100 Dollars' urban legend

Road-warrior Toronto country band 100 Dollars is crossing Canada, writing and recording songs about regional social issues.

100 Dollars is on its way to play a small festival in an upstate New York barn when I reach them. The barn is home to some ducks and geese, and I ask if they'll enjoy the music. "We don't write for birds," singer Simone Schmidt says. "But pain runs through all walks of life, so we'll see." The Toronto country band---more like old country music than new country, or "new-new country," as they've described it---released its album Forest of Tears last year (recorded with Rick White of Eric's Trip), following the other founding member Ian Russell's battle with, and recovery from, leukemia.

Schmidt lauds White's work on Forest of Tears---nominated for the Polaris Prize long list---calling him the "seventh member of the band." "Rick really strengthens what you're doing...before that I didn't know if making a record was something I'd want to do. He made me see it was really important to enjoy your creative process," Schmidt says.

These days, the band's focus is on the road, literally and metaphorically. Though the six members are mainly from towns in southern Ontario, Schmidt's world-weary voice and songwriting conjures up everything from endless prairie landscapes to down-and-out tar sands workers to highways winding through forests. With a national focus rarely seen from Toronto's depths, the band is in the midst of releasing a Regional Seven-Inch Series, two-song singles about social issues in every province of the country, each released on a local label. The first came out last year and was set in Toronto's Princess Margaret Hospital, while Russell was undergoing chemo, and among migrant workers in Ontario's tomato capital of Leamington. The second, My Father's House, is about to be released on Vancouver's Deranged Records and looks at what happens when a person inherits a slum.

"We're writing stories about place," Schmidt says. "The underlying point is to see the different relationships between people and where they work."

She explains that they're not trying to represent locations, but to investigate issues across the country and present their own perceptions. The project was initially a way to see the country. "We started writing the seven-inch when we couldn't tour while Ian was in chemo," she says. Part of the project is taking advantage of their flexibility as an indie band in 2009.

Schmidt stresses that 100 Dollars' music isn't about conjuring up a false sense of rural roots and prairie heartbreak. "Some urban dwellers really feel like putting on cowboy boots and singing about the farm. The subjects we write about have a lot to do with urban conditions," she says.

Still, the members of 100 Dollars want to feel like they're exploring and writing about the entire country in their music.

"You want to think you're a part of something bigger than you are," Schmidt says.

14th Floor - One Hundred Dollars

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