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Thomas McCallum has spent the past few years travelling the countryside, a jack of all trades, writing songs as the trees flash by. He has been a camp cook, seminarian, worked in downtown Fort McMurray, hitchhiked, helped with the hay, picked blueberries, and netted fish. McCallum has shared the stage with many inspiring musicians as tin whistler or with supporting vocals and guitar, especially singer-songwriter Al Tuck.

Interview by Rebeccah Love

How would you describe your childhood, and the community that raised you? What type of art did you make way back then? Did music play a large role in your life during that time?

I am a singer-songwriter from rural northern Nova Scotia. It was a very musical place, but also very lonely. As a child I spent a lot of time reading and wandering in the hills around my home. I grew up poor in a rambling old family home - my mother had an ever-changing catalogue of down-on-their-luck friends and relatives staying with us, and in the worst periods we would comb the ditches picking up bottles to return for deposit. My escape from all that was in song, first through local and provincial choirs and later in my own compositions. I became active in churches and began to see the role of music in the lives of those on the fringes of society, and it is really the encouragement I've received from those in more desperate straights than me over the years that keep me going in music. What kind of person were you as a teenager? What types of creative arts did you take part in?

As a teenager I continued to participate in choirs, school plays, and various traditional music ensembles. When I was about fifteen my mother began leaving home for weeks at a time to work in aquaculture. My choir director invited me to live with her in town so I could attend a high school with a choral programme. I was singing upwards of twenty hours a week at the time. What stories did you like? What music did you listen to? What high school classes did you gravitate towards? Did you have any standout teachers or mentors along the way?

One of the stories that has stayed with me from my teenage years is Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, particularly the figure of Lord Darlington, who says, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” I listened to a lot of different music, and I never had consistent access to the internet until I was in university. My father stole American satellite TV, so I’d just put on the folk streaming channel and see what would come on. I flipped the first time I heard “Blowin’ in the Wind”, just to find out what the album was called so I could order it. That’s how I knew about Joanna Newsom before anyone else. A neighbour had the complete recordings of Robert Johnson on cassette, and that was a big influence. My mother brought home a record player she found on the side of the road and I listened to Harry Chapin on it constantly. I had a cassette version of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s “So Far”, with the songs in a different order somehow, and listened to it everyday for years. What route did you take after graduating high school?

I had an innate sense that university departmentalism would not give me the well-rounded view of history I was looking for and was fortunate to have my voice teacher refer me to several “great books” programmes. I went to King’s College in Halifax due to the Foundation Year Programme and the choir there. Can you comment on the time you spent at Kings? How would you describe that community? What did you most enjoy out of your undergrad years? What did Kings teach you?

The time I spent at King’s was very formative for me, and very pleasant. I continue to enjoy what I enjoyed most at King’s: the ability to have interesting conversations on a vast field of topics with a variety of people from around the world. King’s taught me a lot, but it was the friends I made there that taught me to rely on my gut feelings. The community is what it makes itself, and it will only ever be as strong as the friendships forged there. In a way, I’m much happier with what King’s has allowed me to learn later. What choices did you make after graduating from university?

I think economics determine whether someone can finish university and say “ok, what next?”. I’d made a choice early on to break the mould of the defeatist thinking I grew up with and follow my own daemon, but didn’t have the financial or social capital to take many risks. I continued to work in various capacities for the Anglican Church of Canada until I began touring and eventually moved to Toronto with my wife. How would you describe the music scene in Halifax? In Nova Scotia?

The most important part of the Halifax scene is its size. It’s small enough to create a real sense of community. It’s so small that you can’t just stay in Halifax though, and I’ve appreciated getting to know people across the Maritimes. What is folk music? This is a loaded question. To get to the heart of the matter, questions like, “who are the people whose lives are tied to the land – what are they doing?” may be helpful. The more “folk” a music is, the less it is mediated by technology. It doesn’t depend on the printed word; “folk music” has elevated the illiterate fisherman/farmer to mystical status in the eyes of some collectors. To such a “rustic”, Stan Rogers may as well be playing bebop. There are glimpses of what I’m talking about in Frank Parker Day’s novel, Rockbound, or Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. The sum total of the great folk collections of the world cannot penetrate what folk music is, and a new approach is needed in its appreciation which reconsiders how many collections serve a particular regional narrative while excluding others. Many musicians give homage to folk forms, and some make careers on their exact imitation, but in most cases there is a great deal of technological mediation. I’m not sure if I’ve had more than a few handfuls of brushes with a real folk tradition, including Middle Eastern, African, and Andean music.

Which folk musicians (alive or dead) are you listening to the most these days?

I think Jeremy Dutcher is doing amazing things with his ancestor’s music, but he’s a bit beyond genre in a Nina Simone sort of way. Paul Brady, Andy Irvine, Mike Kerr, and Tommy Makem really turn me on. What I tend to do is listen to whatever I come across, but if there’s a folk idiom, I’m down a rabbit hole before I know it looking for the source. I’m into people like Roscoe Holcomb, the Kentuckian progenitor of the “high lonesome sound” often associated with bluegrass for the window they give into the musical economy of the folk tradition. Old Man Luedecke, Joanna Newsom, and Gillian Welsh write songs like breathtaking collages of folk reference points. I still listen to a lot of British folk revival musicians like Anne Briggs, The Watersons, and Tyler Messick. What advice would you give to a young musician trying to make it in Canada's music landscape?

If you haven’t worked out how to live off your art, you have to get comfortable living for it. I wish I knew when I was starting out how many artists come from families and contexts where the creation of art is a valid and worthwhile risk. I didn’t have that, but I do have people who look at friends who are more professional artists than me and say, “They never worked a day in their life”. Touring was destroying my body until my chiropractor made my legs the same length again. A young musician has to be like Jaco Pastorius when he tried to join Weather Report: you need to find a way to walk up to people and say, “I’m the best at what I do”. It’s not “fake it ‘till you make it”, it’s about curing imposter’s syndrome and asking for the help you need from people who are actually going to help you grow. A musician is a shaman of sorts, and you will eventually find truth in the maxim “a prophet in their own town is without honour”. Do you think Toronto is an artist-friendly city?

I’ve found Toronto is an artist-friendly city in that several grants I’ve looked at are surprisingly barrier free, but that’s about it for me. I play music for listening, not drinking and dancing, and there aren’t many small venues left for that kind of thing – several have closed since I moved to Toronto, like Hugh’s Room and Burdock. The studio I recorded “Many A Long Hour” in has been torn down to make way for condos. Other regions are keen to turn their artists into marketable exports, and rightly so, but this has never been my top priority. Stompin’ Tom Connors lived on Bathurst Street too, but it didn’t stop him from playing every far-flung place in rural Canada. I think urban centres are undeniably important, but I’ve seen firsthand the effects of nature deprivation on the mental health of those I work with, and I wish there was a more sustainable and equitable way to de-centralize the arts in Canada. Why is music important? Music is important to because it connects us to our deep past. It is a light on a hill that can’t be hidden – it’s harder to compromise than other mediums in the commodification of distraction that defines our culture. What are you looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to a Christmas-themed tour in December and a new single I’m going to put out, “The Carol of the Birds”.

Join Thomas McCallum in a concert at the Pilot Tavern on November 5th.

Doors at 7:30pm, Concert at 8pm.

Tickets $20, message for more details.


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