Who you calling folk?

There's a beep on the line. "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...

“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 jamesm@yukon-news.com.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Yukon RCMP say they’ve received three reports of youth being extorted online. (Black Press file)
Yukon youth being extorted online

Yukon youth being extorted online Yukon RCMP say they’ve received three reports… Continue reading

Fines for contravening the fire ban start at $1,150 and could go as high as $100,000. File photo
Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. (Black Press file)
Yukon campgrounds to open early

Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. The early opening… Continue reading

A Housing First building on Fifth Avenue and Wood Street will be taken over by the Council of Yukon First Nations and John Howard Society later this month. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
CYFN, John Howard Society take over downtown Housing First residence

The organizations have pledged culturally appropriate service for its many Indigenous residents

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. Politicians return for the spring sitting of the assembly March 4. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Analysis: What to expect in spring sitting of the legislature

They’re back on March 4, but election speculation is looming large

d
WYATT’S WORLD

Wyatt’s World for March 3, 2021.

A rendering of the Normandy Manor seniors housing facility. (Photo courtesy KBC Developments)
Work on seniors housing project moves forward

Funding announced for Normandy Manor

Tom Ullyett, pictured, is the first Yukoner to receive the Louis St-Laurent Award of Excellence from the Canadian Bar Association for his work as a community builder and mentor in the territory. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Tom Ullyett wins lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Bar Association

Ullyett has worked in the Yukon’s justice ecosystem for 36 years as a public sector lawyer and mentor

The Blood Ties outreach van will now run seven nights a week, thanks to a boost in government funding. Logan Godin, coordinator, and Jesse Whelen, harm reduction counsellor, are seen here on May 12, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Blood Ties outreach van running seven nights a week with funding boost

The Yukon government is ramping up overdose response, considering safe supply plan

Ranj Pillai speaks to media about business relief programs in Whitehorse on April 1, 2020. The Yukon government announced Feb.25 that it will extend business support programs until September. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Government extends business relief programs to September, launches new loan

“It really gives folks some help with supporting their business with cash flow.”

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
A look at decisions made by Whitehorse City Council this week

Bylaw amendment Whitehorse city council is moving closer with changes to a… Continue reading

Susie Rogan is a veteran musher with 14 years of racing experience and Yukon Journey organizer. (Yukon Journey Facebook)
Yukon Journey mushers begin 255-mile race

Eleven mushers are participating in the race from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. As the legislature prepares to return on March 4, the three parties are continuing to finalize candidates in the territory’s 19 ridings. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Nine new candidates confirmed in Yukon ridings

It has been a busy two weeks as the parties try to firm up candidates

David Malcolm, 40, has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm a police officer after an incident in Whitehorse on Feb. 18. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News)
Man resists arrest, assaults officer

A Whitehorse man has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm… Continue reading

Most Read