In the flood of eulogies for Stompin’ Tom Connors in the past week, there was a common refrain: will we ever have another singer who chronicles our national tales? Canadian musicians do well the world over, but there’s often little that distinguishes their songs as specifically Canadian. Trent Severn, a new folk-roots trio from Stratford, Ont., aims to pick up the torch. Dressed in plaid shirts, singer-songwriters Emm Gryner, Dayna Manning and Laura C. Bates sing Joni-sweet three-part harmonies over folky fiddle and fingerpicked guitar, and the 10 songs on their self-titled debut album have titles like Bluenose on a Dime and Mulroney Times. By the time they get to their searing take on the Steven Truscott case, there’s a pretty clear sense of Trent Severn’s mandate.
The breezy take on Canadiana isn’t simply a gimmick: “It sounds premeditated, but it was so natural,” says Manning. “When you get a song like Snowy Soul in your email, you just have to send something back really great, you know?” (Snowy Soul, the first song Gryner wrote for the band, was inspired by a conversation in a bookstore where a man was talking about returning from the Arctic).
Trent Severn—named for an Ontario waterway—is new, but its players are not. Gryner, a singer and multi-instrumentalist with more than a dozen albums, has toured with David Bowie as a backing vocalist and keyboardist, and been lauded by U2’s Bono. Manning had signed to major label EMI in the ’90s, then carved out an independent solo career, opening for the likes of Radiohead. Bates, an emerging violinist, is in demand for her ease in crossing musical genres.
In the fall of 2011, Gryner emailed Manning, whom she knew from their days in the ’90s music scene, floating the idea of a band with a “Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young-meets-Stompin’ Tom” sound that explored Canadian archetypes and themes. “It came from a combination of different things,” Gryner recalls. “Touring Ireland, living with Kate McGarrigle in Montreal . . . That was a big inspiration.” Manning, tired of the typical “relationship songs,” jumped at the idea. She enlisted violinist Bates to bring in the vital fiddle melodies. (Manning wrote one of her best-known songs, A Walk on the Moon, while babysitting Bates years ago.)
Despite not knowing each other well, and the logistical impediments— Manning lives part of the year in Fort St. John, B.C., and works as an administrator full-time; Gryner is a busy mom of two in St. Mary’s, Ont.; and Bates performs with several Toronto indie collectives, including the Boxcar Boys and Del Bel—they quickly found both musical and personal chemistry. They emailed lyrics and demo tracks back and forth, recording in all manner of home studios (both Gryner and Manning are experienced producers) and pieced together the album over the course of several months.
“It’s a narrative writing style akin to Stan Rogers,” Bates says. “Storytelling music. I tend to shy away from saying it’s a band made up of women. I love female musicians very much, and I love being a female musician, but I don’t want that to be the marketing principle of the band.” True to that idea, they don’t have their photographs on the album’s cover, but rather simply an evocative shot of a roadway in the Canadian Shield. That creative freedom is an upside of releasing the album themselves. “A record company probably would have only supported a project that they could market more broadly,” Manning says.
While all three maintain solo careers, they’re adamant Trent Severn will remain an ongoing concern. “I have my work family, I have my home family and I have Trent Severn,” says Manning, “and those are the three things that I’ve chosen to juggle in my life. If it wasn’t that easy, it wouldn’t have worked.”
The band recently got a lift when astronaut Chris Hadfield, a noted music fan, mentioned his fondness for their music. They’ll perform in Toronto during Canadian Music Fest on March 19 and 20 and hope to tour across Canada in the coming months. And they’re starting to plan a new album—which they hint just might include a catchy number about Tim Hortons.