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Taking a page or two from the Canadian Songbook

Having recorded a couple of tracks from True North: The Canadian Songbook with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, singer Eleanor McCain will kick off the orchestra’s new season with her take on some iconic Canadian songs.

True North: The Canadian Songbook long percolated in McCain’s mind before becoming something of a multimedia labour of love released in the spring.

Musically, it features the likes of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, Jann Arden’s Good Mother, Gordon Lightfoot’s If You Could Read My Mind, Sarah McLachlan’s Angel, Gold in Them Hills by Ron Sexsmith and Rhythm of My Heart written by Marc Jacob (the latter two recorded with KWS). The songs were re-imagined by 14 arrangers from coast to coast and recorded with 10 of the country’s orchestras, including the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, KWS, Orchestre symphonique de Québec, National Arts Centre Orchestra, Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra, Symphony New Brunswick, Symphony Nova Scotia, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Victoria Symphony, and Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

The music is accompanied by a coffee-table book filled with landscape and fashion photography, again with contributions from photographers and fashion designers nation-wide.

It’s Canadiana through and through.

The idea of a Canadian songbook started some years ago, with McCain coming up with a couple of dozen of her favourites. The final format sprang from the changing nature of the music business, now driven by a digital presence. Like many younger people, her daughter downloads music rather than buying physical formats, but she did buy a couple of CDs that came packaged with books about bands she enjoys.

That inspired the multimedia approach. “Iconic music and a book to celebrate our landscape,” said McCain, capturing “what it felt like for me to be Canadian.”

The project started to become real in January 2015. She brought Don Breithaupt onboard as producer and they started building a team, including photographer Tony Hauser.

Calling the effort “logistically complicated” is a bit of an understatement, as the project involved not just dealing with symphonies across the country, but coordinating other elements of the arts community, from photographers to fashion designers.

“This is something I could not have pulled off by myself.”

The project was funded by McCain herself, however. She simply had to do it.

“It’s a project that I’m passionate about. The music, I lived with it for a long time – I couldn’t let go of it,” she said of the “pan-Canadian concept.”

There were plenty of songs to consider – the long list was very much that before being whittled down. She and Breithaupt looked for the iconic value, personal favourites and even geographical references – think “There is a town in north Ontario …” from Neil Young’s Helpless. There’s also a nod to McCain’s East Coast roots – she hails from Florenceville, NB, her mother’s family from Nova Scotia – with the likes of No Change In Me by Murray McLaughlin and Ron Hynes.

“They’re all really part of our lives – these are the songs that I chose for the album.”

Having performed a couple of times with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, she wanted them to be involved in the process.

“I had a personal connection with them,” she explained. “They’re fabulous to work with.”

She last appeared with the KWS in the 2015/16 season for the Pops Series concert The Music of Love.

Led by Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser, True North: The Canadian Songbook runs September 29 and 30 at 8 p.m. at Kitchener’s Centre In The Square. Tickets can be purchased online at kwsymphony.ca or by calling 519-745-4711 or 888-745-4717.

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