• By: Eric Murphy

‘Canadian Songbook’ Tour Captures its Last Note in Ottawa

All photos by Eric Murphy. 

A journey that began three months ago will end this evening when classical crossover singer Eleanor McCain and the NAC orchestra strike the last note of the seven songs they’ve been recording together. The seven songs, all re-interpretations of Canadian classics and contemporary hits, are only a small portion of the 33 songs McCain’s been recording all over the country, with orchestras from Edmonton, Halifax, Saint John and Vancouver, just to name a few.

More than 60 musicians gathered on the NAC's Main Stage.
More than 60 musicians gathered on the NAC’s Main Stage.

“It was not planned that it would end in Ottawa, but I’m so glad it did,” McCain says. “It really brings everything home.”

McCain’s tour started in March, and her goal is to release a double album of the 33 classically reimagined songs called True North: The Canadian Songbook. The album is coming out in May 2017, just in time for Canada’s 150th birthday.

I met McCain less than a month before the country’s 149th birthday, when she was rehearsing with the NAC Orchestra during the first of two recording days. Not only did Ottawa’s orchestra have the honour of ending the 10 city tour, but it was the only group recording seven songs, every other city recorded three.

McCain seemed right at home beneath NAC Main Stage’s jagged balconies and astral chandelier, wearing a Hudson’s Bay stripe shirt under her blazer as if to drive the point home that this tour is all about Canada. The conductor who has accompanied her on each tour stop, 2013 Heinz Unger winner Martin MacDonald, directed the 62 gathered musicians as if he’d been working with them for years.

“[Martin] is obviously very talented, and he’s able to connect musically very quickly,” McCain says.

Martin MacDonald directs the NAC Orchestra on June 13.
Martin MacDonald directs the NAC Orchestra on June 13.

I’m not allowed to name the songs they were rehearsing last night, but the Canadian works sounded absolutely gorgeous coming from such a talented orchestra. It’s amazing to hear the depth 62 instruments can add to a song normally played on an acoustic guitar. The soft notes become so much more elegant on violin strings, and the crash of a full band gives the loud moments an unmatchable power and impact.

So far, McCain has only released the names of two of the 33 songs she’s been working on: Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and “A Case of You” by Joni Mitchell. If the final version of either sounds half as impressive as the snippets I was lucky enough to hear from the sixth row.

Eleanor McCain sings on the NAC's main stage.
Eleanor McCain sings on the NAC’s main stage.

McCain’s voice sounded fantastic, of course, and it’s almost a shame that the final vocal tracks will be recorded a few months down the road, once she’s spent some more time with the recordings. The final songs will also feature a few guest performers, including Roch Voisine, a Canadian singer-songwriter who grew up in a New Brunswick town just 45 minutes from where McCain was raised.

The Canadian Songbook tour brought McCain through her home province to record in Saint John, and although that stop was a powerful homecoming, it wasn’t the only moment that stuck with her.

“It’s been an incredible journey,” McCain says. “I think we were driving into Quebec City and I was having this kind-of moment, thinking ‘oh my God we’re so lucky.’”

The end of the tour doesn’t mean work on the Canadian Songbook will be slowing down. Aside from the added vocals and final mixing, the double-album will have an accompanying coffee-table book, filled with breathtaking landscapes captured by Canadian photographers. McCain will even be making a few appearances in some of the photos, wearing dresses exclusively from Canadian designers. Clearly, Eleanor McCain and her team have spent quite a lot of time thinking about how they can make their entire project as Canadian as the songs they’re capturing and the orchestras they’ve visited.

“We’re very sad to be ending this tour,” McCain says. “It’s sort of weird it’s over actually…but exciting, there’s lots to look forward to.”

You can find out more about McCain and the True North: The Canadian Songbook project at eleanormccain.ca.

Edited Eleanor5