Meet Ms. McInnis

After more than a decade in bands, the Halifax singer-songwriter busts out on her own with a debut album. Johnston Farrow dives into Pamela and the Underwater.

photo Darryl James

After years of playing behind charismatic front men, Pamela McInnis decided it was her turn to take the lead. A talented songwriter in her own right, she raised the money to record an album and left her regular gigs in two established local bands behind.

The shadowy bass player in well-known Halifax acts the Museum Pieces and the Middleclass Pushovers, McInnis simply couldn’t resist a chance in the spotlight. The shy musician admits the role is a little daunting.

“It’s harder for me because I’m still getting used to knowing what it is I’m supposed to be doing,” McInnis says over coffee at the Paper Chase. “With the other bands, things were always kind of done. Now I’m learning—I’m a student.”

It’s been a long time coming for Pamela and the Underwater, the debut release from a 12-year veteran of the Halifax rock scene. McInnis began playing music at a young age, dabbling in piano, trumpet and guitar as well as being a devoted fan of David Bowie, the Cure and classic ’70s rock.

“It was always something I knew that I wanted to do,” she says. “When I was a kid, before I even knew how to write words, I used to go into the bathroom and I used to write these songs that were just squiggles because my mom said that’s where the best acoustics were.”

McInnis originally performed as the solo act Lavender before she met the future Middleclass Pushovers in 2000. Soon after, through fellow Pushover Jonathan Andrews, she met singer-songwriter Tyler Messick of the Museum Pieces and quickly became a fan of his Grain Sales of 1840 release.

“I listened to his CD and I thought it was amazing,” McInnis says. “I listened to it over and over on my headphones and I caught a couple of his shows. I was like, ‘Dude, I know all the words to your songs. If you ever need anybody , I’ll totally do it for you.’ He took me up on it and it went from there.”

Writing and recording with two bands left little time for her own artistic pursuits, although she continued to work on her songs whenever she could. Eventually, the desire to head a project became too strong to ignore. McInnis applied for a grant from the Nova Scotia Department of Culture and Tourism and headed to Audio Empire studios to record Pamela and the Underwater with Pierce Rogers and Michaela Sloan in March 2005.

“I’ve been solo for a long time, even when I was with other bands,” she says. “The feeling of being able to build upon something that starts off as a solo thing is wonderful. I just wanted to be able to grow the songs into what I could hear in my head. By putting them on an album, it’s putting them to bed.”

Although she took a leave of absence from her previous groups, some ties remain. McInnis’s album features several of her former bandmates as well as guest spots with musicians she’s shared bills with. Messick joins her on two duets, Andrews plays guitar on a few tracks, Stephen Hughes appears on bass, drums and keyboards and heavy meadows drummer Benn Ross contributes. The disc also includes her take on several Museum Pieces and Middleclass Pushovers songs.

Citing “genre ADD,” McInnis veers her layered melodies from dark gypsy-inspired tales (probable first single “Change Me”) to waltz-time numbers (Messick duet “Dance with Me”) and onto mid-tempo rockers (“Softer Sense”). Her years of experience come through with an accomplished set of songs that recall Stevie Nicks, early-’90s Sarah McLachlan and hints of Kate Bush.

“I just want to spread the word and introduce myself,” McInnis says. “I’ve been playing in this town for years, just lurking below the surface. I’m kind of a shy person by nature, so I’m not really out there a lot, but I’ve definitely been involved for a long time. It’s my time to be like, ‘OK, let’s do this now. I’m here.’”

Pamela McInnis w/heavy meadows, June 16 at The Attic, 1749 Grafton, 11pm, $5/$6, 423-0909

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