Interview – Samways

Toronto, ON-based folk quartet Samways acknowledge the work of a late, great Canadian poet in their new single, “Untrodden Ways”.

Landing ahead of their forthcoming debut album, the song is backed by a steady bass groove and the sounds of lead songwriter, guitarist, and composer Nathan Hiltz’s acoustic, and driven by the beautiful and smile-inducing vocal harmonies of co-lead singers Shannon Butcher, Melissa Lauren, and Jessica Lalonde.

On the creation of the “Untrodden Ways,” Nathan said:

“I tried to channel Joni (Mitchell)’s rambunctious and expressive strumming,” adding that it highlights a “polyrhythmic feeling … which might fit in with Paul Brady — somewhere between a jig and a 1960s songwriter.”

In the same format of their small, yet steadily-growing back-catalogue — and their soon-to-be-released debut album — Samways’ music incorporates lyrics drawn from 19th-century Canadian poetry and beyond. It’s composed that way to serve as an homage to the suffering and triumphs of pre-confederation Canada.

The music for “Untrodden Ways,” for example, was written by Nathan, but the track’s lyrics are based on the poem of the same name, which was written in 1913 by the late and renowned Kingston-based author and poet, Agnes Maule Machar.

As well as Agnes, Samways’ music has highlighted the works of famed Canadian poets like Bliss Carmen, Susannah Moodie, and E.J. Pratt. The band themselves describe their sonic approach as a marriage of old prose with new musical idioms.

Check out “Untrodden Ways” below, and find out more about the band via our mini-interview.

First off, care to introduce yourself to our readers?

My name is Nathan Hiltz; guitarist, composer, arranger, and leader for Samways. The singers are Jessica Lalonde, Shannon Butcher, and Melissa Lauren. They are three of Canada’s great singers, and each have varied and diverse solo careers that have been rolling for many years. While this release is in the folk genre, in my regular working life I am a jazz guitarist and part-time faculty member at Humber College’s music program. I got to know each of these singers serving as their accompanist on many a gig around southern Ontario and across the country. In fact, I liked working with Melissa Lauren so much that I married her and we have a wonderful 5-year-old daughter named Leah together! We are based in the Wychwood neighborhood of Toronto.

I feel compelled, as I think every east-coaster does, to mention that I spent my first 18 years growing up and learning the guitar in Nova Scotia. I consider myself an east coast musician despite my 20 years in Toronto now eclipsing my time there. But I have to look no farther than to the great Newfoundland poet EJ Pratt, another poet featured on the forthcoming Samways album, for inspiration on this point. His poems undoubtedly belong to the Rock but he too was hypnotized by the big city life with all its glamour, restaurants, and university positions. I humbly hope for the same appreciation for my work. This song is a sort of double-time slip jig if that helps!!

Tell us about the recording process behind “Untrodden Ways”?

The recording was originally booked for May 2020. The pandemic made that impossible, so we used every single last bit of warm fall weather to hold socially distanced rehearsals in my
backyard. We then got it done over 3 days in November in the big room at the incredible Noble Street Studios. . It was extremely hard to wait for me!! I was very lucky to receive a grant from the Toronto Arts Council to record this project and I like things to happen on schedule. This project is so special to me, it’s a sort of ‘dream’ band where I combine my loves of poetry, choral music, rhythm guitar playing on flat top acoustic, folk music, and Canadiana.

Samways feature 3 wonderfully skilled singers and It was important to capture their magnificent sound. Studio A at Noble Street could be described as the Porche of acoustic spaces in Canada. It is 1200 sq ft built from the ground up for perfect acoustics, no effort or expense spared, just a gorgeous, comfortable, resonant, beauty room. I get goosebumps just thinking about being inside. Johnny Griffith is an incredible sound engineer who records all of my projects, and he took full advantage of the space with its historic microphones and preamps et all.

The recording days were an absolute joy. We are all professional musicians who at that point were 8 months into our concert industry being decimated. Each of us was chomping at the bit to express ourselves, you can hear it. It felt so good to be together again and we had lots of fun moments setting this music to record.

What was the highlight of 2020?

Recording our music videos at Ben Mcnally Books in downtown Toronto!! We were lucky to have done that in February before lockdown. Our soprano Shannon Butcher facilitated that through a mutual friend with the owner and got us after-hours access to the gorgeous space to shoot. We got all dressed up and recorded a live performance of four of the Samways tunes. Afterward, we went out for drinks downtown and had a great band bonding hang.

What do you hope to accomplish in your career in 2021?

For Samways it would be the development, rehearsal, and performance of new works. I’m a very hungry composer and I am often frustrated by the slow pace of the world – the pandemic has been extremely aggravating to me! What would be ideal for me would be to say write something on a Sunday evening, rehearse it on a Wednesday, then go out and perform it on Friday night. Continuously do that for a number for months, hit a studio and make a record, and finish with a tour. Repeat, repeat, repeat, retire. Thankfully there is a huge body of solo guitar music in the world, so I have been spending my pandemic time practicing. I look forward to performing live again and I would like to assure any listeners out there that my chops are in peak condition and will continue to be until I can reach the halls to play for you again.

Is there anyone out there you’d like to collaborate with in the future?

Absolutely there is and I am so glad you asked!!! Daniel Grieves, lead singer of the great Winnipeg band The Watchman. We wrote and recorded a song together entitled ‘Bound to Fall’ as collaboration with Samways. I composed the music and he wrote and sang the lyrics. It sadly wasn’t done in time to make it onto this record, but It will be the first single you hear from Samways after the full record comes out (April 30 watch out for it! ) I guess this would be the only Samways tune not written by a Canadian poet. Danny is an incredible talent, blessed with an otherworldly vocal instrument. I think if you were to take all the incredible Watchmen music and his great singing away from his words that they would stand just as tall and fit wonderfully into the mosaic of Canadian poetry.

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