Since the release of their self-titled debut album in 2009, the Once have earned their spot as one of the top bands in the province by consistent hard work. Still, speaking to them on a humid afternoon in St. John’s, forty-eight hours before they left for a seven-month world tour, supporting UK artist Passenger, they’re the first to acknowledge that they’ve been very fortunate.
“Passenger offered us tickets to go see his show in Edinburgh, and we were lying in bed, feeling guilty—it was like, we should really go, because you know when people say to us, ‘I’ll come see your show,’ and they don’t, and nobody shows up? What if nobody shows up and sees his show?” Phil Churchill laughs about it now, recalling how they went, only to find that everyone in the sold-out club knew all the words to Passenger’s songs.
It wasn’t long after that that he and his bandmates, Geraldine Hollett and Andrew Dale, grew intimately familiar with the discography. They went to Australia earlier this year to be Passenger’s backing band for his new release, Whispers. In between that recording process, the Once finished their own fourth album, Departures, and were signed by the same major record label, Nettwerk Music Group, to whom Passenger is signed.
They were also invited to join Passenger on a worldwide tour that is taking them across North America, Europe, and as far as Australia and New Zealand. “He seemed kind of nice, and the opportunity [to record and tour with him] was there. We knew that we had to make choices like this in our lives or we weren’t going to go any further. What do you have to talk about if you don’t do anything?” Hollett mused. “We’re just trying to create our path and have stories.”
A Well-Timed Departure
If you lay out the Once’s discography side-by-side, it isn’t hard to see the path they’ve stuck to. Of the twelve songs on their first album, the only original material was two instrumental compositions, whereas Departures is all original, with the exception of two covers that the band felt inherently belonged in the collection. In some ways it’s a defining album, a declaration that the Once are not a Newfoundland folk band per se, but rather a folk band that happen to be from (and influenced by) Newfoundland.
“People really have no problem coming up to you after a show saying, ‘That’s not what I was expecting. I wanted to hear good old Newfoundland tunes—I wanted to hear I’se the B’y and stuff like that,’” Churchill says. “If we were to make those assumptions about other places in the world, it could get kind of dangerous, bordering on offensive, to decide the kind of music someone’s going to make.”
“This album is using a medium that we’ve practiced and learned a lot from and lived in for the past six or seven years, and now we speak that language. So then it’s just putting your own original thought into that language that you’ve taken the time to learn. Our choice was to take what everybody had taught us, what we learned from Great Big Sea, what we learned from Figgy Duff, what we learned from Pamela Morgan and Anita Best, everybody who’s come before us, and then add to it.”
And though they cannot isolate a single moment where they gained that sense of self-awareness, The Once acknowledge that all three of them were somewhat dissatisfied with playing other people’s material and having to explain themselves one too many times, collectively deciding to, fittingly enough, depart from that trajectory to where they are now. With three capable writers who have shared similar life experiences over the past few years, they found the material they were writing fit together almost seamlessly.
“Everyone was working together to get to this point. The only time things were difficult was when we started fighting against what was natural,” Hollett says.
Departures sounds familiar, but there is a newfound confidence. Songs about death (“The Town Where You Lived”), loss (“Fool For You”), love (“You Lead, I Will Follow”), and lore (“The Nameless Murderess”) are timeless themes in a folk medium, but the experiences that underlie the songs are unique, spoken in a voice you believe.
“It may have started out somewhere intimidating, writing songs that were more personal, putting yourself out there more and sharing more of who are, but ultimately I think it was quite liberating,” Dale adds. “This is the most honest album we’ve made yet and I believe the songs, in both theme and subject matter, reflect that. When eight of the ten songs you release on an album are from your own experiences, it’s pretty hard for that album not to place a bit of a microscope on your inner thoughts, your inner demons, and your inner desires.”
“But I think that we were ready, both individually and as a band, to embrace those hopes and fears when we made this record.”
Fear and Leaving
One of those fears wasn’t with releasing an introspective tune, but rather interpreting one of the most recognizable Newfoundland standards — Ron Hynes’s “Sonny’s Dream.” The Once’s gorgeous a cappella version closes Departures, but it almost never made it, sometimes getting cut multiple times in a single day.
“The thought of fellow Newfoundlanders listening to this and going, ‘What is wrong with these people? Who do they think they are?’ That was terrifying,” Hollett admits.
“If you’re going to play it safe and make safe decisions because you want to keep going, there’s not going to be much quality to it. You might have a long career, but it’s not going to be one worth having,” Churchill adds. “Part of the reason we kept it is, first of all, we loved the version we came up with. And also, it just felt gutsy. That was difficult, we took some risks, and went for it—that feeling you get after stays with you.”
Departures was released on August 5th, and The Once still hadn’t seen the finished album (either as a CD or as their first vinyl record) when they left St. John’s. Local fans may be disappointed that the band won’t be promoting the new songs in their home province until Christmas at the earliest, but the band agrees that this tour gives them an opportunity to work out what live arrangements and set lists work the best, so that when it comes time to officially tour the album in the spring of 2015, they will be prepared.
As much as the next year is mapped out on flight itineraries and window seats of a tourbus, the band agrees that the most important thing to be aware of is the moment. Because, like everything else, it’s something that departs all too quickly.
“Every now and again I think this shouldn’t be happening to us,” Hollett says. The list of things they had left to do before leaving was long and the heat had them frazzled, but the excitement was palpable. “I’m just so grateful, and that’s why, when we’re on the road, we have to take advantage of every single second, because it might not be here tomorrow. It really might not, and I know that sounds really clichéd, but I believe that to be so true. If you don’t realize you’re blessed in this life, then it’s going to be hard.”