Building Cabin Songs: Tyler Butler on Canada’s New Grassroots Label

Cabin Songs event posterD.I.T. Do It Together. Suggestive nature aside, this little acronym serves as the guiding principle of our city’s music scene. If you’ve ever been to a show by an artist signed to Edmonton’s Old Ugly, you’ll know what I mean: whether they’re in the backing band or the audience, the label’s other musicians will be there. Even to those watching from afar, the collective creative power is unmistakable and infectious. And it’s this power that local folk singer Tyler Butler has harnessed for Cabin Songs, Old Ugly’s fledgling folk imprint. Along with Butler, Cabin Songs features Halifax’s Nick Everett and Calgary’s enigmatic Mike Tod, two artists whom Butler unabashedly adores.

“I can just honestly, fully support and love these artists. There are no reservations, I love their music. The idea that when you get a chance you get to include other people in it is exciting and beneficial.”

Cabin Songs is unique in that its roster reaches beyond Edmonton city limits. But despite its national scope, Butler explains that the label is still driven by the belief in community and collaboration.

“I think that folk music in Canada has to be based in the local. That’s just what I believe folk music is— it’s intrinsically tied to the local. So in order to figure out what a Canadian scene is we have to access this local scene and turn inwards on it. But then you get this problem of ‘well, how do I learn how people live in other places? How do I learn how people sound in other places?’”

The label’s creation was spurred by this curiosity: Cabin Songs aims to initiate a dialogue between Canada’s many flourishing scenes, as well as to spotlight local scenes in a way that larger media outlets cannot.

“Maybe if there’s one label where people from all over the country who are stalwarts in their local folk scenes, if there’s one place that they say ‘this is what a Canadian network of folk musicians looks like’ then you can start to picture this national folk scene and what that means for people of our age. … When you think of Canadian art you hear that it’s boring, or it’s the same people— we’re still looking at the Group of Seven. But it’s not. When you dig in and look at these places closely, these are thriving, vibrant, creative scenes. When you look at our national network— the CBC for example— you know they can’t show everyone. There’s a lot more than that. There has to be a grassroots look at all of the interesting facets of these scenes and then [we need to] bridge the gap between them in a way that’s not just picking through who gets the most grants.”

The label is built for this reality: unlike “traditional labels,” Cabin Songs leaves the money to the individual musicians, and rather focuses on forming relationships between Canadian artists. This requires a great deal of dedication, but hard work is central to the label’s ethos. “In a lot of ways the people who work on Cabin Songs are very ambitious and are learning as they go … I believe this for all art: there’s a difference between a creative idea and then the really tough, slogging, hard work it takes to turn that into something that is art. Everyone has an idea once in their life; few people create something that is real. I think that is central to art and is central to folk music. We’re all singing working songs right now.”

Cabin Songs just launched in October, but it has already proven its mettle in creating something “real.” Not only did the label kick off with an intimate, acoustic show at the University of Alberta’s Rutherford House, but this past month it was the driving force behind Elsethings, a national local arts festival. On January 19th, sixteen Canadian cities held simultaneous shows featuring local talent. In the end, over 70 artists were involved. In Edmonton, Elsethings took the form of a house show (in Butler’s apartment) featuring Doug Hoyer and Marlaena Moore. Especially when contrasted with Moore’s soul-tearing folk, the inclusion of Hoyer’s buoyant electro-pop might seem an uncharacteristic choice for a folk label. As Butler explains, however, the decision just highlights Cabin Songs’ distinctive approach to place.

“It’s not about only having what’s traditionally known as folk music, it’s about tapping into a specific idea about place. Part of playing my apartment is that it’s a small space with big ceilings and people tend to play quieter whether they construct it or not. More than that, it’s about taking two great artists in Edmonton and setting them loose to represent the city.”

I asked him what it was about the Canadian scene that interests him so much. The answer was refreshingly simple.

“I want to know about where I live. I’m interested in finding out what other really great artists think about Canada.” A pause. “I just have a lot of faith in Canadian artists.”

With all this discussion of place, it should be noted that the label’s three musicians have never before been in the same place at the same time. In a rare convergence of rambling folk paths, Tyler Butler, Mike Tod and Nick Everett will all be playing Wunderbar this Tuesday, February 5 at 9 PM. (More information here.) The passion and dedication of this community is unparalleled. This is your chance to be a part of it.

–Becky Smith-Mandin

This post originally appeared on Sound+Noise on February 1, 2013.

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