Catherine MacLellan


BY Kerry DoolePublished Jun 26, 2011

East coast roots songstress MacLellan broadened her audience with 2009's acclaimed Water in the Ground, and she confidently ups the creative ante on this, her fourth album. Silhouette leads off lustily with "Stealin'," one of the most rocking songs she's recorded to date. From there, it's back to the quiet and oft-melancholy introspection that remains MacLellan's signature. She probes matters of the heart with a poetic scalpel, always avoiding self-pity. Her voice is similarly pure and honest, managing to simultaneously sound fragile yet strong. The album was recorded in studios in P.E.I. (a rustic space owned by her drummer, Reg Ballagh) and Toronto with her band, some Toronto guests and co-producer David Baxter. The fluent guitar work of Chris Gauthier catches the ear, while veterans Jason Sniderman and Burke Carroll make strong contributions. Jadea Kelly' s harmony vocals are used well, as on "True Love," a full-blooded track Lucinda Williams would be proud to claim, while Jim Cuddy was a fine choice as a vocal guest for "Songbird." That Canadian classic was, of course, written by MacLellan's father, Gene, and her version is quietly moving. The fact that this is a near-hour-long album devoid of filler is a testimony to MacLellan's ascent to greatness.

You've worked a lot with co-producer David Baxter and the musicians before. Did that bring a comfort level to the process?
Yes, but it was harder than I thought it would be. I thought it would be really easy and straightforward. The band had been playing so much together that we thought we knew what we were doing and I'd worked with David so much. But there were all these things that just kept coming up to challenge us a bit. I'm glad too, because challenge can be a good thing for the creative process.

On the liner notes, you write, "thanks to heartbreak that crystallizes in song." Do you find songs coming from that place easier to write?
It is easy to write when things feel bad; I hope that's not forever the case in order to make a record. But this time there was a lot of inner turmoil happening. With the last album, I really wanted to make a positive and optimistic record. Perhaps this is to balance that.

Were you at all apprehensive about covering an iconic song like "Snowbird"?
The reason I recorded it was that I'd been playing it live a lot. People really liked my version and wanted a copy of it. I just wanted to do it right; I'm not convinced I did, but we'll see. I was disappointed I couldn't be there when Jim Cuddy did his vocals for it. He did a great job.

When did the recording take place?
It was last December and we did tend to hang around the wood stove there. It happened really quickly, as there was just a small window of opportunity that all of us could be in the same room together, so we went for it. In some ways, I felt I wasn't quite ready to make a record, but in other ways, I felt like I'd been waiting for it. We only had a week of recording there to get all the bed tracks down. We again did it at my friend Reg Ballagh's recording studio in his log house. This time he was our drummer as well.

Did you have a mandate for the sound of the record going in?
Well, because I'd been playing so much with my band, I did want to represent what was happening offstage. And I think I wanted a bigger and more fully formed sound than what had happened in the past.

Were these songs all written since the last record?
Yes, most of them. A couple were older ones we debated whether to do and then one came during the recording process. So, yes, mostly over the last three years, and now I'm writing for the next album. I'm amazed that even though I don't have a lot of time for writing I end up with a lot of songs. Too many at any point of time.

You didn't scrimp on the album. It's 58 minutes long at a time when 30 to 35 minutes are the norm.
Yes, and a lot of people are doing EPs. I wanted just 12 songs on it, but there was a lot of debate between everybody about which songs would stay or go. In the end, the ones everybody else thought should go were ones I wanted to stay, so we just left them all on. I felt strongly about the ones others thought should go.

Do you sometimes find themes on an album after all the songs have been written?
Basically, I just pick my favourite songs, then as I'm recording it I'll go, "oh, so that's where my head was at for the last three years." The one thing I realised after we started recording was that there were a lot of bird references. I'm not sure where that comes from; I really like birds, I guess.

You enjoy the pace of your career progress?
I have been enjoying it; it has been progressing at a pace I can keep up with. I like the "slow and steady wins the race" deal. I'm in this for life, so I don't want to burn out. I hope people can keep supporting me the way they have. I want to keep that grassroots approach going.

There's a vibrant singer-songwriter scene on the East coast, isn't there?
Yes and I feel lucky to be part of it. It is nice watching all my friends, as we all rather started out together. All of us have taken different approaches, but we're all doing what we want to do still. Jenn Grant, David Myles, Tania Davis ― Tania has been, like, my best friend since I was ten. She has just become Halifax's Poet Laureate. Rose Cousins too. I got to do a bunch of shows in Ireland with her and that was great. I'm looking forward to festival season and getting to see everybody in that setting.
(True North/Linus)

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