INTERVIEW-Toronto Folk band SAMWAYS releases their debut single “Untrodden Ways” as an acoustic taster of their forthcoming debut album.
I am thrilled to shoot some questions in the direction of the stellar singer, songwriter, guitarist, Nathan Hiltz http://nathanhiltz.com from the Toronto-based folk-inspired jazz quartet entitled Samways, which is an act, in a time of re-examining history, pays homage to the suffering and triumphs of pre-confederation Canada, inspired by Canadian poets like Bliss Carmen, Susannah Moodie, and E.J. Pratt, their sound is a marriage of old prose with new music idioms. Untrodden Ways is Samways debut release from their forthcoming 2021 debut album that is backed by a steady bass groove and the sounds of lead songwriter, guitarist, and composer Nathan Hiltz’s acoustic, and driven by the beautiful and smile-inducing vocal harmonies of Toronto’s co-lead singers Shannon Butcher, Melissa Lauren, and Jessica Lalonde, all successful musicians in their own rights, each having varied and diverse solo careers that have been rolling for many years, to which they bring a magical blend of textures together. “I am a jazz guitarist and part-time faculty member at Humber College’s music program and I got to know each of these singers serving as their accompanist on many a gig around southern Ontario and across the country. In fact, I liked working with Melissa Lauren so much that I married her and we have a wonderful 5-year-old daughter named Leah together! We are based in the Wychwood neighborhood of Toronto,” says Nathan. Also rounding out their deliciously addictive flavor with Neil Macintosh on drums, with Chris Banks on bass, and Mark Fewer on the violin, totally making their sound irresistibly toe-tapping in its percussive and grooving nature. This song was written by Samways Nathan Hiltz, yet its lyrics are based on a poem by Canadian treasure, Kingston Ontario poet, Agnus Maule Machar. “For this composition, I was inspired in equal parts by Irish singer/guitarist Paul Brady and the great Joni Mitchell. Both Paul and Joni used alternate tunings so I used an open G, I tried to channel Joni’s rambunctious and expressive strumming, and I wrote it in a 3/2 meter which has the polyrhythmic feeling that might fit in with Paul Brady – somewhere between a jig and a 60s songwriter, “ shared Nathan.
“Tune in and thoroughly enjoy this splendid and harmonious sound that is filled with angelic melodies that amalgamate warmly with bursts of passionate guitar. Samways music is a blend of ancient meets futuristic, a back to the future feel if you will, that proves to be a rousing bouquet richly textured in complexity and tranquility, truly a compelling introspective delight, ” Deb Draper of The Wire MEGAzine.
DEB: Q. 1. Had you felt a major shift in the music industry prior to COVID-19?
NATHAN: “Yes definitely! Online space was becoming increasingly important, and that whole situation now has been drastically accelerated by the pandemic. This has heralded in the visual and contextual components of music have become increasingly important, to the exclusion of the actual music. I see all the platforms as in a continual struggle to more fully and more perfectly express the reality which they are capturing. This is of course a rather difficult enterprise since these platforms are contained within the form of mobile phone devices. Their tiny screens, inaccurate speakers, and difficult keyboards make it very difficult to capture the reality and interactivity of acoustic-physical space. Compare the experience of hearing a jazz group on Instagram to say visiting a jazz club on a Thursday evening to hear a jazz quartet. Instagram can try as hard as it likes, but I don’t see it ever compared to the real deal.
I am very hopeful for VR tech though, I think that combined with faster internets that are promised by 5G we might start getting closer to the satisfying simulation of the immediate physical world and what music can be like in it. I’m hearing murmurs about people working in surround sound / 3d audio as well, exciting times!!
I do fully expect some pull back from online forms when public gatherings return. But we have moved so quickly down the path of Mccluhan’s ‘Global Village’ and there isn’t much that will turn the tide in my humble estimation.“
DEB: Q. 2. Nathan, can you walk us through your full songwriting process for both the single Untrodden Ways as well, your soon-to-be-released debut album, which was recorded after receiving a grant from the Toronto Arts Council in October of 2020 at Toronto’s Noble Street Studios.
NATHAN: “Gladly!! In terms of the writing of Untrodden Ways specifically, I read the poem many times and in many different ways. I then began to play with different rhythmic feelings that interested me. I listen to a lot of music for inspiration: For this project, I had some very deep wells in Paul Brady, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Hank Williams Sr, Merle Travis, Martin Hayes, and Stan Rogers. So i play with different rhythmic feels and when I tried 3/2 I immediately found the poem read easily and naturally. The magic here is the poem tells you what works, or you might even say the poet tells you what works! Which is pretty miraculous because I don’t often receive instructions from dead folk.
Also, there is a train in this poem, so I used a kind of backbeat rhythm with continuous strumming that sounds like Joni Mitchell to me. I also feel so much movement from irish jigs and reels (they are based on dance after all!!) , so this JM train rhythm found its way onto an Irish slip jig in 3/2. Couple that with an open G tuning capoed up, its an absolute blast to play this one loud on my Martin D28. At it’s core this group is all giving me the opportunity for me to make my guitar shake and get my arm moving!!
More on the album as a whole:
As a composer, I have collaborated with a number of lyricists for many years and derived great enjoyment from those projects. When I got a copy of the Oxford Book of Canadian Verse (edited and compiled by Wilfred Campbell, one of our great confederation poets – also a writer of The Mother, our third single coming next month), it occurred to me that I might have an opportunity here to follow my musical instincts more fully. Working with living writers requires scheduling, compromises, meetings, emails, rehearsals, dressing well, and traveling places etc. But working with these early Canadian poets, all so many years since their passing, was extremely freeing, exciting, and absolutely on my own terms!!!
This approach is also very familiar to me as a devoted Anglican. In our tradition, composers are constantly working with poetry and verse, both sacred and secular. Also, appealing to me is the practicality of a church composer’s practice, you need a tune for this feast day, for this holiday, for this funeral, for this wedding, for this moment in the service where people are lining up, etc… All very practical needs that tend to make it really easy to fill up score paper. As I discover new poems, new vocal arranging techniques, more tones, and textures available to me from my ensemble (currently at 3 singers, guitar(s), fiddle, bass, drums), it then becomes very easy and enjoyable to create new works.“
Some of the most historical and revered music always plays a deeper role in the transformation of societies. Some consider how their work relates to the current sociopolitical landscape or how the music can address these themes.
DEB: Q. 3. Do you think some of your masterpieces touch on current social/political issues?
NATHAN: “Absolutely they do, and I haven’t even begun to wrestle with those issues. The poetic works that I have worked with so far are only a narrow slice of what existed in Canada in the 1800s, mostly found in the various Oxford books and a few other compilations I have found. I think it’s important to be aware that these poems only represent a small portion of the Candian experience. As I continue to create new works, I am seeking out wider varieties of experience. In the case of a poem by Oliver Goldsmith, we choose to cut it from the record because of some problematic depictions of Aboriginal peoples in some later verses. I got a great composition out of the poem, perhaps one day I will let someone else write words to my melody and we can create something completely new.
In a more general sense, I would say that I think we need poetry now more than ever. I feel the connection from poet to the reader to be so intimate, so close, so personal, and defense dropping to be almost overwhelming – but, also so enriching and life-affirming. I would definitely advocate for less social media time and more poetry book time for anyone and everyone. And for me to also have these words offering me melodies, rhythms, textures, inspirations – this is very fun work and sometimes feels like magic.”
Some artists seem reluctant to speak of just how frustrating and baffling the whole experience of navigating the general music realm is, let alone add in Covid-19 and how hard they try to still be ambitious about getting their artwork seen, heard, and or sold. To help support your upcoming 2021 album, you hope to have the opportunity to hit the road again to showcase your infectious live shows which have had crowds all across Ontario irresistibly toe-tapping along to the percussive and grooving nature of your diverse and colorful folk music. For now, however, you will continue to perform to audiences digitally, across the web.
DEB: Q. 4. What was it like to record an album at Toronto’s Noble Street Studios, at 17 Noble St., Toronto, ON (416-516-4444) during a worldwide pandemic with restrictions and social distancing requirements?
NATHAN: “It was fantastic. They follow every protocol and made it very easy to get in and out safely. It was actually a very happy and exhilarating time. We had all been waiting for so long to make this record!! We’re also all performers living in a world that has no performances so I’d say there was tons of excitement to be doing what we need to do! All my musicians are born to be musicians so it was very nice to make magic with them all. Getting to this point took a long time. At first, it was to get past the trauma of the pandemic and to a place where we felt like and could legally gather outdoors socially distanced to rehearse. Then the issue of child care becomes important, how can we record if there is no school and no family visits for babysitting? The album was supposed to happen in May. We ended up rehearsing with every last bit of warmth fall had to offer (and a generous fall it was this past year!) and then going into the studio in November. It worked out well, I think you can hear it on the record!!“
DEB: Q. 5. What are some other ways you’ve chosen lately to engage with your legions of fans, whether that’s within the top echelon of international art circles or based on your involvement with your local community, despite the challenges of trying to bring your art to the new formatted audiences at home thanks to the Corona Virus?
NATHAN: “I am going what I guess to be the current traditional route: that is a website, Facebook page, Instagram page, youtube page, publicist. I previously have used my personal page to promote all my different musical projects, this is the first time I am making a concerted effort to give this project its own online identity and separate it from my own. One of my main targets before the pandemic was one gig a month for the group which we had achieved. That sort of thing does a lot for community engagement (and getting paid) so it’s pretty tough not being able to continue that. We’re excited about the warmer weather so we can connect with our fans in the physical world again! I have a few schemes cooked up for the full release of the album, I can’t say much more right now.
After the album, I plan to do a few collaborations between Samways with other artists. The first one has already been recorded- it is a song I wrote with Daniel Greaves of the great Winnipeg band The Watchmen. I suppose it would be the first Samways tune with lyrics from a living artist. Daniel is blessed with another worldly instrument, but I think if you were to take that and his amazing band’s music away his lyrics would sit very comfortably within the mosaic of great Candian poetry.”
DEB: Q. 6 Last but not least, what does success mean to you?
NATHAN: “What a great question. I wish I had some sort of profound thing to say about the journey. I suppose I feel quite successful that my job is to play the guitar. It is quite a hustle to make that happen with all the different hats musicians wear, but it is quite nice to enjoy your work. I teach some busy professional dad’s out there that are so hungry for their guitar lessons – I have to wonder if they might be happier if they could do just that!!
More specifically I’d say I felt complete success when I had my first trio performance at the Rex Hotel in Toronto around 2001. I would say it was a dream from about the age of 14 not realized until about 21 years old. The total cliche of playing jazz music, you’re the soloist, and you’re in a smoky jazz club, there are drinks, there are conversations, women, going to other shows, etc… just what you’d think it would be like by watching Robert Frank’s ‘Pull My Daisy.” Another success would be when I first saw my daughter dance ballet in time to music at 4 years old, the absolute melt-your-heart success that she’s here and moves and she expresses.“
TUNE IN TO YOUTUBE and enjoy Samways newly released video for their debut song, Untrodden Ways, filmed at Toronto’s Ben McNally Books. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nvLIVIUCh3w.
FANS can stay in tune with you and Samways by visiting your social platforms seen here below:
Thanks for your time today Nathan, stay safe and keep the musical faith. Cheers, Deb – Music Editor/Photojournalist/Columnist with The Wire MEGAzine – WEBSITE www.thewiremegazine.com