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.
Much has been said about the American Songbook. Yet we have our own body of work to be proud of, our own Canadian Songbook—a collection of songs, created over many decades, that are unique and significant to our voice as a nation.
What better time than Canada’s 150th birthday to celebrate this incredible collection, to showcase the depth and authenticity that shine through the music? These 32 songs have not just captured the hearts of their generations—they have lived on and will endure for years to come. In many ways, they define who we are as a people. My belief in these songs, and their legacy for our nation, has fuelled my passion for creating True North: The Canadian Songbook.
As with so many monumental projects, the idea for this one came at the right time. It happened late on a snowy night in January 2014.
I’d just finished recording my fifth CD, Runaway, a collection of classic love songs with full symphony orchestra. During a discussion of ways to develop new shows for me with orchestras, the idea of doing an album of Canadian songs came up. A lightning bolt went off in my brain, and the idea for True North: The Canadian Songbook was born.
My mind kept racing until a thought struck me, one that never let go. What if I asked arrangers from across the country to take this Canadian music and reimagine it for full orchestra? And what if I recorded with orchestras from coast to coast?
In a single moment I was both captivated and energized by this pan-Canadian concept. What an amazing story it could tell about Canadian music, and just in time for the nation’s 150th birthday in 2017.
I was so pumped about the idea that it began to consume my every thought. A playlist of songs started compiling itself in my head, one that I lived with through 2014, thinking about how I would pull off such an amazing, yet massive, project.
Choosing the perfect producer for the album was a decision I sat with for a long time. The person who kept coming to mind was a man I knew only by reputation—Don Breithaupt, a songwriter, arranger, producer, musician and Emmy Award–winning composer. Once I finally decided to move forward with the project in early 2015, I connected with Don in February for our first real discussion of the project. Don loved the idea, and in the days that followed, with each email he sent me, his excitement grew. I knew we were on to something special.
But as I contemplated the scope of the project throughout 2014, I also wondered, does anyone buy CDs anymore? My daughter purchased only two physical CDs that year. What struck me was that both came in the form of a book, which allowed the artists to create a more enhanced experience to complement the music. I was intrigued. As I listened to my playlist over that year, each song evoked an image of the Canadian landscape, and the idea of a book of landscape photos to accompany the music began to take shape.
I turned to photographer V. Tony Hauser for advice. To my delight, he offered to curate the book with me by researching photographers, finding landscape images and providing editorial leadership based on his experience with creating photography books. In keeping with the pan-Canadian music concept, the images ultimately came from 22 photographers across the country. The concept expanded to include behind-the-scenes photography by Greg Locke and others, as well as song lyrics and songwriter commentary. Finally, Tony photographed eight portraits of me in select Canadian landscapes showcasing gowns by Canadian fashion designers. All of these elements were brought together in a stunning 220-page bilingual coffee table book by the expert publishing team at Vancouver’s Page Two Strategies.
Once the trigger was pulled in 2015 to start this epic journey, time was of the essence. Don and I met a few times that year to choose the songs and the keys, and to workshop arrangements and research possible arrangers. From a lifetime of interpreting songs, I know the importance of an expertly wrought arrangement. We ended up with 14 extraordinary arrangers from across the country, and together they crafted 32 orchestrations—each one uniquely beautiful, and all of them new interpretations of these classic Canadian pop and folk songs.
Throughout 2015 and 2016 there was an unbelievable amount of work to do. We knew from the start that the project I’d proposed was mammoth and would take an extensive team of exceptional people to see it through. That team eventually grew into one of the most impressive groups of people I have ever had the pleasure of working with. Each member was an expert in their field and each brought true passion and dedication to the project.
By February 2016 it was time to put a full year of intense planning into action. The studio sessions were our first chance to see where the arrangements would go. Some of Canada’s finest musicians gathered at Toronto’s Phase One Studios, with album engineer John “Beetle” Bailey, for six full days of recording the bed tracks for each song, creating magic at every turn and setting the foundation for the orchestral recording sessions to come.
One month later the recording tour took flight. Between March and June, we recorded with 10 remarkable orchestras from St. John’s to Victoria (recorded by Jeremy Tusz and Diapason Mobile, whose life-saving mobile recording kit is designed specifically for capturing orchestras). We followed by recording with 28 guest artists, including five choirs and one pipe band.
Ultimately, over 750 musicians participated in True North: The Canadian Songbook. It is impossible to find words to describe the energy and excitement we experienced at every session, the thrill of meeting the musicians and guest artists from coast to coast, and reconnecting with symphonies I know and love, and most of all, the emotion and magic of hearing the gifted artists and musicians from each orchestra bring the music to life. Hearing and singing with an orchestra has always been a love of mine, and I consider it a great privilege. The feelings from the creation of this music will remain in my heart forever.
The journey was also captured on film by Silverpoint Media. The documentary will be released in time for Canada Day 2017.
Having experienced our nation coast to coast through this project, I have a deeper realization of what an incredible gift it is to be Canadian, and my heart is filled with gratitude. On Canada’s 150th birthday, I hope this project inspires people to passionately champion our Canadian Songbook, and to celebrate our people, our musicians, songwriters and artists, our values and our culture, our diversity and our breathtaking landscapes.
Photos by V. Tony Hauser