For Alberta-based folk duo 100 Mile House, 2016 has been a banner year professionally. Their current release “Hiraeth,” a stunning collection of acoustic gems, came out in November to wide acclaim. Just last week, their song “Run,” about the Fort McMurray wildfire, received first prize in the 2016 All-Albertan Song Contest.
As rewarding as their recent professional successes have been, however, the pair has wrestled with personal struggles that found their way into the songs on “Hiraeth.” 100 Mile House’s songs have consistently connected with the joys and sorrows we all face in life, but their current project delves even more deeply, and takes more risks, than their previous work.
Peter Stone, half of the group (his wife Denise MacKay is the other member), graciously took time for an interview with Team GDW about “Hiraeth.”
Your work has always incorporated very personal, reflective lyrics. This latest project seems to be not only even more deeply contemplative lyrically, but musically as well – fewer up-tempo moments than in previous albums. How do you perceive “Hiraeth,” now that you’ve released it and done a couple of release shows?
It’s definitely a more sombre affair. The whole process was pretty grueling this time around so by the end it was hard to judge it! We recorded a few songs that didn’t make it to the album that were more upbeat but when we were making the track listing it felt like we were just trying to ram them in there somewhere to cheer the whole thing up. Once we accepted the album for what it was, a melancholy look at a certain timeframe and situations with the idea of hope being the only way out, it came together a lot easier. Looking back I think it has a nice flow and I think we’re pretty proud of it.
Your Twitter description calls your music “transatlantic folk” – other than the obvious (one half being British, the other being Canadian), can you unpack that a little? Is there a specific style that characterizes your music not just as folk, but “transatlantic”?
I think it has a lot to do with my accent still being pretty strong when I sing. The musical content is a lot more North American for the most part but with my English tone, with certain pronunciations and choice of words, I think that makes it more British.
One of my favorite songs from the album is “Against the Grain” – the line “Here we go against the grain / the wood that told us stay the same” has been stuck in my head all week. The lyrics speak to me, at least, of finding ways to escape “the way things have always been” to discover a new path forward. To the extent that songwriters always mix their own experiences with those of others in their writing, how much does this song mirror your own lives?
The way we met, married so quickly and then moved around a lot, it always felt talking to friends and family that we were living our lives a slightly different way to most people around us. I think that song maybe was a reminder to ourselves that there’s no definitive path or route that you have to take to get somewhere. With our difficulty starting a family being a major theme on the album I think this was a reminder that even though our lives might not pan out the way we’d hoped the only person who can define it, and that should define it, is ourselves.
The effort to which many couples must go to start a family is an increasingly common story, but it rarely appears as a song topic. Why do you think this is? And do you find it a challenge not only to write songs that are so personal and perhaps painful (“Last Branch” and “Hidden Springs,” to name two) but also to perform them live?
I think its a topic that we’re told to not really speak about let alone sing about. There seems to be a secrecy that surrounds trying to start a family which seems strange as it’s one of the few things we all have in common, the story of where we’re from.
Writing songs on the topic ended up being quite therapeutic and healing. That process then extends to the performance as well. The idea of sharing your story with people that may be going through or have gone through a similar process can give your story a purpose in that it might help someone else out. It can also help to take away the power of it and whatever negative feelings may surround it, whether it be shame, embarrassment, loneliness, once you start to share whatever it may be that you carry around that weighs you down, it starts to get a little lighter.
How do your respective homes (the UK and Alberta) inspire you differently when it comes to songs? “Brighton Beach,” for example, has quite a different feel than other pieces on the album – when I first heard the intro, I thought I was listening to a piece of modern chamber music (note: this is by no means a criticism!), but other songs that seem rooted in your Canadian life have a different atmosphere to them.
I’m not sure there is a deliberate difference but we’ve definitely noticed songs based in England can be a little more frantic and jagged, maybe just because London can be both of those things, especially compared to Alberta and Edmonton.
“Hiraeth” is your fourth album. As you look back on your previous body of work, how do you feel your calling as songwriters and performers has evolved in that span of time?
I think each album has its own personality and story and our music has just evolved with our lives. Our first album spoke a lot about leaving England, the next album was more of a love letter to England that came out of missing home, then the last two have really just dealt with what we’ve been living through in our marriage. I think that meant our music naturally evolved as opposed to trying to force it. We also made a more conscious effort with the production of the last record, we tried to remove the acoustic guitar and other instruments we use a lot so it wouldn’t just be an album of melancholy songs sung in English accent over an acoustic guitar!
Do you have plans to tour for this album? (Note: I won’t get my hopes up for dates south of the border, but southern Ontario? Please?)
We’ve just finished our initial release shows in Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto but we’ll be making a point of trying to get this album to as many places as possible. Hopefully a least a trip or two to Europe and the US!
Photo credits: Jessica Fern Facette
Visit 100 Mile House’s website here.