With the mainstream successes of Cape Breton fiddle music in the last two decades, it may not come as a surprise to some people that contemporary rock sounds and traditional tunes can make beautiful music together. But the local music scene has a way of pulling out new surprises for both musicians and audiences alike, and the Roots to the Future concert at this year’s Celtic Colours International Festival was one of those gems.
Spearheaded by singer/songwriter Carmel Mikol, the project brought together four singer/songwriters and four instrumental musicians with the goal of creating new collaborative material fusing contemporary songwriting with traditional Cape Breton and Celtic tunes. The pairings of Carmel Mikol and Rachel Davis, Steven MacDougall and Colin Grant, and Fiona MacGillivray and Ryan J. MacNeil all gave the audience some insight into the dynamic process of how new sounds and songs get made in Cape Breton.
Homegrown rocker Carleton Stone was paired with star fiddler Rosie MacKenzie, and the duo wowed the Roots to the Future audience with their creative arrangements and surprising onstage chemistry. WGO caught up with Stone to chat about his first Celtic Colours experience, the collaboration with MacKenzie, and what else is next in the rising star’s agenda.
WGO: This is your first time at Celtic Colours. What’s what been like for you overall?
STONE: It’s kind of been like experiencing a whole other world that I’ve never been a part of–the Cape Breton [Celtic] music scene. It’s just a lot different playing shows for about a hundred people crammed in Governor’s, or playing for a bunch of drunks at Herman’s. It’s people who travel from all over the continent or world to see high-calibre Celtic music. It’s kind of treating the whole art with a lot more respect than I’m used to (laughs). People aren’t puking when I’m playing.
WGO: I remember you saying the same thing about opening for Greg MacPherson during the All Ages show in Sydney earlier this year.
STONE: (laughs)…Yeah. People were so quiet!
WGO: Now about the type of music–your genre isn’t Celtic, you’re coming from a bit of a different background. So what’s it like to be playing in a festival that’s predominantly Celtic?
STONE: I kind of accepted the gig because I thought it would be outside of the box for me, and be a bit of a challenge to write songs specifically for this project that would fit into the greater fabric of what the festival is, on large, and with what it brings to the public. It’s been rewarding now at this point, where the songs are done and I can kind of look back at parts where I was beating my head against the wall trying to write lyrics to these celtic tunes and medodies, where some of the [Cape Breton fiddle tunes] are 50 or 60 years old, and trying to take a song and hold it up as an instrumental piece without lyrics or singing or vocal melodies. It was tricky to wrap my head around at the beginning.
WGO: And now when you look back and see what you’ve created, how does it all fit together? Are you happy with what you ended up with?
STONE: I think with–obviously without those restraints–it would have been just ‘the next four songs I wrote’. Obviously the project has shaped the songs in a way. I knew they were going be presented in a Celtic Colours show with a lot of Celtic artists and a Celtic (music) audience, so I wasn’t going to go and play some kind of punk song. I was trying to write in a way that people would hopefully enter into my songwriting and my music by means of bending what I do a little bit to fit their tastes.
WGO: For the Roots to the Future show, your collaboration was with fiddler Rosie MacKenzie. What was it like to work with her?
STONE: She’s very proficient, very skilled musician, moreso than me. I don’t look at myself as a very skilled guitar player, or piano player, or anything. I usually kind of do just enough to get by to be able to write songs, so playing with someone who’s so skilled–and have that as what they do. Not to pigeonhole it like that, but that’s her thing. I’m really happy with the way it turned out. We put the time in. I think people are going to be really excited with and impressed with what we have, because it’s something that neither of us would be able to create on our own, you know, or wouldn’t have except for this project.
WGO: There [were] a lot of up and coming and really excellent artists in this show, a younger generation.
STONE: There’s a fair bit of diversity. There were four songwriters for the project, so it’s me, Fiona MacGillivray, Carmel Mikol, and Steven MacDougall. So there’s a lot of variety within our four writing styles and also variety in the four “tunemakers” as they call them–there’s three fiddlers and a piper. There’s a lot of diversity within their styles as well, and we were all just randomly paired together. So the songs that were created for the show as a whole are very diverse. No two songs sound alike at all, even though there is kind of more contemporary influences for everyone, as well as the mood for half of the songs in the show are based on Celtic tunes.
WGO: You’ve had the opportunity to take in some other Celtic Colours shows as well. Any thoughts on what you’ve seen?
STONE: It’s a whole realm of musicianship, art, and creativity I knew existed but never stuck my head in the door to see what was really going on in there. I just knew that these people were the best at what they did in their genre but that they weren’t necessarily at the top of my listening list. I just kind of ignored it until I became involved with it all this year, and I realized wow, this is a really special festival and really special event that’s right in my back yard that I hadn’t even acknowledged. I saw Rita MacNeil and the Men of the Deeps [at the opening show]. I’ve grown up my whole life in Cape Breton and never had seen either of them play a show. So even just that–they’re not necessarily “Celtic” artists but they’re definitely part of the greater kind of fabric that makes up Cape Breton culture. It’s been inspiring, really, watching these people who are such pros. And the support in the community too, you know, these aren’t cheap shows to go to. It’s hard to get people through the door at $8 cover sometimes when you’re playing a bar show. Some of these [Celtic Colours] tickets are $65 and you can hear a pin drop and every seat is sold out and there are people standing at the back of the room. I think that has also surprised me with how much support from the community goes into this festival between the audience and the volunteers.
WGO: It sounds like it was a great opportunity for you, and a chance to push your boundaries as an artist.
STONE: Creatively, like I said, it was stepping outside the box for me. I wanted to do it because I like a challenge, but also this is an international festival so to even have my name associated as someone who’s creating music for this, it’s an honour. It’s helping raise my profile as a singer/songwriter/artist. If I can get a couple people in that room to go to my website and maybe listen to my music or go to one of my shows with the band, then it was totally worth it, outside of trading four new songs that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
WGO: This is all happening in what’s been a big year for you, overall.
STONE: Yeah, we just got signed into a management/record label deal with Groundswell music. So you know, I don’t know if it was a part of being involved in these very credible gigging opportunities but I’m sure it didn’t hurt, you know, raising my name, raising my profile, getting the attention of these people. I now have a team of people that I’m working with all the time to push my career, and they’re using this [show] in promoting the heck out of this to make me bigger.
WGO: Any other sense of what else is next for you and your band?
STONE: We have a new record written and we’ve started the recording process. Our new record will be out across the country in late spring. That’s kind of the timeline we’re working on now, we should be finished recording by the end of the year and hopefully May. We got a lot of different offers to tour into the US which is kind of what we’re going to focus on, and hopefully a national tour once the record comes out this summer–across Canada, because we’ve never done that before, we’ve only gone as far as Toronto so far. That’s it right now, trying to finish this record.