Tomorrow night, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic is hosting a free concert. The press release follows. The second annual …
Behind the musicBy Ryan Van Horne | Jun 18, 2012
How a beloved local children’s band took off, failed to hit its full potential, petered out, reformed and is back on track.
More than one person has listened to The Wilderbeats and asked the question: “Why aren’t they more famous?”
Short answer: their ambition has never matched their talent.
The Wilderbeats started performing during March Break shows at the Museum of Natural History in Halifax in 2001. Ashley Moffatt was a naturalist at the museum and asked Joyce Saunders, a volunteer at the museum, to join her.
They did four shows a day under the name Cheep Trills and the crowds loved their music. “We were blown away by how hungry they were for what we were doing,” Saunders recalls.
What they were doing was singing about nature, but with a clever style and folksy bent. Buoyed by audience praise, they wanted to do more and signed up for backyard sing-alongs at the museum as The Wilderbeats. Saunders wrote her first song that summer, “The Tamarack Song,” and the pair reached the same conclusion. “We should do this,” says Saunders. “There’s a market for it, and it’s really fun.”
They played together for eight years and recorded two CDs. They did well in Nova Scotia, but did not achieve fame or overwhelming commercial success.
The Wilderbeats were mostly a live band, and crowds loved them, but there was a recurring question: Was there something holding them back? “This is the tension that we always lived with,” Saunders says. “We would have these shows where it was just so clear to us that we could make a living at this if we wanted to.”
Moffatt and Saunders saw the opportunity, but the two accomplished folk musicians never seized it. “There was a bit of apprehension,” Saunders says. “Maybe we’d get burned out, maybe we’d get tired of it. Maybe the interpersonal dynamics between Ashley and I would erode our friendship. Having a band and going on the road, there’s a lot of stuff that could happen.”
On top of this generous supply of doubt, there were job opportunities and relationships. “Definitely, life got in the way for both of us,” Saunders says.
The band played mostly at schools and a boom-bust cycle developed as they played steady through the winter, but sporadically in the summer while Moffatt started working as an interpreter at Kejimkujik National Park.
When Moffatt moved to Annapolis Royal to be closer to Kejimkujik National Park, Saunders says the “logistical roadblocks” proved too great; like many long-distance relationships, theirs withered.
Then, along came Shannon Lynch, who played a backyard sing-along gig with The Wilderbeats in 2001. Lynch left to study fine arts at Concordia, but when he returned, he became reacquainted with Saunders who had begun dating his friend, Glenn Fraser. Fraser, a hand percussionist, had married Saunders and became a part-time member of the band.
“The circles came back together,” says Lynch. “Joyce asked me if I would be interested in subbing in for Ashley on some Wilderbeats gigs.”
Lynch and Saunders meshed well and Lynch did about half of The Wilderbeats shows. After a year of this, they knew something had to give. “Joyce was looking for more opportunities to play and Ashley was looking for less,” says Lynch.
In the summer of 2009, Moffatt and Saunders started talking about disbanding and Saunders admits there was tension because Moffatt wanted to retire the band’s name. “It was heart-wrenching in the sense that the name was so valuable,” says Saunders.
Moffatt was surprised that Saunders wanted to keep using the name.
“You’re going to take a band that I started and continue on without me?” Moffatt recalls thinking. “I was a big part of The Wilderbeats.”
After a few months of consideration, the two reached an agreement—a testament to their friendship. “Joyce and I have always been good buddies,” says Moffatt. “I said ‘If you want to keep the name, go for it, but I legally want to keep my songs.’”
On their first CD, Second Nature, Moffatt wrote eight of the 12 songs, so they made a trade. Saunders can play one of Moffatt’s songs when she performs as The Wilderbeats and Moffatt can play one of Saunders’s songs when she performs as Little Miss Moffatt.
For her part, Moffatt is cheering on her old friend. “She’s carrying on the dream,” says Moffatt, who discovered that her passion for writing music had only waned temporarily.
She thanks Stephen Harper for reigniting the passion that was missing when she left The Wilderbeats. “They’re driving me crazy,” she says of the Harper government after this spring’s federal budget. “I just feel like someone needs to continue to speak up for nature. I don’t have any more time than I did before, but I feel this calling that I haven’t felt in years.”
Moffatt has written nine songs and is preparing to record a solo CD in June 2012 with Benn Ross. “It is time to do it; I’m going to make time,” she says.
Moffatt expects to release the CD before Christmas.
Fame and success are never achieved without sacrifices. That doesn’t mean just working hard, it means making choices.
Saunders just had her first child, a baby girl born in April. Still, she wants to pursue a music career, although in a balanced way.
Lynch says achieving success in the music business requires a constant commitment, adding The Wilderbeats haven’t invested enough in promotion. “When you’re a musician, you’re hustling and your product is you,” he says. “If you’re not really willing to sell yourself, and be out there selling all the time, then you won’t get big.”
Kids’ music is also a challenging genre, says Mickey Quase, the music development officer for the Nova Scotia Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage. “The career trajectories of kids’ artists are extremely difficult,” Quase says. Most who have had success in this narrow market have been boosted by TV shows.
The Wilderbeats have never had professional support to promote themselves. They’ve been happy doing what they were doing and getting a small return because they love working with kids. “It’s always been just ourselves, doing what we can, with the time we have, and living our lives,” says Saunders.
Parents tell them they’re as talented as the Wiggles or Raffi, but Saunders says they haven’t been willing to make the “scary business decisions.”
Saunders and Lynch agree. They want to make music in a “sustainable, sane way.” Adds Saunders, “I don’t want anything, even a children’s band, to usurp time with my child.”
Lynch wants to lead a normal life among family and friends. “At the same time,” he says. “I really hope we get some opportunities to travel and maybe focus on it for a time.”
Fraser’s vision of what the band can be might serve as the driving force that’s been missing. “There are many artists around here that are brilliant, but are never known,” says Fraser. “I don’t want The Wilderbeats to fall into that category.”