Biography

Eleanor McCain really, really loves cheese.

She savours its taste, craves it with a fine glass of champagne or chardonnay, sprinkles it on Italian cuisine and, like the good citizens of Nashville, will embrace it as a vegetable on a salad if necessary.

But there’s one place where the proud Maritimer from Florenceville, New Brunswick absolutely draws the line when it comes to the inclusion of all things fromage: her music – Runaway.

“I have always been drawn to cheesy love songs. My vision for the album, however, was to present these songs through lush orchestral arrangements," declares McCain, a classical crossover singer who is thrilled to report that her fifth and latest album, Runaway, is dairy-free.

Armed with 12 inspired, tasteful and beautifully symphonic Shelly Berger arrangements of Matt Dusk-produced love songs that will be familiar to some and discoveries for others, Eleanor McCain engages her angelic voice to convey the finer points of romance.

From the lushly elegant reinterpretation of Sting’s “Fields Of Gold” to the succulently mesmerizing rendition of the sage Joni Mitchell classic “Both Sides Now,” triple East Coast Music Awards nominee McCain has ensured the absence of Camembert, Roquefort or any other of the 650 specialty varieties of cheese available in 60 countries due to the sublime intimacy she’s embedded in her performance.

However, Runaway is anything but lactose-intolerant: McCain and her stellar team milk as much sentiment out of every note sung and every note played as is humanly possible.

 “It’s not just about the music, it’s about the emotion of the music: how music connects us with people, memories and experiences,” McCain contends. “Some of it is indulgent and therapeutic, some of it is relatable and healing, but it’s the one universal experience that affects everyone to some degree, whether it’s fulfilled or unrequited. I still believe in love.”

Recorded in Toronto and Moscow and engineered by JUNO Award winner John “Beetle” Bailey, Runaway dips into the catalogues of Roberta Flack (the Ewan MacColl gem “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face;”) Billy Joel (“Just The Way You Are;”) the late Dan Fogelberg (“Longer;”) the Johnny Christopher/Mark James classic “Always On My Mind” first recorded by Brenda Lee and popularized by Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson and The Pet Shop Boys; Steven Bishop (“On and On”) and Gerry And The Pacemakers (“Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying”) among others.

There’s also a contemporary nod to both John Legend (“Save Room”) and Bob Dylan (“To Make You Feel My Love”) that highlights McCain’s flair for balladry, but also stretches her boundaries, something that album producer, and JUNO-nominated jazz singer, Matt Dusk strived for on the album.

“Eleanor has a very pretty voice,” says Dusk, who duets with the singer on “To Make You Feel My Love.”

“What I aimed for was for her to lose some of the classical side of things and become more of a communicator. I wanted to make a record with her vision, and put songs on the record that would accommodate her growth over years of singing them.

“There are songs like ‘Both Sides Now’ that she can sing for the rest of her life, and every year it’ll sound different.”

McCain, who knew Dusk as a friend for 10 years before they decided to collaborate in the recording studio together, says he provided a fresh approach for her on the new album.

“I wanted to inject some new blood, but not totally reinvent the wheel,” says McCain, whose previous collections have ranged from the seasonal (2013’s ECMA-nominated Holiday) and classical crossover (Intimate) to celebratory mother-and-child themed (2009’s ECMA-nominated Bundle Of Joy) and Maritime/Celtic roots (2011’s ECMA-nominated Green Hills Of Home.)

“Matt did a phenomenal job and challenged me vocally with special arrangements for really elegant, lush covers. It’s exactly what I wanted.”

For arranger Shelly Berger, who has worked with an impressive cadre of recording talent ranging from jazz greats Jack DeJohnette and Herb Ellis to pop stars Chaka Khan and Chantal Kreviazuk, it was an opportunity to work with the DOAC Orchestra and custom-design each arrangement for McCain’s cozy voice.

“I spent a lot of time listening to Eleanor’s previous records to get an idea of her singing ability, and then we used different orchestrations and tempos to attach a unique interpretation that would comfortably fit her voice.”

Both McCain and Dusk were extremely pleased with Berger’s efforts.

“Shelly’s done an amazing job with the arrangements,” McClain gushes. “They’re lush, but they kind of paint a musical landscape. They’re familiar, but they transport you somewhere else. They’re not so literal.” Adds Dusk:“Shelly and I have been working together for 10 years, and he had just finished my previous record, My Funny Valentine, before moving onto Runaway.

“The thing that’s difficult in this business is finding people that care. Shelly will slave over an arrangement until it’s perfect and that’s what I love about him.”

Although she’s moving into recording veteran territory with her fifth album Runaway, Eleanor McCain’s love affair with music began when she was still a child and seeing her first performance of the Broadway musical Annie.

“I still remember it vividly,” McCain recalls. “Even though I started singing when I was two or three years old, living in a small New Brunswick village of 800 people didn’t offer me a lot of access to radio or TV.

“Since I wasn’t exposed to a wide variety of concerts given the limitations of my small village, I’m not sure whether it was hearing the music and seeing the performance, or seeing young girls on stage I could relate to, but I was hooked!

“We stayed at my mother’s sister’s house in Greenwich Village, and after I saw the show, I was playing with my cousin and sister in the backyard and singing the songs from the musical for the rest of the day.”

Inspired by her mother’s piano-playing musicality, McCain took voice lessons in Fredricton and eventually enrolled in Mount Allison University for music, learning classical singing techniques.

While it gave her much needed discipline and taught her the craft, McCain says the lack of flexibility in interpreting classical music prompted her exploration of pop and related genres.

“I don’t have a huge Wagnerian voice,” she admits. “And my intent is that whatever music I put out there for my listeners evokes some kind of emotion for them and within them.”

Crediting her earthy family upbringing in “idyllic” Florenceville in instilling her with passion, a strong work ethic and “what’s important in the world – caring for others, empathy,” McCain is also an active philanthropist, donating a percentage of her online album sales to Hospice Toronto, currently celebrating its 25th anniversary.

“My connection with hospice palliative care came from my experience of caring for my father when he was dying of cancer,” she explains. “I saw a great need for people dealing with a terminal illness as well as their caregivers, and wanted to contribute. It’s extremely important to me.”

It’s the same amount of caring and devotion that McCain gives to the music of Runaway: striving for a degree of intimacy and injecting all the nuances that romantic love demands, while leaving enough interpretative leeway to resonate with her listeners and allow them to unearth their own interpretations.

“These are classic love songs from the ‘60s through today,” notes McCain, “I really wanted to sing about being in love, falling in love, everything that love implies, while giving them a new feel with that symphonic, orchestral treatment.

“I wanted them to be deeply personal, poignant and draw on many different aspects of love, and I couldn’t be happier with the way they turned out.”

That’s Gouda enough for us.

- Nick Krewen