You can hear an ocean liner’s horn sounding through the phone.
“There’s a couple of cruise ships in the docks here,” said Brooke Miller, sitting in her hotel room on the 14th floor of the Pan Pacific Hotel overlooking Vancouver harbour.
Her husband and fellow musician Don Ross is with her. Ross, 48, is playing at a black-tie gala later that night, and the pair are resting before the show.
This Vancouver gig is one of Ross’s few solo shows on this tour. On Tuesday, the couple will play together on stage at the Yukon Arts Centre, performing songs from each of their new albums.
Ross is a acclaimed instrumentalist—the only guitarist to win the National Fingerstyle Guitar Competition in Winfield, Kansas, twice.
“It was considered the Winfield jinx for a time, nobody could repeat win,” he said. “Being the only person to win it twice is a bit of a feather in my cap, I guess.”
Ross’s talent has kept him on the road for more than 20 years.
“A lot of living in suitcases and hotel rooms,” he said.
He’s got a knack for playing jazz and funk-infused guitar tunes, employing techniques that leave good ol’ pick strumming in the dust.
“There’s a few ways you can play,” said Ross. “You can play with a flat pick and strum, or you can play with your fingers.
“When you play with your fingers, you can play a little more symphonically or pianistically. You can do a lot more things at once.”
He might even throw in a few slaps on the guitar neck for percussion, a technique known as slap harmonics.
“I try not to rely too much on that because they can become a bit of a summersault that you do over and over again,” he said.
When Ross was eight years old, growing up in Montreal, his sister brought home an old guitar that her school, Iona Academy, didn’t need anymore.
“My older brother and I started learning on that,” he said.
Ross began soaking up the great pop music of the day, from the Beatles to Motown, and used that guitar to mimic their sound, honing his skills as a musician.
“When I grew up there weren’t a lot of resources to learn how to play the instrument other than songbooks,” he said. “In my case, what I really got into was trying to pick things up out of records, and not necessarily always guitar music.”
“I would hear a pop song, or a song I really liked and I would try to figure out what the different parts were doing and try to figure out the chords that went along too.”
“What it gave rise to was me using a lot of unusual techniques as I got older to try and emulate a lot of the things I was hearing.”
His listening style ended up creating a unique kind of song.
“When I started writing music a lot in my mid-teens, I started using a lot of the same ways of playing the instruments that I developed in order to write my own music.”
It gave him a unique style.
Jazz artists, like pianist Keith Jarrett and bassist Jaco Pastorius, were heavy influences.
“Mostly what I try to do instrumentally is come up with something with an independent bass line and melody line, and then also fill in the chords in the middle of the instrument’s range.
“It means, in order to emulate a band and get some percussion stuff going on and bass lines, I have to employ some unusual techniques in order to achieve that.”
He plays every instrument on his latest album, Any Colour.
“It’s a complete departure (from previous albums),” said Ross. “It’s all vocal, which surprises a lot of people.”
“It sounds like a really tight band backing me up, but it’s all me,” he said.
“And Brooke sings on a couple of songs as well.”
He left Montreal when he was 17, and now lives with Miller, 27, in the small town of Cannington, Ontario, northeast of Toronto, where they have a home studio.
“It’s kind of horsey country, a town of about 2,000 people” said Miller.
They met five years ago.
“We were fans of each other’s music before anything really erupted intimately,” said Miller.
She also had a solo career before beginning to arrange double-bill shows with Ross in December 2004.
“We met at CBC radio and then again at a music conference, and we just kept bumping into each other,” she said.
Miller is from Charlottetown, PEI,
and is considered an experimentalist in her own right.
“I’m not a guitarist necessarily, I’m a songwriter and a singer,” said Miller. “I try to use guitar as a means for its own voice instead of just strumming G’s and C’s, which bores me to hell.”
Her latest album, You Can See Everything, is less introspective and more about the world seen through the eyes of a traveller.
“It’s about travel,” said Miller. “A lot of observation and looking outside.”
Ross and Miller each have their own solo tours, but these duo gigs are well received, she said.
It’ll be Miller’s first trip to the Yukon and Ross’s third.
“A friend of mine puts it really well,” said Ross. “A guitar is like a boat that takes you sailing all over the world.”
Don Ross and Brooke Miller play the Yukon Arts Centre on Tuesday at 8 p.m.
Contact James Munson at