INTERVIEW: A Conversation with Tracy Anderson

By Isaac Thompson

Carleton County, New Brunswick is a little off the radar for most. It’s long been considered to be pass-on-by-country, especially when it comes to the arts, but a group of determined young townies are doing everything they can to change that. With the genesis of RIVA (the River Valley Arts Alliance) and Woodstock’s annual Dooryard Arts Festival (now in its fourth year, the festival has hosted a variety of diverse musical acts including Meaghan Smith, Oh No, Theodore, Ben Caplan and the Casual Smokers, Old Man Luedecke and dozens of others ) Carleton County is fast becoming a destination of interest in the east coast arts scene.

Tracy Anderson and her band the Hurtin’ Hearts are one of the groups at the forefront of the scene. They play an eclectic fusion of jazz, country, soul and bluegrass and have released and excellent album called Squirrel on a Wire that addresses the many facets of the human experience with emotion and grace. The album is already making a splash, having found praise on a local and national level, including a glowing review on CBC.ca. Tracy, a trained vocalist and pianist, mixes technical prowess with an artist’s heart and was a joy to talk to. She and I are both Carleton County natives and so I jumped at the chance to chat with her about her music, her hometown and why it has taken so long for the County to embrace its own art.

Let’s start off by talking about your musical roots. How did you get started as a musician and a music fan?

I didn’t really have any formal musical training until my teen years, starting with piano and reading music. I did a lot of church music when I was a kid, singing in the choir and I did solos in church and things like that. So I kind of did that and then I got into, I guess, my top 40 faze, listening to popular music, and at the same time I was playing classical piano. And then as I got into high school I did some alternative rock stuff  but I was also studying opera at that time too because I was getting ready to apply to Mount Allison. So I was doing all kinds of things. Also I was into Jazz in High School too. That was the first time I heard Kind of Blue (by Miles Davis).

Kind of Blue was a big one for you?

Yeah, but more than that I was into this Oscar Peterson record, Oscar meets Roy Hargrove and Ralph Moore, and it was with Niels Henning Orsted Pederson too. I used to wear that thing out. And then I went to school, Mount A, and I studied classical music there but I was also playing Jazz.

So you’ve pretty much done every music style imaginable.

Yeah (laughs) I feel like I have been through them all.

I hear a lot of different things on the record, even though the contrast isn’t too jarring, every song is in a different style from the last one.

Yeah, I haven’t really figured out where to take it yet as I think is pretty obvious (laughs)

One of my favourites on the record is High Class, Low Class. It almost reminds me of something that Johnny cash would have sang for the working person, you know, about the tyranny of work and it’s got that bluegrass kind of feel to it.

Yeah a lot of people think that.

With your background in opera, jazz, country, alternative rock and all that, how does that inform what you’re doing right now?

I just like sounds.

A lot of musicians have one thing they want to do, like I’m a rock guy or a punk guy, etc. You don’t seem to have that.

Yeah, I’ve never really been like that. I just like sounds and I like being able to mix it up and I guess maybe it’s probably my own inability to just write ten songs in one genre. It just doesn’t seem to come out that way, I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.

So it’s not an intentional thing it’s just that when you sit down to write something…

Whatever comes out. I don’t really censor myself, you know. Like ‘oh, this song doesn’t fit’

Your musical vocabulary is there so you just write whatever pops up.

I just let it come out and then I do what I can with it I guess. Right now, anyway, that’s my approach.

I noticed in the liner notes that it’s like a who’s who of Woodstock NB area musicians

(laughs) I like to think so. Yes.

For sure, It’s mastered by Randy Ross at Brakelight Studios. Will Davidson, Sam Arnold, Jim Lawrance, Jens Jeppeson and Amy Anderson all play on it. For people who know the scene in Woodstock, all of these names will be familiar.

I think it’s a special record for western new brunswick, from Carleton county,
Also local artist Mike McEwing did the cover art. Laurel Green and Geoff Stairs contributed photography.
Yup

So was that something you had in mind to begin with, that you’re not just representing yourself but all your friends who are creating in different mediums?

I just feel that… I’ve spent a lot of time traveling and living other places and I always thought that in order for it to be good it had to be something that wasn’t Carleton County.

I know that feeling too. You grow up thinking nothing good comes out of there.

That’s true. I guess I started to realize the amazing resourses at my fingertips, where I live, and I needed to utilize those people.  I had a lot of generous people who would donate their time to help me get started and the people who are on that record play really well and they had a lot to offer. So I’m actually really pleased with how it sounds. I think everyone did a great job.

Where did you record it?

We did it in an old country church (St. John’s United Church) in Mckenzie Corner. It’s right where the 540 meets Hodgdon road on the way to Debec.

I know that church. So was it something you chose for the acoustics of it?

Well, yeah, I chose it because I used to go to church there and I knew the people wouldn’t charge me a lot to set it up there. I had sung there before and I liked the acoustics and I had three Halifax guys that helped me, they were the backbone of the record. Michael Dalton produced it with Greg Hann and Mike Ouellette. They rented equipment and set up a studio right there and also it had a bathroom which was not operating (laughs) go figure. They loved that.

What was the schedule for recording? Did you go in during the week or at night?

I did it on my march break, because I had a studio with my sister Amy and we both teach, so I booked it for march break because I knew I wouldn’t have any teaching work. It was done over the span of 6 days. Except for one additional track, Spring Song, that was recorded in May

Did you do the typical method of recording drums and then layering everything on top of that or was it done live?

The guys did the tracking. They tracked the drums and beats and guitar, it think they did some guitars first, they did a little bit of that in their apartment in Halifax because they were roommates at the time. And then added in bass and drums and then I came in, we still did tracking at Mckenzie Corner too, it was just happening whenever we could get it and they worked long days for me; 12 to 14 hour days while they were in Woodstock

So for the writing, was it just a collection of songs, like you had enough to make an album, or did you have a concept in mind?  Because I do feel there is a thread going through it.

I guess I kind of came up with the concept of the band first. And that would have been like august 2010. After that, my goal was just to write a song a week, which didn’t always happen, but then I just picked the ones that I liked most. At first I was only going to make an EP, a short EP, and then it I just looked at a lot of guidelines for funding and things like that and I realized I need to have 30 minutes of music so that’s where I ended up adding Spring Song because I only had 20 minutes and 11 seconds and it wasn’t going to qualify for a lot of things so we went back and added. (laughs) I guess it doesn’t sound very romantic to say it like that but that’s the more cerebral explanation

The reality of it.

Yeah.

So it’s just kind of serendipity then that there are coherent themes to the album. It seems to me that even the band name, Hurtin’ Hearts, fits into the album’s theme of the different kinds of heartbreak and pain people live with.

Yeah, I want to talk about the basic human experience. I saw this interview with Steve Earle on Bravo last spring and he articulated it really well. He talked a about how when he writes a song he tries to write about things that people go through not just a break up or whatever, but  there’s all kinds of deeper stuff you can get into. I didn’t want to write about just my problems I wanted to write about stuff that affects everybody.

It’s more powerful and less whiny when it’s universal. It seems like your record has more of a positive view of pain.

I hope so.

That’s certainly what I got out of it.

Yeah, everyone has problems and I’ve got my own set of things, but I’ve always been strong enough to come through them and it’s never been easy.

And, for you, music must be a big way to work through that.

Yeah and I’ve always lived as a freelance musician, pretty much since I was 18, and just trying to figure that whole thing out and how to make a living.

It’s one of those things where you can exist as an artist in your own head, but until you have a product to show the world you’re only that, an artist in your own head.

Yeah, you need something. I just decided that I wasn’t going to judge what came out.  I’m a perfectionist and it never would have been… I never would have thought it’d be good enough, so I just decided to come to terms with it and whatever comes out comes out and that’s going to be the record and it’s a jumping off point so…

You find it’s a hard point to get to, to be able to say ‘this is it. I’m not adding anything else.  I’m finished  and I’m not changing a thing’?

I don’t know, after listening to it for what felt like a million times I just didn’t want to hear it any more (laughs) because there are some things that you know will never be perfect and you just have to accept that.

And sometimes mistakes give music its personality. You don’t want to be like George Lucas going back and changing Star Wars

(laughs) yeah, that was already pretty good.

A record is not a cheap thing to do, was it hard to make a reality? Woodstock isn’t known for that sort of thing.

Yeah, it’s not a cultural hub. It’s too bad, it should be, there are a group of people working to change that, but it’s going to be a long slow process. But yeah, financing it, I did most of that myself, which was really hard because I don’t come from money and working as a freelance English teacher doesn’t pull in the big bucks (laughs).  I have a great support from the community and I’m really thankful for that. I ordered 1000 CDs and I’ve got about half of them gone right now and that’s really good. I haven’t done any touring yet, so there’s more to come.

One thing I’ve learned about Woodstock after all these years is that people really do want to support the arts they just have never had an outlet. Now with the Dooryard Festival there is. Last year everyone in town was out to something. It’s pretty amazing.

It is amazing, it is amazing, and people are starting to stop through there, musicians, and play shows. Because the thing about Woodstock is that it’s on the way to everywhere, so it’s very weird that it hasn’t had this before.

You’ve been playing live music your whole life, and I know you’ve recorded in high school and stuff but that was more just set up a mic and play right?

Yeah, I did a demo in Toronto but it was more of a jazz thing. That would have been in ‘04. I lived in Toronto for five years and it really changed my whole perspective about music and being around such fantastic musicians all the time really raised my level of playing too. Also just being able to go out and hear anything at any given time is great.

How do you feel about playing live Vs. recording. Do you approach them differently?

Well the live shows, I just want them to be fun and for people to have a good time and to like the music and hope I can reach people that way. Recording is way different. It’s more of an under a microscope kind of experience. I am a detail kind of person, but I don’t know, that’s a tough question. They’re both so different but they’re both fun

So you do approach it different. I know some musicians who just record their live show and that’s the record and others who tinker with it, treat the live performance and the album performance almost like the book and movie version. Recording is a different art and there are so many things you can do.

I don’t know a lot about the technical side of recording I’m learning, I trust the people that I pick, I have to right? And that goes back to what I said about utilizing your resources around you. 

Do you have a tour in the works?  

Yeah, I haven’t planned it yet but I’m about to. I have the summers off as a teacher so that’s when I’ll do it. I want to hit New Brunswick first. I have a couple of guys in my band now who are francophone and they live outside of Edmundston and that’s really cool because I’d like to do a full tour of NB, what with my French connection, instead of just the south side.  NB will be the big thing.  Hopefully PEI and Nova Scotia and depending on how crazy we want to get, maybe Tornonto. I have conections there and it would be fun.

Have you gotten a good response?

It’s so hard to know what people are really thinking because some people are so polite. You know what I mean? They don’t want to hurt your feelings.

Especially in NB.

Yeah (laughs), that part of NB is not known for saying what’s on their mind, even if they do hate it, They’re not going to say it, right? (laughs)

Yeah, For sure.

But people have been telling me they like it, they say ‘I really like this song’ or ‘I really like that song’. That’s probably the response I expected from people, that different people would gravitate to different songs because the record’s such a pot luck. People have been pretty upfront and forthright about telling me what they don’t like about it too, which is a very interesting experience (laughs). They’ll say ‘I don’t like that number’ or  ‘this song, the solo’s too long’ (laughs)  they tell me very specific things, like the singing doesn’t sound good on this track.

Everyone’s a critic

Yeah, everyone’s a critic, and you know what, I’m a pretty sensitive person, but I gotta say I really don’t care what other people think at all. I hope that people like it and they’re allowed to give me their opinion and I’m fine with it. I feel at peace with what I do, you know?

I think as an artist, that’s the important thing. You can only do what you do, and especially with your record where it’s not one specific style, you’re definitely not going to please everyone.

Yeah and I definitely know that, and I`ve been doing music for so long now that I do it for myself and I do it because I love it. Even if it`s just one person in the audience or a hundred people or if I ever get to the point where it`s more than that I`ll still be playing for myself. Even if I don’t make any kind of wave commercially and I`m playing to one person… I don’t care about that. I`ll still sing Mozart on the side if I want or I`ll just go back and live my little teaching life and play for myself the way I always have.
You do it because you have to. It`s just something you’re programmed to do
Yeah, it`s part of my life, that`s not going to change.
I think that`s the measure of a true artist, 

I care about learning and I want to work on my musicianship I still practice, still work on my sight-singing, I want to be musically literate, I want to be able to read, write, hear and know all of those things. That`s my life`s journey. You know, I hope people like it, I`m not saying ‘please don`t like it’ or anything, don`t get me wrong (laughs).  It would be nice to be able to play more and make part of my living from that. But if it doesn`t happen then I`m ok.

As a music fan who are the artists that you keep going back to, the ones who make up the bedrock of how you see music?

I really like to listen to Jill Scott from Philadelphia. I like some of her new stuff but her older stuff especially. I really like Alison Krauss. Every song she sings is just so… she`s all about the quality and she`s such a beautiful singer and just a great musician. I don`t know, there`s just so much. I`ve got to really think about this. I guess in the last year it`s been a lot soul music and hip hop

Soul music? Like old Motown stuff?

I like some modern stuff too, but yeah, I love Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, I`ve listened to a lot of Aretha. I like a lot of jazz, but I also like Loretta Lynn and I like that simpler stuff too. But I don`t want every song I do be a three chord song, I get bored, so I can`t do just straight country like that.

So part of the eclectic nature of the album represents your own eclectic nature? You would get bored if you stayed on one thing too long?

Oh I think so yeah, I like to shake it up

Do you have a strict line up for your band or is it more of a revolving door?

I would like to, in the past I`ve played a lot of jazz gigs, so what usually happens from that is the personnel is always different. And so I`ve had a lot of that in my life where people are rotating all the time. For the Hurtin’ Hearts… the guys that are on the record are not really the guys who are in the band except for my sister Amy.  So I would like to make it a little bit more solidified where I play with the same guys all the time and really get to know the people and be bandmates and be able to read each other. That’s the next facet I`m really interested in exploring.

It`s kind of an art in itself.

Yeah and I really want to establish that connection

You’ve talked about your jazz background, one thing jazz is known for is improvisation.  Is that something you’re interested in exploring in your live shows?

Yeah and I`ve kind of wondered to myself if the Hurtin Hearts might become a little bit more, I don’t want to say experimental that’s not really the right word, but being able to take things out a little bit more musically, because I would like to incorporate some of that, not really sure how that`s going to happen though (laughs).

Do you have any plans for how the next record will sound or are you still reeling from the experience of the first one?

I have ideas, but yeah, I`m reeling from the experience of the first one, because I`m doing all the work myself pretty much with help from my sister and I`m still trying to figure things out. At first I was very on edge about trying to get everything done but right now I can take my time with it, I can enjoy it try to enjoy it as it comes that’s really what I want to do. 


http://www.tracyandthehurtinhearts.com/

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