The next month is a lively one for the Claremont Opera House, beginning with the “Magic of Lyn” this weekend, and ending with a raucous night from the North Shore Comedy troupe May 20. There’s also a real buzz of anticipation for Tia McGraff, the Canadian singer/songwriter appearing Saturday, May 6.
The performer, who cites Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell as her influences, plays with producer/guitarist Tommy Parham. Jon Michaels, another country-flavored singer, will open the show, and join Tia and Tommy during their set.
Tia McGraff’s sound straddles the line between traditional country, pop and the roots rock of singers like Lucinda Williams and Sheryl Crow. That’s fitting given her history, the past several years of which have been spent on a sort of musical Acadian trail.
“When I started it was in country music,” she says. “I entered a contest, and won. But I didn’t want to be a country singer, so I recorded a rock album.” That record, “Small Town Life,” won awards in Europe, and received plenty of airplay in Canada … on country outlets.
“That was funny, because it opened doors for me in Nashville,” she says, where she moved to work primarily at songwriting in 1999. There, her success blossomed. In 2000, she released the well-received “Jewel’s Café,” which took its’ cues from crossover successes like Shania Twain, Trisha Yearwood and Faith Hill. The following year, she was featured prominently on “One Less Tear,” a cancer awareness project organized by several Nashville artists, sports and movie celebrities. Tia wrote two songs for that record, including the title cut.
With 2005’s “Outside the Circle,” McGraff moved towards a more organic musical style, something she plans to embrace wholeheartedly with her next record, due in 2007. “Love Lies Bleeding,” bursts with moaning fiddles, and the storytelling of “Life Lines” has the stripped-down honesty heard in the best Americana.
Her musical evolution helped build an overseas audience, with the help of “Whispering” Bob Harris, the legendary BBC announcer who hosted the “Old Grey Whistle Test” on British television in the 70’s. She and Tommy made two trips to the U.K. last year. “We met Bob on one of those tours,” she says “He listened to my CD, and in November we taped a BBC show for him. Emmylou Harris was on the week before.”
In mid-April, they went back to do a brief series of shows, and attended Harris’s 60th birthday, along with rock luminaries like Robert Plant and Thea Gilmore.
From the start, Tia’s taken a very hands-on approach to her career. She’s made all her music on Bandana Records, the independent company she began with her first release in 1994.
“ I’ve never been a major label girl anyway,” she says of her DIY style. When she started Bandana, it was a bit anachronistic. “Now, it’s the cool and hip thing to do. People in Nashville call me and ask how did you do this and how have you done it so quickly?”
It’s hard work, though. “I’m at the computer most of the day, writing at night, and then performing, booking gigs, and everything.”
Lately, she’s given thoughts to moving her base back to her native Port Dover, Ontario. Fellow musician Fred Eaglesmith, known to area fans for his “Roots on the River” weekends, traveled that path himself. He and McGraff have been friends for several years (though they haven’t collaborated musically).
When they first met and talked about the business, she says, Eaglesmith steered her towards home. “I asked him what he was doing,” she explains, “and he told me, ‘when I moved back here, and started running my whole camp out of Port Dover, that’s when it all started happening.’ He says you need to get your head out of the Nashville cog.”
“He’s been steered away from the co-writing thing that Nashville likes,” she says. “He’s focused on writing for himself, and not Music Row.”
With so much great roots music emanating from the North, it begs the question — why is such a wealth of Americana found in the Northern woods of Canada?
Though it’s a bit colder, the same bucolic life that moves writers in the American South speaks to Canadians, says Tia. “The smaller towns, countryside – you grow up writing about your experiences there. It’s so geographically beautiful that we tend to be inspired by that. For me it was growing up on Lake Erie.”
Asked what Claremont Opera House patrons should expect from her performance next weekend, she says it’s “very honest, song-oriented. I like stories and feel-good songs. I like to share with the audience and have them leave feeling better.”
When she was in England last year, a fan came up to her after a performance. “I don’t quite know how to say this,” he told her, “but your music brought my soul peace.”