Maria Dunn has good reason to reflect on the life of a singer-songwriter. It has been 20 years now since this musical treasure released her first of six independent recordings, From Where I Stand, a fact that she celebrates in concert Thursday at Festival Place.
Dunn was just back home in Edmonton after a 12-day tour of Ontario (shared in part with Chicago’s Jo Jencks) when I tracked her down for some insights on creative pursuits, universal themes, and the joy of folk.
She left her last non-music day job in 1999. It’s no small thing to make a living in folk music for nearly 20 years and it’s no stretch to say that Dunn’s musical accomplishments have left us with a richer appreciation of our culture. I can think of few other songwriters who embrace the work of searching out and researching real-life stories from often overlooked corners of the world, only to turn them into memorable songs.
Born in a town near Glasgow, Scotland, Dunn’s family emigrated to Canada when she was a baby. Raised with her parent’s love of traditional Scot and Irish sounds, she had no special wish to make music beyond campfire singalongs, piano lessons, choir practice and the guitar they gave her in 1988 (later she learned to play a small accordion too). She got a Bachelor of Science in Psychology instead, and worked in hospitals for a while until music gradually took over.
Somewhere along the way the story part of history scratched an itch. While her album debut took place 20 years ago, Dunn dates the seeding of her sounds to a decade earlier when she was in Scotland and Ireland searching out her roots. In Dublin, an uncle showed her copies of letters that family members had written, some dating back to the mid-19th century.
“That was a real awakening to me. I had never really studied history in school and stopped taking social studies as soon as it was possible because I found it dull. But when he showed me those letters written by my ancestors it was a phenomenal epiphany. Given their times I expected to read very important political statements but they were very personal letters, about their job, what they did on days off, what family arguments were going on, all these basic personal things that did occasionally reference big events like the Irish potato famine. It brought history alive for me.”
Through those copied letters she imagined herself in the shoes of a young woman ancestor generations removed who emigrated to New York looking for a better life, and in the shoes of her First World War veteran grandfather who fought for social justice. Moved to make something more of it all, Dunn was spurred on to write the songs New York 1849 and Shoes Of A Man, respectively.
“I came to realize that this was a powerful way of storytelling, of sharing other people’s stories.”
Then she volunteered for CJSR Radio at the University of Alberta and wound up hosting a morning folk program for 13 years on the station from 1987 to 2000, expanding her knowledge of folk music streams exponentially.
Over two decades the process behind Dunn’s songwriting has evolved considerably.
“For me, it still tends to be a turn of phrase, something somebody says that sparks my imagination, and helps me see what the core emotion is that I’m trying to get at. That can often help me with the tempo, or time signature for a song or whether it will be major or minor. Sometimes I’ll improvise a vocal melody completely, but more often I play around with a bunch of possibilities.”
She tends to write at the piano, and like many of the older songs she grew up with, Dunn has a penchant for choosing to inhabit her characters in the first person. That’s not unique but it does come off in a more mature fashion than many contemporary songwriters.
“Something can be more emotionally potent if it’s sung from the first person, and learning so many traditional songs I saw no barrier in writing in first person even if it’s not me. But you have to connect to the feelings that the people in those songs have felt in some way. It’s imagination. Another affirmation that I could do that came with being asked to do the Christmas Carol Project. I love being told, ‘you’re this character’ and then writing a song as that character.”
A part in the musical adaptation of Dickens’ tale in 1996 cast Dunn’s petite form playing Tiny Tim and a couple of other characters for 20 years, using her tune God Bless Us Everyone.
Dunn had been performing at the City Media Club open stages since 1990 and got roped into several collectives like the Invisible Jug Band or other duos and trios. When Terry Wickham saw one of these and gave her a half-hour set at the 1997 Edmonton Folk Music Festival it gave her a huge boost of confidence. That’s when she decided to make her first record.
While Dunn enjoys writing a lone song as much as any artist, some of her strongest work has come in multi-media concept projects that later came out as albums. Consider Piece By Piece, the collected stories of garment workers at Edmonton’s long gone GWG factory. It started out as one of several multi-media projects she put together with friend and videographer Don Bouzek before Dunn collected the tunes for album release in 2012 (garnering several award nominations).
Telling forgotten tales of the working class has made for some of her proudest moments. Taking those tunes on the road has brought her further success, across Canada, into the eastern U.S. and over to the British Isles every couple of years or so.
Between her roots in Scotland and Ireland, her brief childhood in Sarnia, Ontario and her home here Dunn is a citizen of the world but Edmonton has a special place in her heart.
“It’s the place where I started my creative life, where I found so many people doing interesting things, and a wonderful community inspired by music through things like CJSR, the Folk Festival, and the arts in general. It’s very rich for the size we are, and I also simply love the river valley. I’ve traveled to a lot of other, even more spectacular places but they don’t seem as livable.”
Edmonton seems to like Dunn. She won the Edmonton Music Prize for her last album Gathering (2016), and the singer is also a two-time Juno nominee along with nods from the Western Canadian Music Awards and Canadian Folk Music Awards, among other honours. For details on all of her recordings see mariadunn.com.
She’s thankful for a long list of great collaborators here, starting with Shannon Johnson, who has produced all six of her albums — a musician “who knows how to be a great support player.” But the singer enjoys multifaceted musical friendships with several members of the McDade family and with vocalist Dawn Cross, among others. She’s making new friendships too, exploring the possibilities of working with the native vocal group Asani.
Dunn’s 20th Anniversary Show will include Johnson on violin, Jeremiah McDade’s winds, and Cross on vocals, alongside bassist Keith Rempel, fiddler Byron Myhre, and percussionist Ojas Joshi.
Maria Dunn 20th Anniversary Concert
With guests: Shannon Johnson, Jeremiah McDade and others
Where: Festival Place, Sherwood Park
When: 7:30 p.m., Thurs., Nov.15
Tickets: $32 – $36 from the box office (780-449-3378 on online at festivalplace.ab.ca)
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