There’s something ineffably Canadian about Suzanne Nuttall’s spring “Pop-Up Tour.” She will be driving westward throughout June on a journey of discovery right out of Stan Rogers’ song, “The Northwest Passage.” For Nuttall however, this will be an expedition of personal and musical, rather than geographical exploration, an adventure beyond the familiar – and outside of her comfort zone.
It all began last year when Nuttall challenged herself to perform in a solo show. “And by solo, I mean just me and my beloved guitars,” she says. “I have done hundreds of shows in my life, but I needed to prove to myself that I could hold people’s attention alone on a stage… and that, in essence, I was enough.”
She was enough. Her solo stand in Toronto went so well that she resolved to take it on a road stretching west from Owen Sound, Ontario to Calgary, Alberta, with stops in places like Manitoulin Island and Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan (possibly the most Canadian place in Canada) along the way.
“Half of me now knows I can do it and wants to prove it… and the other half is terrified and wants to grow.” she says. “The search for buffalo and blue skies will be a theme that will carry through the tour. I have a strong need to leave behind the grey concrete and claustrophobia of the big city and explore the wide-open spaces of our beautiful, inspiring Canadian landscape!”
Nuttall has been on that road before, just not alone on a stripped-down tour, with the determination to prove herself as a solo artist. She first saw the wild bison herds near Edmonton in the 1990s, touring with guitarist Patrick Hutchinson as part of the seminal Montreal roots duo Bare Bones. “I had thought that the buffalo had been obliterated by Europeans after Contact,” she recalls. “Seeing them brought up profound feelings.”
Touring with Bare Bones was exciting, Nuttall says, but the grind of back-to-back gigs separated by the vast distances between Canadian cities left little time for adventure. What makes this tour special and, she notes, what makes it a “pop-up tour” is that it is meant from the start to be an exploration of possibilities. “It allows for days in-between where serendipity can become a part of the experience,” Nuttall says. “I want to be able to create a more grounded connection with the people hosting the various shows and have time to stop in small towns, talk to people and perhaps play a few tunes in coffeeshops and bookstores, and connect with the unifying force of music.”
The trajectory of Nuttall’s career in the Canadian independent music scene has itself been an exploration. Bare Bones released three albums, two singles, and a final EP between 1989 and 1995, helping to define the sound of the thriving Montreal alternative music scene of the 1980s and 1990s. Her relocation to Toronto brought a stylistic change and musical experimentation with her band Sue de Nym, and the 11-member Toronto supergroup Disco Dyke Divas with a funky sound indebted to Prince.
In 2016, she formed a vocal trio with two other women called Bless Your Purple Heart to cover Prince’s songs, and celebrate his genius. “It was when I purchased the Diamonds and Pearls cassette in 1991, complete with cool hologram cover, that I became a lifetime fan,” she says. “People talk at length about Prince as a superlative performer, an incredible guitarist, a wizard with a smorgasbord of instruments, but I believe that songwriting was his greatest gift… What is the singer without the song? I just love that he was not always a hero in his songs and that he could be quite vulnerable.”
At the end of the day, it’s all about the song. Nuttall’s music is deeply personal. “I aim to write about topics that have not been covered before or at least bring my own unique perspective,” she says, recalling that Chrissie Hynde’s harrowing song “Tattooed Love Boys,” from the first Pretenders album, inspired her to take up songwriting in the first place.
“It was the first time I’d heard lyrics that were clearly written from the female point-of-view,” Nuttall says. “As a budding feminist, that fascinated me. I got to thinking that as a young woman who had always been a tomboy, and that was beginning to come out of the closet, I might also have a thing or two to write about.”
Indeed, the personal is often political in her songs, as in her anti-consumerist musical polemic “False Messiahs.” But more often, Nuttall offers trenchant commentary in carefully crafted, and sometimes oblique narratives of love, desire and loss. “I always make sure that I include many layers into my lyrics,” she says. She wrote the song “Trophy Wife,” from three simultaneous perspectives. It’s a song about white picket fences, love, and marriage, or maybe of stagnation and emotional paralysis. Or both. “I do not want to give more detail because mystery is important to me… and once my songs are out there in the world, I am more interested in hearing what others get out of them rather than sharing what inspired me to write them in the first place.”
But Nuttall’s craft takes time, and her songs have long gestations. “I have never been a prolific songwriter,” she says “But when I do come up with a strong song idea, I follow it passionately and obsessively right to the end.”
“It took me six years from the very beginnings of writing ‘Trophy Wife’ to playing it constantly in my head for years, to finally recording it in a swanky studio with producer Michael Phillip Wojewoda, complete with a 9-piece string section,” she notes. And even then, she wasn’t quite finished. “I’ve always felt that a song is an idea and that it can manifest physically in the world in different incarnations.” Although she recorded “Trophy Wife” in 2013, Nuttall continued to explore the song’s possibilities over the next few years, rerecording it six more times in collaboration with various artists.
“Each recording has a different vibe about it… yet it is the same song!” she says. On tour, she’ll be playing it in yet another iteration, this time stripped down to the bare bones. She finds the prospect exciting. It will be “like reading a book, versus seeing the movie adaptation. The book engages the imagination and is more participatory.”
Nuttall’s creative process is fully focused on the song and she cheerfully concedes that she is out of the business of recording albums, but she finds it liberating. “There is no need to wait until nine more songs are written [to release an album],” she enthuses. “A new song can be unleashed while it is still fresh!”
Moreover, Nuttall is acutely aware of how digital media have transformed the way audiences consume recorded music and, perhaps more importantly, how musicians interact with their audiences in the digital economy. Popular music, she observes, has come full-circle, from the 45 rpm single that was the staple of 1950s and 1960s rock and roll, through LP concept albums. “Eventually, the CD came along and it could contain 70 minutes worth of music, but it never should have because that amount of music cannot easily be digested in one sitting, and it made for watered-down albums where weaker tracks were now included.”
Digital distribution services like iTunes and streaming services like Pandora and Spotify have changed everything. “I feel that we are going back to the single,” Nuttall says. “On an independent level, releasing a single makes way more sense. Not all songs need a recording. It might even be smarter to keep some songs just for the live experience and give people a reason to attend the show, since purchasing music is quickly becoming a thing of the past.”
At the same time, the new creative economy has profoundly transformed the musician’s vocation. With a few notable exceptions, the professional, full-time rock star living off her album sales, like the mythic pop music titans portrayed by Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star is Born, is a thing of the past. The independent musician of the 21st century is a polymath with a day job; a composer, performer, engineer, producer, distributor, and financier all in one body. And in Nuttall’s case, the job description includes filmmaker and video producer.
Yet it’s a reality that she finds congenial and artistically fulfilling. “Releasing one song at a time allows me to focus on creating a music video for it which helps more people hear it,” Nuttall says. “Luckily, I’m a video editor by trade which not only allows me to put food on the table and keep a roof over my head, it also allows me to create a visual manifestation of my songs.” Indeed, her videos have been screened at film festivals across North America, to an enthusiastic reception.
Nuttall’s pop-up tour begins in Owen Sound on June 1st, followed by shows on Manitoulin Island on June 6th, in Moose Jaw on June 19th, and at Emerald Park, near Regina, SK on June 20th. She will be performing on the main stage at the Saskatoon Pride Festival on June 22nd, and in a private show in Calgary, AB on June 27th. Nuttall promises some “spontaneous pop-ups along the way.”
Each show will be a special event, in collaboration with local artists and, Nuttall promises, the audience. “I plan on inviting local musicians to join me onstage for a song or two, maybe even audience members up on stage if I can really harness serendipity,” she says. We will be creating a memorable evening that goes beyond the music.”
You can find full tour details and additional dates at Nuttall’s Facebook page.
Photo © Emma-Lee