The Story Behind True North: The Canadian Songbook

For Canada’s 150th birthday, Eleanor McCain is dreaming big.

However, in the case of the ambitious 32-song double-CD True North: The Canadian Songbook, the word “big” may be a bit of an understatement.





Those words are more fitting of this classical crossover singer’s elaborate project, which, when said and done, will take the triple East Coast Music Awards nominee from coast to coast to coast of this great nation of ours, culling inspiration, material and performances from this country’s most integral songwriters, arrangers, musicians, recording artists and photographers.

“We are so lucky to live in Canada and to be where we are,” McCain states. “Canadians are so welcoming, so diverse, so modest, so socially conscious. I think that all of this come out in all of our music. Plus, we have expansive and amazing landscapes and vast vistas that I don’t think we fully appreciate: landscapes that, in my opinion, represent our cultural diversity as well as our country.

“I wanted to tie it all together in one special project to show my deep passion for Canada in time for its sesquicentennial.”

But back to the enormous scale of the dream: when McCain recorded her last album, 2013’s Runaway, she recorded the bed tracks in Toronto and the orchestral tracks in Moscow. For True North: The Canadian Songbook, under the supervision of Emmy-Award-winning producer Don Breithaupt, she’s enlisted ten orchestras, bookended by Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra and the Victoria Symphony, and an armada of amazing homegrown arrangers and orchestrators: Darren Fung, Shelly Berger, Lou Pomanti, Donald Quan, Brigham Phillips, Peter Cardinali, Bill Coon, Keith Power, Benoit Groulx, Scott MacMillan, Chris Palmer, Cameron Wilson, and of course, Mr. Breithaupt himself. 

“Arrangers are often the unsung heroes of Canadian music,” says McCain. “True North: The Canadian Songbook is designed to bring them front and centre as they tailor some of our most treasured songs to my voice and style and reimagine them for orchestra.”

As for the chosen numbers and illustrious duet partners that will accompany her on some of those classics, McCain remains coy for the moment.

“I want to reveal the lineup a little at a time, to slowly build the excitement over the next 18 months,” admits the singer and philanthropist. “So stay tuned…”

But she will unveil one song - the only original among the 32 selections – called “I Can See Hope From Here.”

“Don and his brother Jeff wrote an original, gorgeous ballad,” McCain explains. “Don and his family spend their summers in Georgian Bay, and there’s a nearby island called Hope Island. On one occasion, their brother Ross said, ‘I can see Hope from here,’ and Don thought it would be an excellent song title.

“It’s a very simple song. Jeff is a great lyricist and Don’s music is brilliant, and aside from being drawn from Canada, the song’s topic is very much in keeping with where I am in my life right now. It’s very poignant, and means a lot to me.”

With all the logistical complexities of employing 10 orchestras, 14 arrangers, countless musicians and booking numerous recording facilities across Canada, you’d think McCain’s cup would be full.

Guess again: not only will True North: The Canadian Songbook address the aural component of Canadian appreciation in physical CD and digital formats, but a deluxe edition of the album will also incorporate a coffee table book featuring picturesque Canadian landscapes captured by nationally prominent photographers, an authentic marriage of the aural and the visual, illustrating the country’s magnificent melting pot of mutual tolerance and respect.

There will be a documentary, and possibly more exciting surprises to be announced as the sands of time hurtle towards July 1, 2017, the project’s release date and Canada’s 150th birthday.

“I’m going for the whole - well, since this is Canada, ‘enchilada’ is probably the wrong word - poutine,” McCain chuckles.

The native of Florenceville, New Brunswick’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,” recalls McCain, who has five previous albums – 2007’s Intimate, 2008’s ECMA-nominated Bundle Of Joy, 2010’s ECMA-nominated Green Hills Of Home, 2012’s ECMA-nominated Holiday and 2013’s Matt Dusk-produced Runaway - to her credit.

“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, McCain took voice lessons in Fredericton 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.”

In January 2014, the idea of True North: The Canadian Songbook appeared – and Eleanor McCain immediately tried to dissuade herself from doing it.

“I couldn’t get it out of my head,” she admits. “I thought of all the reasons I couldn’t or shouldn’t do it. But, there was a burning passion for what it represented between our country and our music that I couldn’t get out of my head.

“Then I actually thought about the whole thing along with the song list I had created for a year before I said, ‘Ok, let’s do this,’” McCain continues.

“Then it was going to be about Canada’s 150th birthday, and include 12 songs. And then I thought, ‘well, how can you do a 12-song CD and do Canada justice?’ You can’t. So then the list increased to 20 songs, and finally settled on 32.

“Then I thought, well, they have to be songs that I have to do in my style, and if I’m going to record with a symphony, this isn’t really something I can record in Moscow.

“And then, it was, ‘well, how do you choose one orchestra if this is Canada’s 150th?’

“And that’s when the dream happened: wouldn’t it be great to do this with orchestras across the country? Then the idea to make it Pan-Canadian came right away especially given my growing relationships with orchestras in Canada in recent years. I formed the playlist immediately and started living with it. The idea was great, but the logistics of the project were, like…Holy crap!” she laughs.

The involvement of Don Breithaupt (The Breithaupt Brothers Songbook) was simply put…kismet.

Our mothers had gone to university together, and he’s a few years older than me, so we never really knew each other on a social basis,” McCain explains, “But his name kept popping into my head for this project. And then, one day, out of the blue, he sent me an e-mail and said, ‘We should work on something together.’ And this was literally just minutes before I was about to send him an e-mail suggesting the same thing.”

During a visit to the Grammys in February 2015, McCain met with Breithaupt in L.A. to discuss the idea of working together on The Canadian Songbook. They quickly teamed up and started work shopping the songs on Eleanor’s playlist along with a few new suggestions from Don.

“We were meant to work on this project,” McCain confirms. “Don is incredibly talented and also a really nice guy.”

With a core band of Breithaupt on piano, Mark Kelso on drums, Pat Kilbride on bass, Justin Abedin on guitar and a few more instrumental guests, the duo have collaborated on a vision that celebrates the best that Canada has to offer.

““The emotions behind all the songs are stunning, and I’m honoured to celebrate all our great Canadian songwriters with True North,” says McCain. “There is enormous talent in this country and I am so happy to be honouring some of our greatest artists through this project. I’m just so happy to be doing this.”

So are we, Miss Eleanor: True North: The Great Canadian Songbook, coming soon to a pair of ears near you.

 - Nick Krewen

Photos by V. Tony Hauser