While most Halifax musicians are heading out at 9:30pm on Saturday, Penelope Jackson and Dan MacCormack are getting ready for bed. They know their two-year-old son Clem has a 4am wake-up call in store for them.
With that schedule, it's no wonder it's taken a year-and-a-half working with bandmate David Bradshaw for Grassmarket to release the follow-up to its acclaimed EP Waiting..., released in 2007. Evolving from traditional banjo/mandolin music, the new distinct folk-pop tracks on Port City capture the spirit of traditional music while fitting snug next to Feist or Joel Plaskett.
"We don't set out to play traditional and bluegrass music anymore," says Jackson. "We're writing really poppy songs now and feel daredevil-ish for using an electric guitar."
You won't even find "bluegrass" in Grassmarket's bio. While it's a bluegrass tradition to have "grass" in your name, they don't have the right rhythms or harmonies and are one member short to fit the genre's rigid definition.
"Any real bluegrass band would be scandalized if we called ourselves bluegrass," says MacCormack. "I always felt fraudulent when people called us bluegrass."
Besides, it was pop music from the beginning for Jackson and MacCormack. They first met at a party, playing music together all night long, starting with Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire."
Jackson and MacCormack haven't let their marriage get in the way of their music. If things get heated with the group, it's because their lives are tense and difficult at home, like last winter when they were both sick and Clem threw up for a week straight. But since she's a book editor by day, Jackson admits her criticism can be ruthless.
MacCormack takes this in stride. Jackson never played much live music before they met, and so being much more driven and goal-oriented MacCormack gave her a 150-year-old banjo, and pushed her into working on songs and playing a weekly gig interpreting traditional music at Ginger's Tavern. It wasn't long after they started playing traditional music that they started sneaking in their own songs.
Now, beyond Jackson's clawhammer banjo and Bradshaw's howling harmonica, the traditional elements are most felt in the songwriting's autobiographical nature. Jackson and MacCormack revel in the bald emotion of traditional songs. Because of this, Port City is a sort of scrapbook, chronicling the past two years and especially Clem.
"Before having a kid I didn't understand the depth of that emotion and the legacy of what every parent ever that wasn't psychotic has felt---this enormous love in their child," says Jackson.
But Grassmarket is much more than the Jackson and MacCormack show. Bradshaw plays an integral part on Port City. His folk-influenced fiddle, mandolin, guitar and harmonica provide Grassmarket with down-home warmth, and the three-part harmonies reflect the family life of the lyrics.
Even with Bradshaw, things aren't getting easier for Grassmarket. Clem is battling the terrible twos with a fiddle and construction hat. There are their full-time jobs and MacCormack's masters' degree to finish. But the pair won't stop.
"It's been a joy," says Jackson, "and such an enormous part of our relationship and our lives, that even though I daydream which chunks of our life we could amputate I really can't imagine what it would be like to not have this going on."
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