Wielding their own very unique brand of ‘Western Folk’, Calgary’s Northern Beauties are heading to the International Beer Haus on March 30th. They will be joined by Red Deer’s own Heartbroke Heroes as well.
As a release noted, with, “Vocal harmonies as big as their ambitions, they’ve capped off a remarkable year since releasing their debut EP in the spring of 2015. The EP charted on both national college and public stations which helped push the band into the top 12 of the 2015 Alberta Peak Performance Project.”
This attention soon earned them a spot in the Calgary Folk Music Festival’s 2016 Block Heater Winter Festival; a showcase in Music Calgary’s ‘Sound Off III’, a live broadcast performance on CBC’s Key of A, a feature performance for Juno Fest and inclusion in the 2016 Calgary Folk Music Festival.
“It’s been a busy year, and it’s tough to really unpack everything – it’s all kind of still in traction. It doesn’t seem like there’s been a beginning or an end to it all,” explained singer Todd Stewart. “But yes, it’s all definitely exceeded our expectations in terms of what we had set out to do. Especially considering our EP was kind of like almost a send-off and last hurrah to my career in music. It was kind of the last album I was begging my wife to allow me to do,” he laughed. “So it’s a testament to getting out of your own way – people have definitely responded to it, and we’ve been getting a lot of support along the way.”
The band was also honoured with a 2016 Western Canadian Music Award for Roots Group/Duo of the Year and a Calgary Music Award for Roots/Folk Recording of the Year.
Meanwhile, the harmonies of vocalists Stewart and Craig Aikman are a quick blend and their first year performing as a duo established a vocal partnership that underpins their sound. Building on that sound in 2013 was drummer Erik Allen, bassist Aaron Schlopp, pedal steel player Charlie Hase and violinist Jonathan Lewis.
The full lineup embodies what Stewart calls ‘Western Folk’ – the distinct, bluegrass-infused contemporary folk-scape of which the band is now considered to be a progenitor.
Looking to expand internationally, in the fall of 2016 the duo headed to Europe to perform at the Reeperbahn Festival in Hamburg, Germany and a featured showcase in Warsaw, Poland.
It proved to be an amazing and very eye-opening experience as to the potential their music has to impact audiences internationally, he said.
“It was definitely one of those thing where the music was taking us somewhere else,” he added reflecting on the experience. “I fell in love with Germany – it was amazing. Berlin was so romantic. So we really enjoyed ourselves there – we were there for showcase reasons. And we were hoping to open up that market – so for the next album we will be releasing it there as well. It was great – definitely one of the highlights of the year.
“It’s funny – the stuff that we do isn’t as common there. There is more of an Americana theme starting to emerge in those parts, so I think it’s really good timing for us to be going down there,” he explained. “To start introducing ourselves to the folks – people were definitely paying attention to what we were doing,” he said.
“It really expands your horizons. You realize that we exist here in a pretty small market and there is just the whole world out there – we are so connected now. It was nice to see that we have value in other markets.
“It definitely ups your confidence.”
Shortly after their return to Canada, the Northern Beauties were featured at 2016’s Break Out West Festival in Regina, a trip that coincided with their Western Canadian Music Award win.
To round out a year of showcases the band appeared at ‘Alberta Showcase’ in Edmonton and has been invited by the Alberta Bow Valley Music Club and Alberta Music to perform at the 2017 Folk Alliance International conference held in Kansas City, Missouri.
With pre-production for the second release wrapped up, the Northern Beauties are once again teaming up with producer Shawn Cole to record the anticipated sophomore full-length this year as well.
As for Stewart, he is a veteran of the western Canadian music scene. He is originally from Edmonton but moved south more than a decade ago to live closer to the mountains and explore Calgary’s music community.
After trying to position himself as more of a pop/rock artist, he found that he had come to a crossroads – a position that compelled him to re-assess who he wanted to be as a musician and a songwriter.
As soon as he decided to follow his heart and make the shift, Stewart realized he would need collaborators.
He knew what he wanted moving forward, and eventually teamed up with vocalist Aikman, Allen, Schlopp, Hase and Lewis.
In terms of ultimately laying down tracks for the band’s EP, which was released in 2015, Stewart really couldn’t have found a tighter, more cohesive set to work with.
In his own experience, it was back in Grade 11 when a band visited his school featuring musician Stew Kirkwood and Stewart was simply mesmerized by what he heard.
He asked his folks for a guitar for Christmas, and something of a musical journey was born. But a pivotal moment came when he saw Blue Rodeo’s video Love and Understanding on MuchMusic.
“When I saw that video it was like I was finding my tribe! It was like a homecoming.”
He can’t imagine another path – challenges and the intrinsic demands of life on the road aside.
“Whatever happens, it’s a pretty privileged lifestyle.”