Victoria band West My Friend provides a welcome balm for our world-weary souls.
“GUILELESS” is defined as “honest, innocent; not able to deceive.” As an American ex-pat who keeps up with all the news down south, guilelessness is a balm for my soul. The three musicians who form Victoria’s fanciful folk band West My Friend seem to embody that word, and their lyrics telegraph it as well. For me, these musicians are ideal examples of top-notch, Canadian-grown youth: intelligent, talented, creative, hard-working—successful and savvy, but without guile.
West My Friend (WMF) recently created one of the most ambitious, unusual albums I’ve heard within the well-populated genre of singer-songwriter bands trading in clever, plain-spoken lyrics set against acoustic melodies. Their 2019 CD, In Constellation, plumps those melodies into expansive lushness. In collaboration with local composer and arranger Adrian Dolan of The Bills, they’ve created a collection of inspiring, unexpected orchestral works that flower in fecund elegance from the seeds and soil of the band’s humble, sweet tunes. It’s a mashup of folksy innocence and edgy musical sophistication that leaves me smiling wryly, with my heart a little fuller. Listening to “Build a Bed,” their poignant and powerful song about love, I’m choking up.
West My Friend (l-r): Jeff Poynter, Eden Oliver and Alex Rempel (Moss Photography)
Jeff Poynter plays piano and accordion, and contributes vocals; Alex Rempel is on mandolin, and offers a versatile baritone voice. Eden Oliver plays guitar, and her lead vocals pour out with effortless clarity and spot-on accuracy, while the band’s multi-instrumental weavings create a velvet box for her jewel-like soprano. Whether she’s enveloped by Dolan’s majestic arrangements or simply flanked by Poynter and Rempel in someone’s living room, Oliver’s pipes don’t disappoint.
As primary songwriter and lyricist for the group, Oliver lays out profound, stripped-down truisms that resonate like snatches of conversations about life with a good friend over tea. “Old Song” is her Gershwin-esque composition that Dolan works some whimsical magic on. “An Education” sparkles to life with Rempel’s harp-like mandolin solo behind Oliver’s voice, climaxing in a cornucopia of brass and tympani, and comes to rest again with the mandolin sighing sweetly among the strings. “Salt Water” begins with an ominous roll on the tympani, then contemplatively wallows in a guitar-and-vocal chant, Poynter’s accordion droning a minor chord, then builds into a spinning calliope of grandness with strings and horns, punctuated by cymbal crashes. “All These Things” juxtaposes a list of Grandma’s best recipes with a soaring symphonic score, lifting up the simplest acts of caring and connection to a height somewhere in the heavenly stratosphere. Dolan’s brilliant aural textures evoke surges of emotion, and serve as a reminder to me that the simple stuff of everyday life deserves our attention and reverence.
The sophistication of In Constellation reveals that these “folk” musicians have some serious chops and background. All three earned music degrees from UVic, where they formed WMF ten years (and nearly 700 shows) ago. The instruments they play in the band are not the ones they honed in university (saxophone for Poynter, double bass for Rempel, flute for Oliver). The many instruments they’ve picked up since serve them well, and they contribute their classical skills to the orchestra tracks on their ambitious fourth album. “The people who like it really do like it,” Rempel says. “It’s not getting mainstream radio play…but we’re getting lots of college radio in the US and UK, sneakily taking over the world with esoteric, symphonic indie folk,” he chuckles.
In the past, WMF has been nominated for a Vancouver Island Music Award and a Canadian Folk Music award; the current awards cycle wasn’t in full gear when I interviewed them this winter, but In Constellation seems likely to get some nods in 2020.
With all of this talent and versatility, West My Friend surely could make plenty of strong recordings as a trio (and they have), so my first question for them as we sit down in Poynter and Oliver’s charming Fernwood living room is how in the world did they conjure the chutzpah to record an album with full orchestra, and produce a one-off concert with over 50 paid musicians at Alix Goolden Hall last September? The logistics, financing, and audacious gamble of it all boggle my mind, especially when they’re working full-time and touring internationally, playing an average of 65 shows a year.
“We had to have a lot of people in the audience,” Poynter says, with his characteristic directness. He handles all of the bookings for the band, and has a proven track record of building alliances and networks. “We got a couple of grants as well. UVic alumni association provided some funds. It was a very expensive concert, and required a ton of organization; that’s why we don’t do it all the time.” The gamble paid off: lots of people did come to the show, but live concerts on that scale aren’t in the works again “unless an orchestra hired us—which is the goal,” he says.
In the meantime, WMF has invited a choir to perform at their April 26 show at Alix Goolden Hall—and it’s not just any choir. Oliver has a K-12 education degree, and much of what WMF does when not performing involves workshops in schools, focused on guided listening and songwriting with students. The Voices in Motion Choir (VIMC) dovetails easily with the band’s mission of building community through music; it is comprised of Alzheimers and dementia patients, their caregivers, friends, and local students aged eight to 25, all rehearsing with a professional director and performing a schedule of public concerts.
Launched in 2018, the choir is an interdepartmental research project involving sociology, psychology, and nursing PhDs at UVic, identifying and quantifying the mental and physical health benefits of choral singing, especially for those suffering from dementia, who are “highly susceptible to negative health outcomes brought on by social isolation and a lack of meaningful contribution,” Dr Debra Sheets, a professor at UVic’s School of Nursing, explains. She is a huge WMF fan, and is delighted about the collaborative concert. Erica Phare-Bergh, VIMC’s artistic director, serves as conductor, and says, “What started as one local choir has blossomed into three, and the VIMC model is now being replicated in cities throughout Canada.” Both women say having shared goals between young and old, patient and caregiver—like the upcoming West My Friend concert—enhances health and relationships.
When I ask Oliver about WMF and their shared goals, she says the band is still recovering from the enormous effort required by In Constellation, but they will be working on new material in 2020, and intend to create a new recording. “It’s like a twinkle in our eye,” she muses, and the three musicians all smile at this, unified in their determination and vision as they embark on their second decade as a guileless—yet savvy—Canadian band.
“A Sunday Afternoon to Remember: Voices in Motion in concert with West My Friend,” Sun, April 26, 4:30pm. Tickets, $25 or $20 student / senior, alixgooldenhall.com or 250-386-5311. Alix Goolden Hall at the Victoria Conservatory of Music, 907 Pandora Ave.
Mollie Kaye writes and performs parodies of 40s and 50s songs, sometimes with Jeff Poynter backing her up on keyboards. You might also encounter her wearing comment-worthy vintage outfits and talking to strangers on “Turned-out Tuesdays” (see www.theyearofdressup.com).