing some marketing.
Q: What’s one thing that surprised you about working and recording with Major Love?
A: Just that it was so easy. There’ve been times (before Major Love) in the studio that it’s really a slog and we spent time arguing whether or not to have something in a song, spend days tracking one instrument on a song. You can get so blinded by minutiae of recording that you stop making music. There have been times where it’s really torturous to be in the studio, and we really didn’t know what we came in for or how to get it.
(With Major Love) we recorded pretty much everything live off the floor with a bed track. We were a band in a room with microphones recording the music in one take. That, to me, especially when you’re in a rock band, that’s a really beautiful way of approaching it because the vibe is so important, the swagger is so important, and then what you add after that you can really curate and get into the minutiae a little bit. But the bones of the song are already there.
Major Love plays Summer Serenades July 24 at Prince’s Island Park. For information go to https://www.calgaryfolkfest.com/summer-serenades/