Destination Anywhere for Arms of the Girl
Feature photo by Erick Sodhi
Vocalist Carolyn (Cee) Côté struggled with confidence in her own voice until her early 20s. David Cutler was a 13 year old looking for an identity so he reached for an old guitar. Afton Penny thought there was nothing cooler than being a young musician playing in a band with his friends. Phil DesRoches played his first gig as a drummer, fell in love with the singer and hit the road only to come back around again and marry the girl.
Their paths couldn’t have been more different but music unites. Today Cee, Dave, Phil and Afton are four musicians bonded together by stanzas of song, notes on a page, and melodies in the air wrapped tightly within the folds of their band, together in the Arms of the Girl.
While there is a guitarist in the band that first started playing in his early teens, Côté herself didn’t starting playing guitar until her first year of university. Dealing with the changes most students face -including a deep well of loneliness- she decided to turn the lows into art thinking the guitar might perk her up. She shyly admits she had other reasons to keep practicing.
“This is embarrassing, but my main motivation was that I thought my guitar teacher was hot. I thought that if I was a good student, then he might find me attractive also,” she laughs relaying it now. “The logic of an 18 year old.”
The aforementioned hotness aside, this teacher would be the first to really notice Côté’s vocal abilities, suggesting she take a couple of lessons. Later on he’d also nudge her towards song writing. She’d get over the crush but the music remained.
“I guess you could say that it’s always been a labour of love,” she says reflecting back.
Côté met Penny when they were both students and, as teenagers, they formed their first band. The natural musical progression of getting the pieces to fit moved them through inevitable changes but eventually Dave jumped in. Phil was found waiting for somebody, anybody, to answer an ad in cyberspace. After his first practice Cee knew he was what they’d been looking for and DesRoches and his drum kit were asked to join the band in the parking lot of James Street Pub.
“It was sort of serendipitous wasn't it?” he says. “I stopped into James Street for a drink and Arms of the Girl just happened to be playing a show. I went up to finally introduce myself in person when they were done their set, and we got together for a tryout later that week.”
Some are living to work and some are working to live. This band is working to play. Like a lot of artists, their passion doesn’t always pay the bills and the members of Arms of the Girl haven’t quit their day jobs. For now, when not making music, they’re holding down gigs for the government, teaching and passing you a case of brew at your local Beer Store.
Dave will tell you it’s not really so bad, playing music and selling beer, and Cee adds that they ensure their day jobs don’t encroach too much on their musicianship.
“Our jobs are pretty flexible to balance work life with creative passion,” she says.
Côté says her other profession in teaching is actually a snug fit for somebody pursuing the arts despite a few speedy outfit changes from time to time.
“I try and keep my musical side separate from my teacher side – kind of a Clark Kent / Superman thing, down to the times I’ve changed into gig clothes in school bathrooms!”
With the rent cheques paid, the band says their first obstacle after forming was simply knowing exactly what they should be doing, a process they are still working through a handful of albums and a lot of shows later. But, to them, the journey has been an enjoyable one and their sound in indicative of that camaraderie they share.
Arms of the Girl tries not to box in their genre, most comfortable exploring various musical avenues. They’re not hung up on direction. If they need to, they’ll just rearrange the street signs, toss out the map and roll forward with the notion that if you don’t know where you’re going any road will take you there. It's destination anywhere!
Take their recent release, Paper Copper Steel, an album your local record store clerk might have trouble figuring out exactly where to file. Rock? Blues? Pop? Does it matter?
Whatever you want to call it, these songs all translate into what Arms of the Girl have become known for, an energetic stage presence that showcases a group that keeps their steady forward motion one day at a time losing themselves to the music that brought them together in the first place each time they step onto the stage. There they are not in the studio. They are not in the classroom. They are not in the office or Beer Store.
They are in the now!
Ottawa Life talked with the band about their roots, the group dynamics, looking back, looking ahead and keeping their heads above the water in growing wave of the city music scene.
You’ve been performing for awhile now. How do you keep afloat in the growing music biz in Ottawa?
Carolyn: All of the lovely people we have become friends with. Other musicians are the key to this city, and we sincerely appreciate when they show up at our gigs. We try to reciprocate as much as possible.
Dave: I think one of the keys is networking and the best way to network in the music scene is to actually attend shows. You aren’t going to meet new people in the business if you don’t regularly get out there in the scene and interact with other bands/radio personnel/promoters, etc. We’ve been able to get some cool opportunities simply because of a relationship that we’ve developed over a period of time.
There was a bit of a gap between Versions of Happiness and Paper Copper Steel. What was the reason?
Carolyn: Just growing pains. The first two EPs (Recipe for Living and Warning Signs) were the typical recordings you do as a young band. You say, “I have all these songs – I’m going to record them all.” With Versions of Happiness, we started to be more selective. After we released that EP, the band went through a series of trying to figure out what we wanted to focus on – everything from what types of gigs we wanted to play, to how we wanted to work together. We wanted to put out better quality material and release something that we were solid on. The EP’s title, Paper | Copper | Steel, is a nod to the continuation of the band. It’s based on the idea of wedding anniversary presents (ex. paper for the first year, leather for the second, etc.). Phil is paper, as our newest member. Dave is Copper. Afton and I are steel. I did take some liberties with the concept to make the title sound good, but the match up of the years is pretty close!
What would you say each of you bring to the band?
Dave: Carolyn encompasses the band, as she is the idea person and leader. She produces most of the song ideas and keeps us all in line. There would be no band without her. She is definitely where some of the southern blues and country influences on the band’s sound come from.
Afton brings a quiet sensibility to the band. He knows his stuff musically and when he decides to speak up he usually makes great points and has good ideas. I’ve always said that guitarists make the worst bassists so I can’t say enough about how glad I am that we have an actual bassist in the band. I don’t think I know a better bass player. Afton is also the resident soundman in the band.
Drums are the perfect instrument for Phil because he helps to keep all of us in time both musically and emotionally. It takes a lot to rattle him and he really helps to keep us all focused and put things in perspective. When we were looking for a new drummer, we only needed one practice to decide that Phil was the man for the job.
I feel I bring most of the blues-rock sound to the band as most my influences are classic rock and blues artists. I don’t bring as many ideas to the table as Carolyn but when something gets me really excited I definitely don’t hesitate to show it to the others.
How would you describe your approach to writing your own material?
Carolyn: Both solo and collaborative. I write the main idea: melody, lyrics, basic chords and song structure. I bring it to the guys and they decide if they like it or not. If they do, then they add their instruments and ideas for improving the song.
Dave: It’s a pretty collaborative process overall. It’s usually Carolyn or occasionally myself that brings an idea to practice and collectively we hash it out by getting input from everyone. There’s no real dictator style writing in this band where one person controls everything, and I think that works best for all of our personalities.
The latest EP really balances the acoustic and electric. How did you try to blend both for this interesting sound?
Carolyn: The credit goes to Steve Foley at Audio Valley Recording Studios. He did a beautiful job of bringing the acoustic and electric together. He did a beautiful job overall on the EP.
Dave: It really came down to how to best present the songs and what served each individual song best. I think you need to be willing to experiment a little with songwriting be honest with yourself about when something really works and when it really doesn’t.
What are some of your best memories of 2016?
Carolyn: Our EP release party at LIVE! on Elgin was the best time. We played with our friends in the Cody Allen Band and Weird with Cats, and we brought two of our friends in Iconoclast onstage with us for one song. It was a sell-out show, we made it a party atmosphere with a candy bar and balloons, and we had a signature drink in honour of the night made by Kirby. But best of all, I felt so in the zone, just enjoying being part of the music. So much fun. We had a great set.
What’s on the horizon in 2017 for the band?
Carolyn: We’re working on new material right now and are going to do some demos for it. We’ve got plans to do a cool music video with Worn Leather Media for our song, “Calling You Out.” We’ll probably release a new single this summer, more video content, and we’ve sent out some apps for festivals – so fingers crossed! You never know what opportunity is right around the corner. Our next gig is February 18 at The Rainbow with our friends in The Bristol Hum.