Review: SHEAL, “Courage Again”

SHEAL, “Courage Again”

It was the chance discovery and inclusion of the single “Gravity” in our Snappy Singles feature last month that brought the Nova Scotia-born, and now Toronto-based artist SHEAL to our attention.  “Gravity” continued to impress upon each and every listen, meaning that SHEAL (Sheilagh McNab) was quickly added to our list of artists for future attention.  Having released her sophomore album, “Courage Again,” back on January 18th, picking up one of the limited vinyl copies was a must, and I will confess that it sounds pretty phenomenal as it spins here on the turntable right now.

Following the initial crackles as the stylus meets the vinyl spinning on the platter, the familiar sounds of “Gravity” fill up the room, putting a smile on my face in the process (did I mention that this is an exceptional single?).  “I remember sitting in a café once and at the table beside me there were two people engaging in a ‘conversation’ or rather, they were talking over each other and barely listening to the others’ response before jumping in with their own story,” SHEAL recalls. “It was so extreme that it was almost comical – but also so relatable!” 

Piano-led, and with an ethereal, slight jazz-infused mood and tempo, it is the gradual inclusion of lilting clarinet and strings that elevate the grace of the song’s gently beauty, itself conveying the feeling of weightlessness at the center of gravity. “How many times have I thought, after spending time with someone, that ‘I wish I’d asked them…’ or ‘I wonder how they are feeling about…’ yet when we’d been together, I was more interested in filling the empty space,” she adds. “Gravity is about the deeper listening and the practice of creating space for another person to process their own life and experiences.”

Recorded by Crispin Day (Haviah Mighty, SHAD) at The Cabin Recording in Toronto, and produced, mixed, and engineered by Matthew Johnston at House of Miracles (mastering by Dan Weston), “Courage Again” offers an additional five new and original compositions, including the current single, “Noa’s Song,” and an earlier release, “Dark.”  When it comes to closing out the album, however, be prepared for an unexpected delight, as SHEAL presents one final number – a stripped-down, acoustic rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s popular hit, “Girls Just Want To Have Fun.” 

The inclusion of this cover left me initially scratching my head, wondering how a light-hearted early-80s pop tune found its way here, and especially given the deeper, more personal nature of the tracks that it follows. Yet it all made much more sense when SHEAL offers her explanation: “This song is basically the thesis of my album, but put in a kind of a different, funny way,” she reasons. “The other songs have a more serious tone so I liked ending on this lighter note, with a fun and familiar song about all the same themes I’ve been singing about: motherhood, family, love [and] fear.” 

Some boys take a beautiful girl / And hide her away from the rest of the world / I want to be the one to walk in the sun / Oh girls, they want to have fun.”  SHEAL also pulls together a ‘choir’ to deliver the peppy harmonies, a group that includes indie-folk singer Rebekah Hawker, whose music has been shared on GDW in the past. “When people think of this song, they don’t usually think about motherhood, but there’s a lot of generational talk and some very poignant lyrics too,” SHEAL adds. “I hope people hear this version and hear more layers in the lyrics – hear a young girl who want to have fun, a mother who wants to have fun, one generation’s hope for another, a daughter’s concern for her own future.”

SHEAL

Having debuted her “Courage” EP back in 2016, you could be forgiven for asking why so much time has elapsed between albums.  For SHEAL, these new songs were written over the span of several years, but she had no choice but to tap a pause button several times along the way due to the constraints of becoming both a mother and teacher, before finally returning to the studio to put these tracks down (while eight and a half months pregnant with her second daughter, nonetheless), and wrapping up the recording after giving birth once more. “Some of the songs on the record are ideas that started a long time ago, that I polished off more recently and completed for this album,” she recalls. “Picking up the writing for some of these songs years later has brought our new meaning that reflects where I am now.” 

You came out of nowhere / Early in the morning / After long, lonely days / Hearts exploding / Bound in blood / All our questions are wrapped in love.”  These lyrics, taken from SHEAL’s current single, “Noa’s Song,” were inspired not only by the birth of her niece, but from her own determination to capture the intense and meaning-filled hours of giving birth (and literally pushing through the pain).  The song was finished shortly after the arrival of her own firstborn. “You came out of darkness / Out of the waters / They threatened to tear us apart / But our hearts are still beating / And I’m barely believing / The strength of my body, the wonder of you.”

Moving on from her joyous memories in “Noa’s Song,” once you discover “Wasteland,” you’ll find too just how comfortable SHEAL shares and expresses moments of her own personal grief.  “I had a dream / That we were driving in your car / In the space between us / We are saved / We are saved.”  “Wasteland [is] inspired by some of my own experiences of loss, and of grieving alongside others,” she shares. “The chorus speaks to the idea that if we can be present with each other’s pain – uncomfortable as that may be – maybe we can heal ourselves and each other.”  And as I feel the personal connection here, and the pain attached to each word escaping from SHEAL’s lips, I’m very quickly reminded of similar sentiments found throughout “Everything At The Same Time,” the stunning debut album from Caroline Marie Brooks late last year. “What if we are found in these places in between? / Wasteland, waste not our pain / Wasteland, waste not our pain.”

Time spent nurturing her own musical endeavors in harmony with her growing family circle certainly paved the way for SHEAL to discover her own personal “Courage Again,” the album a self-reflection of these life experiences surrounding love, fear, and motherhood.  “The overarching theme on this album is about how love makes your inner and outer world expand, and how fear makes those inner and outer world contract. It’s about my journey of growing into that understanding,” she offers. “Giving birth to my two daughters and becoming a mother has been an act of moving through fear towards love. Creating this album and putting my art out into the world has been exactly that too.”

Photo credit: Christine Lim

The British guy that crossed the ocean and crash landed in central Pennsylvania (to quote Greg Keelor, “And I wonder what am I doing here?”). As the youngest of four siblings, exposure to music from a very early age nurtured my passion and appreciation for many musical genres. Continuing to discover some amazingly diverse and talented musicians based in Canada, I gravitate to live music experiences and remain devoted to spreading the word about such a vibrant music scene.

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