Nothing personal

Former Highland Heights singer Norma MacDonald releases her first solo album Nothing Is Where It Was. Johnston Farrow takes note.

photo Francesca Tallone

Add one more talented singer-songwriter to the list of those who call Halifax home. After more than a decade in the local music scene, Norma MacDonald finally releases her first debut solo album, Nothing Is Where It Was, this Saturday at Stage Nine.

“I feel like I’m starting something completely new,” the 30-year-old MacDonald says. “Now it’s just my own stuff. I still feel like a newcomer on the singer-songwriter scene although I’ve been here for a long time.”

Raised in Cape Breton, the fair, blue-eyed, redhead moved to the city to pursue her biology degree at Dalhousie. She formed the successful pub-rock band Highland Heights while in school. The group recorded three albums and toured the US, Caribbean and Europe before calling it a day three years ago.

Still drawn to music, MacDonald played solo shows around town before teaching in Japan for six months. Her isolation from home and loved ones helped produce half the songs for her album. When she returned to Halifax, she set out to record her solo disc.

“I knew that it was something that I had to do before I could move on and do anything else,” MacDonald says. “I had been talking about doing it for two years now and I knew that if I didn’t do it, I’d always regret it.”

She hooked up with producer Charles Austin while she was recording background vocals for the Holy Shroud’s Mike Catano at Ultramagnetic Studios. When it was her turn to record, MacDonald recruited Catano to play drums and assembled a band with a roster that reads like a who’s-who of the Halifax independent scene: Adam Fine on bass, Dale Murray on guitar and pedal steel, Ruth Minnikin on accordian and background vocals, and Austin on guitar.

The album proved more challenging to record than MacDonald had anticipated. She started the record in February and didn’t complete it until June, a long time for a self-employed solo artist.

“I was really nervous about doing it,” MacDonald says. “There were days when I was like, I want to scrap all this and start again or I want to write 10 new songs and record those. There were times when I would get really frustrated with it just because I wasn’t used to having all the decisions come down to me.”

The results paid off with an accomplished debut, full of lush, well-arranged tunes. MacDonald’s record ranges from countrified folk rock, evident on “Two Dollar Bill” and “Waiting for September”; to contemplative singer-songwriter material featuring only her Emmylou Harris-influenced voice and guitar as on “Lost in Boston”; to up-tempo pop numbers such as “Wide Awake” and opener “Annaline.”

“I think it’s good that it’s diverse,” she says. “There are some finger picking acoustic songs, there’s more kind of pretty songs, there’s some with a twang to them. It’s cohesive but not monotonous.”

MacDonald tackles intimate topics in her song lyrics, which makes her material more personal and touching than the average singer-songwriter’s and most debut efforts, emphasizing her strength and experience as a performer. The topics include interactions between strangers, different moments in her life and love gone right and wrong.

“I’ve been in some long-term relationships and I think it’s interesting to see how you have to keep checking yourself,” MacDonald says. “You know, what am I doing? Where is this going? Am I happy? Is this person who I thought they were? I think you can become too dependent on each other or you grow apart and I think it’s interesting to see how two people evolve together.”

Although she recently wrote the MCAT exam with a view to possibly attending medical school in the near future, MacDonald says the album she waited so long to release has her full attention for now. She plans to visit Toronto for a few months this winter to promote the album and tour into next year.

“Now that I finally have done this album, I really want to give it a shot,” she says. “I know eventually I want to go to med school, but I don’t have to go right now. We’ll see how it goes.”

Norma Macdonald Cd release September 15 at Stage Nine 1567 Grafton, 8pm. $4. and at bishop’s landing w/Nathan Wiley, Ruth Minnikin and Dale Murray, Lower Water Street, September 17, 2-4pm. Free.

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