As a solo artist and founding member of some of Canada’s most celebrated string bands, Andrew Collins is at the centre of a burgeoning Canadian acoustic music scene. His latest recording is A Play on Words.
What was it like playing bluegrass in Toronto when you were just starting out? You didn’t have any recordings, the career was all ahead of you, etc.
I didn’t know if one could make a living doing it, but I was so compelled in doing something that I loved. And I couldn’t imagine investing all of myself the way I did—and do—in music with anything else. So, it was fun and exciting without any forethought on how to make any of it work. It was just so focused on the playing, and getting better, and improving the level of music, and being surrounded by people that shared that drive. That was just exciting.
Now this is going to sound unfair, and it is unfair, but there is this understanding that it’s not Appalachia, and you didn’t grow up in the mountains, or sitting next to the old guys. And this is what I would have thought at the time: It’s great, but it’s not real. It’s Toronto. I wonder if you ever had those thoughts as well. That you’re outside the thing itself.
Hmmm. Interesting. [long pause] Well, I’ve got mixed feelings about that. Yes, I would have had those feelings, but over the years travelling around playing this music and meeting people all over the US, interestingly enough, Toronto has a bigger community than most places in the states, even though this music is American, just by virtue of the population itself. And the Toronto bluegrass scene actually has a good reputation for producing high-level players in a way that I never would have thought when I first started playing.
In some ways Toronto’s audience may not have been a bluegrass audience, but how does any bluegrass audience begin? It begins by hearing bluegrass music locally and then seeking it out. So Toronto today kind of does—amongst many other things, such as the Cuban community and so on—have a great bluegrass community and old-time community.
But back in the early 00s, sometimes I’d be the only person in the audience at the Tranzac on bluegrass night, and maybe Chris Quinn, or Chris Coole, or Dan Whitely would come in. Perhaps they’d sit and listen, or sit in with the band. And when you think about it, all of you guys have won awards now. I was sitting in a room with what, today, would be the band that you would hand pick for the All-Star team. You’ve got to admit, even though the community was small then, the hit rate was pretty good. Considering it was bluegrass night at the Tranzac Club.
[Laughs] I think community informs itself so I think the infectiousness of how drive we all were—we fed off each other. If you’re surrounded by people who are limiting themselves by not being focused. It’s one thing if it’s just up to you to create that inspiration for yourself … but that’s why I moved back to Toronto, to surround myself by people who were really determined and that attracts other people that are determined and tenacious. When you’re surrounded by people that are tenacious like that, you just see what’s required. So I think that’s just an infectious thing and everyone sees what’s possible because they’re surrounded by people who are pushing their own sense of what’s possible. It makes you just assume that it’s possible to get to that level that you strive for.
Is there a renegade quality to doing this in Toronto? And you really have to be tenacious, if only because you are doing something that most people around you don’t understand.
In retrospect, the nice thing was that there was no void waiting for us to fill. You have to go out there and make people know that you exist and perform and get your music out there some how. Even though we were in a vacuum of this kind of music, that was in some ways an advantage because we were also educating people [who might] discover that they really like bluegrass music, but we were the access point so in some ways it elevates us in stature because, for those people we were their starting point. Whereas, now it might even be harder for a young band doing this sort of music, because there are so many people doing it now.
But, yes, it’s a double-edged sword: if you are playing this music—and particularly at the time that we were, in the early 2000s—the only way we could have an audience was to educate the audience that this music even exists. And the only way to do it is to get out there and play it and surprise people that they can actually like acoustic instruments and that it’s not just quaint compared to electric music, it does have power and require serious technical accomplishment.
I’m sad to say this, but even given how good you were even then, because it was in Toronto, there is something that just didn’t seem like it was the real deal. Then when you started touring with Emory Lester I thought, “oh, I guess they are real.”
Yeah, and I’m sure we felt that in some ways too. There is definitely validation from having your influences and people who grew up playing with your influences also appreciate your music. There is definitely some validation there. We’ve experienced that quite a bit over the years when we meet some of our favourite bands, or are teaching at camps with some of our favourite bands, and jam with them and the love jamming with us and that sort of thing. There is some validation there.
And this music really is an oral tradition. And we’ve done our research, we’ve listened to the albums that they’ve listened to, and the albums that they’ve made, and we’ve learned the vocabulary from the source, even though we were up here. You even find that travelling—the Foggy Hogtown Boys did a tour in Germany last year where we were in the Czech Republic, and there is a big bluegrass community in the Czech Republic, and we know the same repertoire. We have our own repertoire as well, but there are all these standards and we do share the same repertoire and have listened to the exact same recordings of some of the same songs.
I guess it’s different now. It’s a job now too. Does that make it better?
Well it definitely makes it better than working a job that I don’t love. But definitely you realize that once you’ve been doing it for 20 years that there’s no avoiding work in life. There is a lot of work required to make a living doing what you love. I don’t want to sound corny, but the truth is the end is the means. It’s not just making money. There is no avoiding the fact that I have to make money, and once I got past the naive immature stage … when I realized that I am in business for myself so I have to treat it like that. So, there’s a lot of work involved that I don’t like. I don’t like booking gigs. I don’t like doing PR. Touring is not a vacation anymore. I like creating music. That’s fun. The work that comes along with it isn’t fun but it affords me the ability to continue doing something that I really love.