“It’s a call from Nashville,” said Tamara Nile as she excused herself to take it.
Nile—whose stage name is T. Nile—is a banjo-picking alt-country artist who grew up on Galiano Island in the Juan de Fuca Strait. She’d just got a call from Eddie Schwartz, the Canadian-born songwriter behind Pat Benatar’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot.
Schwartz was trying to get her to do some song-writing workshops in Tennessee—all she needs is funding from the Canada Council.
“(Schwartz) is a hit songwriter so it’s pretty exciting,” she said.
Nile grew up in a musical family on their back-to-the-land homestead. She picked up the banjo because of its simple, frail and honest sound.
“(Folk) is music that people can imagine playing,” she said. “It’s not inaccessible. I picked up my banjo and within a week I played my first song.”
Jazz and classical music are virtuosic—something that risks isolating the artist from the everyday world around them, she said.
“There’s no way that I could write a Chopin nocturne after a week of playing piano,” said Nile.
But because it lacks pomp, the banjo breaks the walls between the artist and the community they play for.
“I try my best to express something as beautifully as possible according to my values and the people around me—I try things out on people,” she said.
The artist reflects, perhaps imperfectly, the world around her.
“It’s a combination of myself and what comes back to me.”
Going to Nashville would expand her world—that’s why the Canada Council grant is so important.
The Canadian government, through the Canada Council and the Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent on Records, is the main reason she and the rest of the independent Canadian arts scene gets by, she said.
“Art is really important for the human spirit and a world without art is a world not worth living in. It’s a sign of a sophisticated society that supports its artists and I think it’s important that we’re honouring our art.”
Her philosophy traces back to her childhood, in a house where there was no television but plenty of instruments.
“The banjo was something that my dad brought over to my house. I guess he found one at Rufus guitar shop in Vancouver. He tends to do that, he loves buying instruments and then just leaving them at the house.”
“I’m not sure if it was a conscious attempt to get me to play, but it worked.”
Her parents played music almost on a daily basis, she said. They grew their own food on their remote property and when there was nothing to do, they would play the instruments that were hanging around the house.
Life was playing music, for the most part, but it took an emerging folk scene with artists like Sufjan Stevens and Iron and Wine to impress upon Nile the flexibility of the genre.
“When I started writing my own songs, I never thought I wanted to be a folk musician and I didn’t want to be like my parents. But I discovered the banjo through this indie alternative music. From there I had a new perspective of folk music and I started to appreciate my roots a little more.”
Folk drew Nile to banjo.
“Just holding it, you feel connected to a tradition. I feel that I became part of something that’s bigger than me. For some reason the banjo has this history that’s very tangible.
“For North America and the West, the banjo is a big part of western mythology and music. When you hear a banjo you hear ‘West.’”
That heavy history can make it hard for an emerging artist to avoid being labelled. But the more she immerses herself in its sound, the less Nile hears the projections of others.
“When I made (the banjo) my own and I stopped feeling like it was outside of myself and that it was being put on me, I realized that it was in my bones because it grew up with me. But I didn’t have to repeat the past.
“I was able to do whatever I wanted, but it would come out of me sounding folky because that’s what I lived and breathed and grew up with.”
Music isn’t meant to make money. That’s the problem with leaving music to the musicians. Everyone should play music because it’s an essential part of living well, she said.
“You look at a place like Cuba, where everybody is a way better musician than 95 per cent of the professional musicians that play here. They live and breathe it and they’re on the street playing, someone joins in and they’re the best percussionist you’ve ever heard but he’s a shoe-shiner.”
Music shouldn’t be one kind of person entertaining another, that leaves an artist feeling like music is just a job, she added.
“Music is like food, it’s like air, and yet we live in a society that doesn’t see it that way. But I think it could.”
If we all became a little more musical, perhaps we’d see music more as part of our community rather than an industry, she said.
“There is a certain freedom that comes with joining that community. With the songs that I have, I could try and be in the pop world, because some of my stuff is pretty poppy. But then I would be more restricted in what I could say and how I dress and what I look like.”
While labels are a part of working that can’t be avoided, it shouldn’t creep into an artist’s own self-image, she said.
“I don’t actually attempt to make folk music. I just do what I do and then I label it after the fact,” she said. “If it was up to me and I didn’t have to make a living doing this, I would never label myself anything. But we work in a marketplace and part of marketing is labelling and branding. If I just say, ‘Oh, I just make music,’ how do you fit in a folk festival; how do you fit in a venue?”
But even the pop scene is changing, with a little more of an appreciation for independence, she said.
It’s a good thing too, because people need to remember that being successful doesn’t mean selling out, added Nile.
Feist’s popularity, after “1234” was featured in an iPod commercial, is a notable example.
“How many more people know about Feist because of the commercial?” said Nile. “(Artists) need to make a living and we can’t keep doing what we’re doing if we can’t make enough money to do it. This whole idea that somehow making money for what you do is bad is bizarre.”
Nile keeps in mind that labels and money are unavoidable aspects of making music in this country, and that true success is measured by the size of the community involved.
It’s an important thing to remember when the big guys from Nashville come calling.
T. Nile is playing at the Yukon Arts Centre on Saturday, January 24 at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at the Arts Centre box office and Arts Underground.
Contact James Munson at email@example.com.