The roots-based group Quartette has been a true phenomenon on the Canadian musical landscape over the last 20 years. First, the four females that comprise the group are exceptional vocalists, the most recognizable of which is Sylvia Tyson who, during the 1960’s, carved a solid folk career as part of the renowned husband and wife duo Ian and Sylvia. Cindy Church also has a connection with Ian Tyson, serving as a session singer on several of his albums during the 1980’s before founding the critically acclaimed Great Western Orchestra in 1987. Caitlin Hanford and Gwen Swick round out the group, and they each have several solo albums and collaborative efforts under their belts. When it comes to Quartette, however, the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts as evidenced on their retrospective 20 Years of Quartette, a bonus CD that is included with their new disc Rocks and Roses, arguably their best effort to date. The title track is an achingly beautiful number written by Church and Swick, about the emotions one experiences while ‘waiting for true love to come calling’. It could also serve as an apt theme song for Quartette.
“Well, it’s actually been sort of like being between a rock and a hard place at times, rather than a rock and a rose.” Tyson says with a noticeable rasp over the phone line, noting that her voice is ‘a little bit funky today’. “Somehow the group has managed to persevere. We’re on the road quite a lot and we’re sort of self-contained. We don’t have a road manager and we divide the responsibilities and it seems to work, but it is difficult at times.”
One of the greatest challenges that Quartette had to face in their 20-year journey was the death of founding member Colleen Peterson from cancer-related causes in 1996. The retrospective disc closes with Peterson’s moving original number There’s No Place Like Home which ranks as a 10 in terms of the goose bump factor.
”When we were preparing the retrospective disc, Cindy and I sat down and listened to everything and picked out some songs by each member that we thought would work,” she says. “The individual members then decided on which two songs would be used. We hadn’t listened to No Place Like Home in a very long time and we knew right away that it would be the right closer for the record. We were speechless when we heard it. Prior to Colleen’s passing she had been ill for some time so we knew it was coming, not that it made it any easier. Gwen Swick had been filling in for her so it was just a natural transition for her to stay with the band.”
The song First Love Waltz is another Rocks and Roses standout, highlighted by Hanford’s angelic vocals which bring to mind Alison Krauss. The song is lifted by a fine mandolin solo; acoustic instruments actually underscore the entire record as fiddles, banjos and guitars provide the perfect framework for the vocals. It’s truly a shame that pristine recordings such as this are rarely heard on commercial radio.
[quote]“The harmony was almost instant because all of us had sung harmony at one point or another in other contexts,”[/quote]
“CBC Radio generally plays us fairly often in some context or another, but it is difficult,” Tyson admits. “You just have to keep plugging away. There are folk shows in various parts of the country as well. Truth be told I don’t know that we were ever really on radio to a great degree so it’s really not a new phenomenon.”
The band’s real bread and butter comes via its live performances which showcase Quartette’s incredible harmonies. While achieving that kind of a blend in the studio is one thing, it’s quite another to hear them replicate the sound on stage. Tyson recalls that the group’s harmonies came naturally and fell into place the very first time they performed together.
“The harmony was almost instant because all of us had sung harmony at one point or another in other contexts,” she says. “The band really came together when Colleen put four women songwriters together for a concept in the round at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre. Since we knew each other and knew each other’s material we just automatically started singing on each other’s stuff. If we had a CD to sell we would have sold a bunch of them that day.”
The trademark timbre of Tyson’s voice is instantly recognizable on the new disc, although her voice is a tad deeper than it was during her folk singing heyday. She delivers a solemn homage to God on All I Know/Conquerall, and then steps things up on the lively Arkansas Travelogue which cleverly incorporates a snippet of the traditional Turkey-In-the-Straw into the mix. The march tempo of the number recalls Johnny Horton’s late 50’s nugget Battle Of New Orleans.
“Of course I’ve heard Johnny Horton’s stuff but he wasn’t an influence,” Tyson begins. “That song was inspired by a road trip that Ian and I made around 1964 when we made a whistle-stop visit to see Lady Byrd Johnson, President Lyndon Johnson’s wife. We drove through Arkansas, but we weren’t campaigning for Johnson; it was more like a roadside attraction.”
Sweet Agony, a song co-written by Tyson and Church, covers the subject of love and the fact that it can be either a curse or a rescue. When asked about which side of the coin she feels most comfortable writing about Tyson says she has no preferences, chuckling that ‘songwriters tend to write from both sides with great abandon’. One song on the album that avoids the subject altogether is Wilderness, a traditional gospel number that tends to bring the crowd out their seats when performed live.
“We wanted to have a song with a kind of up, funky feeling to add to the album. We had nine songs so Cindy and Caitlin went through all of Caitlin’s old records and they found this one. It certainly has a rousing effect on the audience when we perform it on stage.”
This brings us to the requisite Ian and Sylvia reunion question, left strategically to the end of the interview lest Tyson should be averse to talking about past glories. At age 80, Ian is drawing rave reviews on a cross-Canada tour that extends well into the New Year, and Sylvia is obviously still very much on top of her game.
In 2010, the pair reunited to sing one of their old hits, Four Strong Winds, at the 50th anniversary of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia. Although the demand for a new Ian and Sylvia record or tour remains high, the one-off performance at Mariposa likely closes the final chapter of their songbook.
“Ian and I have no plans to record anything or do any shows together,” she says. “I’m not very nostalgic. I’m more interested in what I’m doing now than what I’ve done in the past, not that I have any apologies for that.”
While Tyson may not be sentimental when it comes to the past, it’s worth noting that this marks the 50th anniversary of her most famous composition, You Were On My Mind, which became a major hit for the group We Five. In recognition of this perhaps it’s time to bring that song back to the airwaves, possibly via a Twitter campaign aimed at Canadian rapper Drake, asking him to sample it on his next record.
“Well I don’t know about that,” Tyson laughs. “The record was a million seller for We Five and Serena Ryder did a nice cover of it a few years back so maybe we’ll just leave it at that.”
Download: Wilderness, First Love Waltz
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