Barbara MacKellar's Published Prose

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October Browne on October Browne

October Browne began her music career busking on the streets of London, England at the tender age of 11 with cymbals, tambourine, kazoo, harmonica and guitar. She immigrated to New York in 1988, where she immersed herself in the Irish music scene. In 1991, she moved to Canada and made Toronto her home. Known for her fine fingerstyle guitar playing and exquisite vocals, October has played with such notable musicians as Kirk Elliot, Anne Lederman, Ena O’Brien and Oliver Schroer. 

Browne’s haunting ballad, “Lady of the Streets” (Stuck on a Cold Steel Pole, 1995) grabbed the attention of the local media, winning high praise from critics and a good deal of air play. Also a founding member of Morgaine Le Fay, she wrote the rollicking song, “The Gate” for their debut album, Up She Flew (1997). This fall she’ll be releasing her own self-titled debut album in time for the Samhain celebrations at the Harbourfront Lakeside Terrace.

Curmudgeon‘s entertainment editor spoke with Browne before the release concert about her songs and working with some of the North American music industry’s finest musicians, guys like bassist Peter Bleakney and drummer Gary Craig, a dynamic duo known for their work with Anne Murray. “My producer, Evelyne Datl, has played with them over the years and that’s how they came to be on the album.”

With talented female Celtic musicians like East Coast fiddler Natalie MacMaster and Irish-Canadian multi-intrumentalist Loretto Reid on board, the album virtually cooks with proverbial “Goddess Power.” Browne met MacMaster while gigging at the Dawson City Music Festival and ran into her again in Toronto. “I love her playing. She has such feeling and she’s very smart, very quick.” Reid, on the other hand, she’s known for years and the two have worked together on other projects. “Besides,” says Browne,” if it’s amazing whistles you want, she’s the obvious choice.”

Other North American greats on the album include guitarists Russell Broom of Jann Arden, Colin Cripps of Blue Rodeo fame, and Kim Ratcliffe, a Holly Cole accompanist. Browne gives the lion’s share of credit to Datl, however, the behind-the-scenes magician who single-handedly wove the project into a cohesive tapestry.

“We started recording two years ago in October, but before that, there were grants to write and musicians to contact. Evelyne was there for me through it all. I really couldn’t have done it without her. She encouraged me to record, helped write grant applications and did all the producing.” Datl also co-wrote two songs with October, helped arrange the material and played numerous instruments (harmonica, piano, synths, organ, tablas).

Although October Browne has a mind-boggling variety of styles, the common thread throughout is Browne herself. “First I thought, ‘What a mish-mash. How are we ever going to make this stuff cohesive?’ But I believe we’ve done it. By having Gary, Pete, Evelyne and myself on all the tracks, we’ve kept a consistency throughout.”

Browne is a gifted songwriter whose versatility is reflected in a wide range of original offerings featuring unique arrangements and a broad spectrum of influences, from Lou Reed to James Bond and old Music Hall. “There’s something for everyone,” says Browne. “When I write songs, I don’t stop to think, ‘Now I’ll compose a pop song, or a folk song.’ I just write what comes. I’m influenced by a lot of different musicians and types of music.”

Although Browne’s ballads are my personal farourites — I’m a fool for ballads and hers are exquisite, all her songs are captivating. There’s not a single “throw-away” track on the album. “I don’t like filler. I may not be as prolific as some songwriters, but I take great care with each song.” In fact, she already has a few new songs under her hat for her next album.

The original ballads include “Faithless,” which show-cases some of Browne’s finest guitar work, and “Just Wanna Dance,” a song inspired by a lone dancer at Lee’s Palace. “I saw a young hippie girl at a Nomos concert doing her own free-style dance among some traditional dancers who seemed to find her a little ‘odd.’ Out of generosity, Dora Keogh and Thomasina Reilly took her by the hand and danced with her, and I was so touched that I wrote, ‘Just Wanna Dance’.” Incidentally, the rich-sounding keyboard in this piece is actually a B3 organ.

Browne’s stirring ballad, “Naked & Small” resonates with old-fashioned border English balladry reminiscent of the sixties Celtic music revival, while the Mellotron gives it a modern feel, “similar to John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields. The lyrics come from a personal experience that a lot of people can relate to, something I probably wouldn’t write now,” she muses. “It was a particular time in my life.” Browne’s upbeat “Distant Shore” is another  ballad original with a subtle blend of electric and acoustic guitar and a powerful lyrical angst that takes it beyond being more than just an old-fashioned love song. “It can touch on a lot of things, like having a rough childhood.”

In contrast to her ballads, Browne’s most recent work, “No Return” is a fast-paced retro number with a bit of everything from James Bond, Peter Gunn and the Beatles to the Addams Family’s Farfisa organ. But despite its camp, she considers it her most meaningful song. “It’s about how offended I am by genetic engineering. Even though the long-term effects are not known, these guys don’t have to label. It’s all based on profit and greed and not caring for the planet. the song is called “no return” because that’s where I feel we’re going. I feel that our hearts need to be more open as a species.”

The first track, “Song of O,” is a catchy tune with Dylanesque mouth harp by Evelyne. And it’s a double entendre. “Since it’s about me, I thought of calling it Story of O, but “Song of O” seemed a little more subtle. It’s the first song I ever wrote, so it’s perfect as the first song on the album.”

Natalie MacMaster plays an awesome fiddle in Browne’s re-mix of “The Gate,” a fun tune she wrote for the Morgaine Le Fay album, Up She Flew, about the James Gate pub on Bloor near High Park. “A lot of my material is emotional and serious, so I needed a light-hearted tune on the album. It’s the Beatles with lots of fiddle.”

Browne and her accompaniment also add a few surprising new twists to old favourites. “I just love the groove that Gary and Pete create on “”Foggy Dew” and Loretto’s amazing whistle.” They also do interesting things to Beatle George Harrison’s version of the Hindu chant “Govinda,” a Sanskrit hymn to Krishna. Evelyne’s arrangements combined with Kim Ratcliffe’s slide guitar and Loretto’s whistles and uillean pipes create an unforgettably cool and unusual Indian-Celtic cross-over. “My album holds surprises for everyone.”

Since surprises are rare in the age of post-modern cynicism, I highly recommend October Browne.

Celtic Curmudgeon: Arts & Entertainment Review, Samhain 1999


Written by barbaramackellar

June 7, 2012 at 5:39 am

Posted in Interviews, Reviews