The United Way and Shivering Songs take Songs of the City on the road.
Last winter the Central New Brunswick United Way partnered with the Shivering Songs festival to host Songs of the City, a unique performance of story and song inspired by and dedicated to some amazing people who have overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges through help received from the United Way.
For many in the audience that night, it was their first real understanding of the kind of work the United Way does and the essential role the organization plays within our communities.
“Songs of the City was really great for us in terms of spreading the word about what we do and as a way to thank the people who come out year after year to support us,” said Jeff Richardson, executive director of Central New Brunswick United Way. “We got a lot of really good feedback after the first show in January. A lot of people had no idea that was the kind of work United Way was engaged in.”
The evening featured a number of incredibly brave and inspiring people from the local community who took to the stage to share their stories of personal triumph in overcoming incredible odds. Their stories were then given a musical interpretation by a select group of musicians backed by Shivering Songs founders, The Olympic Symphonium. Performances by Andrew Sisk, Jessica Rhaye, Keith Hallett and Michael Feuerstack each helped contribute to an emotional and highly impactful evening.
This fall, the two organizations will continue their partnership and take Songs of the City on tour with free performances planned for Moncton, Oromocto and Woodstock.
“The folks at Shivering Songs didn’t blink when the idea came up to do more of these performances,” said Richardson. “I wasn’t sure what they’d think at the end of it because it’s a lot of work and a different type of engagement.”
For their part, the Shivering Songs team reach out to musicians and coordinate much of the evening’s program, while Theatre New Brunswick’s Tania Breen helps each individual tell their story.
“In some ways, I have the easy job here,” said Richardson. “I just get to ask people if they want to be involved. It’s the musicians who are going out and having conversations with the people who are sharing their stories and then writing a song about their story.”
“We’re really excited to be part of this project again,” said Graeme Walker, a member of The Olympic Symphonium and a co-founder of the Shivering Songs festival. “Going into the last one we had an idea of what it would look like and really didn’t understand what an emotional impact it would have on us as a band and on the audience.”
Each Songs of the City performance is built around a foundation of tragedy and human perseverance. Some individuals who have received help from the United Way have suffered drug addiction, sexual violence and domestic abuse but have each found hope and strength through the support of their communities, and it’s this glimmer of hope that truly defines these performances.
“As musicians and artists, we’re always trying to find ways to connect with people and creating intriguing songs can be challenging, so with this I feel like we were almost cheating in a way because these amazing story lines were just handed to us,” said Walker. “All we had to do was push and pull them a little bit and it seemed to fall into place. The real challenge is for these people to get up and tell these stories. It’s absolutely amazing to see the courage some people have. It puts things in perspective in a real hurry.
“When the opportunity came up to be part of this project again sharing these stories, as well as developing a few new ones, we jumped at it,” he said. “I’ve always looked at making music as a very personal thing which makes it a very selfish act in a way. I’m ok with that, but having the opportunity to direct that energy at someone else’s personal experiences is a very interesting approach to me. We’re very honored to have the chance.”
Musicians participating in the fall tour include Tim Walker and The Olympic Symphonium, with Jessica Rhaye joining for performances in Oromocto and Woodstock and Caroline Savoie and Shaun LeBlanc joining for the Moncton show.
Tim Walker, who performs together with his brother Graeme in the group Grand Theft Bus and is also involved in several other musical projects, has found the process involved in telling someone else’s story to be equal parts rewarding and challenging.
“Usually when I am writing tunes, there is an element of stream of consciousness at play where you kind of follow the muse around and let the song take on whatever shape it will,” he said. “In this situation, the purpose is so specific to one person’s story. It’s challenging to do justice to what they have gone through and are still going through. Some songs fall out of you in ten minutes. This one, not so much. I usually try to write in such a way that the lyrics are vague enough for the listener to put their own spin on it and personalize it despite it being about a very specific thing to me. With this song, there isn’t as much room for spin.”
Walker says he feels a need to do the story justice while also writing in a fashion that will resonate with the person whose story he is working to convey. It’s a creation process unlike any he’s encountered in his roughly twenty years writing and performing.
“After meeting with the man that I am writing about, my initial approach to my song completely changed,” said Walker. “Although his story is unbearably sad and unfortunate, his outlook and attitude are so positive that it made me totally rethink the music. He made me a playlist of music that he likes and loosely suggested what kind of feel he thought the tune should have. Our tastes aren’t overly similar to be honest, but I like having to work within those parameters. It stretches me as a writer and it only makes sense being that it is his story that I am telling.”