Redeemer Reporter Covers JUNO Events
Elise Arsenault | Reporter
A few months ago, a member of the Crown team made the wild suggestion of applying for press passes to the 2015 JUNO Awards. Two weeks ago, a member of the JUNO team made the wild decision of sending us one. A week or so ago, I took the opportunity to attend four JUNO events with the naive assumption that covering them would be easy. By the end of the weekend, there was an overwhelming amount of information to sift through in the hope of writing a valuable response. What resulted was a breakdown of the events and questions that came from experiencing the 44th annual Canadian Music Awards from an insider’s view.
Welcome Reception: Friday, March 13th
Held at the grand and historic Liuna Station on James St. North, attendees of this event were offered a strut down the Green Carpet, free hors d'oeuvres and the chance to exchange a business card or twelve. I flashed my press pass at the media booth upon arrival, made an exchange at the coatroom and whipped out the camera I borrowed from Yearbook. I was permitted to take pictures on the Green Carpet (that had an uncanny resemblance to a Sham-Wow), so I secured my spot alongside the photographers as the foyer began to crowd. Our paparazzi group was as civil as they came; elbows and voices didn't rise in attempting to shoot quality pictures. There was a kind of rhythm to the process. First, the carpet facilitator would write the guest's name and nomination on a whiteboard for us to photograph. Once withdrawn, the guest would center him or herself before the backdrop and, ideally, meet the gaze of every lens, offering a dipped chin, wide grin, hand-on-the-hip and/or peace sign. Others opted for expressions not unlike that of felons.
An hour passed before the procession lulled and all made their way to the main hall. Therein, I noticed green floodlights wash over the room (TD Bank sponsored the evening), the absence of chairs, and the weighty presence of alcohol. A young man disc-jockeyed in one corner and people formed squads around tall, skinny tables where waiters exchanged cocktails for pearly-white thank-yous. I declined the drinks and the shrimp, but took a bite of what I can only describe as a cheesy, gourmet Tim-bit.
Leaving the camera-clad clan to do some exploring, I recalled my last experience at Liuna Station: my high-school prom. It was tough not to draw parallels: both events included heels, ties, beats, cliques and celebrating achievements. Both had glam, grandeur and an unsettling lack of genuineness. I kept this in mind for the remainder of the evening, until sore calves trumped my soaring curiosity. One event down – three to go.
JUNO Gala Dinner & Awards: Saturday, March 14th
Thirty-five JUNO Awards were to be presented at this event, alongside the Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award and the Allan Waters Humanitarian Award. Once signed-in at the Hamilton Convention Centre, all media were instructed to find their outlet-name in either the Photo room or Q&A room, two stories above the gala. I spotted "The Crown" seat in the Q&A room, near "The Liberal" and "The Hamilton Spectator."
The award-recipients who visited us include Bahamas (Songwriter, Adult Alternative Album of the Year), Dallas Smith (Country Album of the Year), July Talk (Alternative Album of the Year), Lights (Pop Album of the Year), Diana Panton (Vocal Jazz Album of the Year), Fred Penner (Children's Album of the Year), Naturally Born Strangers (Rap Album of the Year), Quique Escamilla (World Music Album of the Year), and Adam Messinger (Jack Richardson Producer of the Year). Each was asked questions on their expectations, current emotions and plans for the future. Fred Penner, a longtime beloved children's entertainer, was asked how his approach to writing children's music changed over 40 years in the industry.
"The vernacular may alter," he admits, "but the bottom line remains: we're all in this insanity together, let’s try and support each other by making for stronger families and stronger human beings one at a time." His broad fan-base has him performing in elementary schools one day and at bars on university campuses the next, yet his "approach" to reach both crowds is steadfast: the theme of unity pulses beneath each anthem. Later, Lights was invited to the stage to share her advice for those hoping to gain recognition of their own in Canadian music.
"Enjoy what you do, or there's no point in doing it," says Lights. "Write songs, perfect your craft, find your pocket. Carve out a place for yourself – then it will be undeniable that there will be a place for you in the music industry. Don't wait for someone to create that for you."
The feeling that comes with perfecting your musical craft is perhaps best described by Geddy Lee, lead singer, bassist and keyboardist for Canadian phenomenon Rush. "When you're sweating over something and you play it back, there's a huge feeling of worth. That's the biofeedback you get from creating something."
Lee is asked to compare this to the feeling of giving, having accepted the Allan Waters Humanitarian Award on behalf of Rush for their philanthropic efforts. "When you help someone, it's a quieter feeling, but it brings tears to your eyes. When we build a school in Guatemala and we see them cutting the ribbon, it chokes you up! Because you are helping these people so directly. There's a school where there wasn't a school. It's a different feeling; it's a more emotional feeling." This kind of emotion is said to be a well from which musical and lyrical creativity is drawn.
Manic Drive: Contemporary Christian/Gospel Album of the Year
For Christian Rock band Manic Drive, the well of inspiration is surely dug in Christ and his Word. I eagerly awaited their televised speech when the trio was announced to have won. The first thank-you went to the crowd for their "brilliance and artistry," the second went to their Mom, the third went to their recording and producing team and the rest went to family and significant others for their relentless support. Then, just before descending the stage, one member ensured a final shout-out: "Party at table 12!" I had yet to form my own reaction before overhearing someone else's in the room:
"What?" A man asked, eyes wide and brows furrowed. "If I was God – and I like to think that I am – I would be seriously ticked."
It was neither my goal nor my place to bash Manic Drive or their discredit their authenticity, but hearing a broadcasted speech void of God's name was disheartening. I emailed the band via their website late Monday evening to ask if they'd like to address it. I received a response by Tuesday afternoon from their guitarist, Michael Cavallo. His email read:
"As we were shocked, excited and humbled to win, we were equally embarrassed for our human error to thank God. In fact, as we exited the stage, we caught ourselves immediately. We have been thanking and acknowledging the Lord in all our interviews and media campaigns. [Our faith] is something we are NOT ashamed of." He continued: “That said, it is tradition to thank God during a speech (especially as Christian artists), but to praise God for winning and other talented artists losing is something we always thought was a little wrong – as if we are in God’s favour compared to other artists … and that’s simply not the case.”
Cavallo went on to mention the band’s broadcasted apology on JUNO TV, presented right after the speech, and other times when they’d stood their ground in their faith with radio personalities literally mocking and swearing at them during interviews.
He personally apologized for any offence given and urged that “as the body of Christ we should be working together in all fields of life, instead of printing our mistakes.” Cue the conviction within me. There I was, equipped and ready to “print mistakes” in The Crown for all to see. I imagined writing a column of the times I’ve fallen short and certainly didn’t find it as tempting to publish. The lesson-learned: remembering who we are, whose grace we’ve received and acting according to those truths.
JUNO Songwriter's Circle: Sunday morning, March 15th
Eight JUNO Award nominees headlined this event, sharing stripped-down versions of songs and the stories behind them in the Hamilton Convention Centre. Ian Thornley (of Big Wreck), Jenn Grant, Lights and Ryan Guldemond (of Mother Mother) headed the show, and Emmanuel Jal, Fred Penner, Jess Moskaluke and Matt Anderson closed it. Each artist shared an acoustic or a capella version of two original songs, then invited the audience into the experiences that birthed them.
Ryan Guldemond had a comical way of explaining the simplicity of their performances: "The personality of the song, in itself, is a being. The production – acoustic guitar or accordion – is like an outfit. We've all dressed casually today, and it's the same with the song." The audience's chuckle prompted him to assure us: "It's deep, people!" And deeper it became.
The vulnerability among the artists was soul-stirring. Lights spoke about recording her award-winning album, "Little Machines," during her third trimester. She was still recording vocals in the early stages of going into labour, gave birth to daughter Rocket Wild Bokan and returned to the studio three days later. Alternative artist Jenn Grant shared a piece she'd written while sitting on her brother's kitchen floor, warring with emotions that surfaced when her mother passed away. Her lyrics were heartfelt and mesmerizing.
South Sudanese musician, Emmanuel Jal, too, is familiar with tribulation. Having been raised as a boy-soldier in Ethiopia, he was trained to fight and feel no remorse. After escaping at age 11, Jal sought healing in Jesus and hip-hop.
"Music is when I get to become a child again. This is where I'm able to see Heaven. When I started to tell my experiences through music it was easier than speaking, and the nightmares I used to have decided to disappear." His spoken-word rendition of "Forced to Sin" addressed the horrors of starvation and warfare. Rhythm is his medium of choice because of its universal nature.
"Music has a way of speaking to your mind, your heart, your soul, your cell system,” Jal said. “It is the language of the soul that everybody understands. It doesn't see colour."
Each and every artist shared raw performances with even rawer truths. The whole event (available to hear at music.cbc.ca) was a powerful reminder of the impact of honest artistry, giving fresh insight to the inner workings of today’s Canadian music.
The 2015 JUNO Awards Broadcast: Sunday evening, March 15
This was the climax of JUNO week. Hosted by Hedley's Jacob Hoggard and held in the FirstOntario Centre, the event presented awards for the Single of the Year ("Rude" by Magic!), Album of the Year ("Popular Problems" by Leonard Cohen), Artist of the Year (The Weeknd), Breakthrough Artist of the Year (Kiesza), Rock Album of the Year ("High Noon" by Arkells), JUNO Fan Choice Award (Michael Buble) and Canadian Music Hall of Fame (Alanis Morissette).
All members of the press spent the evening at the Hamilton Public Library, where award winners were shuttled by golf-cart after their acceptance speeches. The Media Center consisted of a Photo room, Q&A room and several large cubicles for television outlets like eTalk, JUNO TV and ET Canada. Each exploratory turn unveiled talk-show sets and snack booths. I planned to strategically hop between the Photo and Q&A rooms, aiming to photograph each winner and hear their answers.
This paparazzi crowd was a passionate one to say the least. Their language was colourful, and my head was shoved down more than once (I was already squatting, mind you, and resting my elbows on a red carpet that did not resemble a Sham-Wow). The Q&A room was triple the size of the last, but award recipients were asked similar questions. Every artist was honoured by their award(s) and spoke with evident thankfulness. Sadly, Michael Buble did not attend, and although The Weeknd did, he only mumbled a few thank-yous into a mic before the media, exited, and left us in a potent cloud of marijuana.
Magic! and the Arkells were the most talkative winners by far, answering questions with wit and reminiscent stories. The Arkells shared stories about their collaboration with Boris Brott and the National Academy Orchestra, their passion for touring, and their secret love for Nickelback. They also tried starting a drinking game with the media.
Magic! spoke of their sibling-like friendship with each other, calling themselves "the Olsen twins – that do music!" Their bond is sealed with musical commitment: "We're workhorses when we need to be, we're playful when we need to be, but we're serious songwriters."
Next up, three-time JUNO Award winning artist Kiesza challenged those who look up to her. "Take what I do, and bring it to the next level," she commissioned. "Learn from those before you. I'm never going to stop progressing at what I do, so neither should you."
Alanis Morissette, having been awarded a place in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, also had valuable things to say about thriving in the music industry.
"I never need to worry about Canadians as writers. We're a story-telling, confessional, autobiographical bunch by default. As a country we are very socially considerate and politically aware. We're a wealth of unique, empowered and emotional people." Her statement provided encouragement and seamless closure to the evening.
My taste of the JUNO experience was a consuming but enlightening one. Its purpose seemed shallow at times, bathed in champagne and sectioned-off by velvet ropes. Other times it dressed casually, sported an acoustic guitar and spoke in a raspy voice. In hindsight, I found the essence of the movement to be purest where honest questions met honest answers. This is beautifully expressed in Alanis Morissette’s response to becoming the Canadian music icon she is.
She said: “To me, fame in and of itself is not an end. It would be more valuable as a means to an end. I think, if people are being touched and moved and comforted and inspired by what I’m writing, then I’ll keep writing; I’ll take advantage of this famousness and use it as a means to serve. That’s when it becomes really interesting to me.”
Recognition as a means to serve, encourage and give voice to the unspeakable. Music as a means to respond, question and create. We may never get a glass statuette as recompense, but we will forever be a people called to “offer every part of ourselves as an instrument of righteousness.”