There’s a certain magic that happens when musicians get together to play songs or tunes, and right away they’re on the same wavelength. They don’t even have to have the same music background; they just “get” each other. When they do have a shared musical genre, all’s the better. The debut album by Shane Cook & the Woodchippers, Be Here For A While, hit pay dirt soon after its release with two Canadian Folk Music Award nominations: Traditional Album of the Year and Instrumental Album of the Year.
“Over the years, there are certain players you gravitate towards and enjoy playing with,” said Shane from his London, ON home. “There’s been a pool of [people] I’ve enjoyed playing with and Emily Flack, Joe Phillips and Kyle Waymouth are three that seemed to gel well together. When [we] get together, there’s maybe something special that happens. I can think specifically of the Goderich Celtic Roots Festival; there was sort of a particularly magical weekend with the four of us. I think it’s something we all agreed we should keep doing, and that’s sort of how we ended up where we are.”
The combination of Shane and the Woodchippers is definitely not a case of four strangers who just happened to meet and get on well together.
“All four of us have a really strong connection to the Ontario fiddle and step dance scene,” Shane said. “In particular, Kyle, Emily and I all grew up in the fiddle and step dance circuit and have known each other since we’ve been kids.”
The resumes of the musicians are impressive, with Shane being a Canadian and U.S. national fiddle champion and Kyle a five-time national step dance champion. Emily has a Master’s Degree in Traditional Irish Song from the Irish World Academy at the University of Limerick and is a member of the Leahy family. And Joe performs with the Art Of Time Ensemble, Jayme Stone’s Folklife and Payadora Tango Ensemble and plays principal bass in the London Symphonia. Added to this, Shane and Joe play in bands led by Celtic artist Allison Lupton and bluegrass artist Claire Lynch.
“That’s the nice thing about this kind of music; everybody brings their own voice”, said Shane. “On any given night any one of us could lead the band and lead a totally different type of night. Joe isn’t just playing bass; he could lead a night of tango. They’re all so varied.”
The material on Be Here For A While is also reflective of the talents of all four members. While Shane’s compositions are featured more, they’re combined with tunes by Kyle and Emily. The album also has a couple of Emily’s songs. Kyle and Emily show off their step dancing talents on a couple of tunes, while two selections highlight Joe’s musicianship.
“That was important to find a way that we all wanted to buy into the project,” said Shane. “Because we all see ourselves playing together going forward too. This isn’t just, ‘Put a record out and call it a day.’ We all write tunes, and Emily writes beautiful songs. Everybody has so much to contribute, and it was important that everyone had a voice when it came to arranging the record too.”
This collaborative effect raised the album from its original intent.
“In my mind, I was thinking I’d put an album together of Ontario fiddling,” Shane added, “and that would be the starting point. It certainly was, but as soon as we got rehearsing and into the studio, it had taken on a life of its own and become something else!”
Helping the band achieve that “something else” was co-Producer Andrew Collins.
“I love working with Andrew. I love to play music together with him,” Shane said.” I also love to pick his brain when it comes to arranging and life in the studio. He’s one of my go-to guys for advice for all of those things. When it came time to do the record, I liked the approach he took. He let us do our thing, and then as we closed in on what we wanted to say on each arrangement, then he would step in and make subtle suggestions.”
To help kick off the release of Be Here For A While, Shane and the Woodchippers taped an online concert with The International Symphony Orchestra at the Aeolian Hall in London. An added feature was the involvement of youth fiddle groups from across Canada.
“We were stuck at home wondering what to do, so one thought was to arrange the record for orchestra,” Shane explained. “I have a relationship with The ISO from having played with them numerous time. I was talking with the executive director, Anthony Wing, and we bounced some ideas off each other, and the next thing you know, two months later, we had an orchestra show and filmed it at Aeolian Hall. Along the way, I was feeling kind of stuck at home alone, looking for ways to stay in touch with friends. So many of my friends who play the fiddle teach. There’s a unique phenomenon in Canada where young fiddlers get together and have these youth fiddle groups and orchestras. What I was hearing from teachers was these kids were dying for ways to stay active and looking for places to play. So the light bulb turned on, and it was, ‘Here’s an idea!’ It started out with just a few groups where we arranged some parts for them to play, and they would submit their parts virtually.”
But like any great idea, once word of the project spread, it soon grew beyond the original concept. In the end, there was representation from 12 of the provinces and territories.
“Visually, it’s a neat thing to see [because] a lot of these groups went to regionally identifiable places and filmed themselves. The group from Halifax went out to Peggy’s Cove; Coastline in Victoria B.C. filmed down at the harbour, and the Iqaluit Music Society went out onto the tundra. With each of these groups, you can almost guess where they are when you see them play.”
Looking towards the new year, there are plans to perform.
“We’ve started booking our release tour for the spring of 2022. This is sort of the third time trying to book this thing, and I think this time we’ll actually get to do it,” said Shane. “We’ll do an Ontario leg in March and April. In the summertime, with any luck, we’ll be busy with festivals. Things seem to be coming together there, and then we’ll be off to the east coast in August for a tour there. It’s promising. With any luck, this will all actually happen this time.”
For more on Shane Cook & the Woodchippers, go to: shanecook.com.