British Columbia

Playing through a pandemic: How 5 B.C. musicians are coping and creating despite COVID-19

From centre stage to the centre of the couch, this is how five musicians have had their work, and sense of selves, impacted since COVID-19 dropped the curtain on concerts over a year ago.

'None of us really know what is coming next'

Canadian soul singer Dawn Pemberton last performed in Mobile, Ala., on March 12, 2020. She has started hosting a radio show and is keeping her voice in shape with regular vocal lessons, but, like many performers, says she is yearning to connect with people and audiences in person once again. (Robin Ardagh)

COVID-19 dropped the curtain on concerts over a year ago and for many musicians who are used to performing live, the pandemic has been both a tough financial and artistic pill to swallow.

Health officials around the world are racing to vaccinate their citizens against the virus, but how and when people will be able to crowd venues for shows again is a conversation still on the back burner.

Faced with such uncertainty, five artists from British Columbia have still been working on their music, while also wrestling with their own sense of self since the music stopped last spring.

James Ross plays trumpet in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York City and has not performed since a production of La Traviata in March 2020. Having regularly performed before thousands for 25 years, leaving his seat in the orchestra pit is almost like leaving a bit of himself behind.

James Ross, second trumpet player with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York, says not being able to perform had him questioning his own identity. He says he is prepared to adapt to whatever changes might be necessary to be able to play in the pit again. (Michael B. Shane)

"[It's] made me question my identity. It's made me question whether I'm going to continue on in the music field and what there will be to to go back to," said Ross.

Ross, who is from Vancouver, relocated back to B.C. when the pandemic hit and says he must constantly practice with his instrument to remain performance ready — whenever that may be and is spending much of his time negotiating a back to work plan.

"We are working hard to have jobs worthy of coming back to," said Ross. "None of us really know what is coming next."

TikTok and new tunes

Ryan Guldemond, singer and guitarist with B.C.-based indie rock band Mother Mother, said the band didn't play live for fans in 2020 at all, but new fans found them anyway via the social media app TikTok that exploded in popularity during the pandemic. 

Ryan Guldemond, centre, singer and guitarist for Canadian Indie rock band Mother Mother, found a new avenue to reach fans during the pandemic on the social media app TikTok. (Rich Smith)

The band started noticing "peculiar growth" in their digital activity earlier this year, Guldemond said, so they turned to services like YouTube to investigate further. Eventually, the band traced the activity back to TikTok where their songs had been used in viral videos.

So during the pandemic, the group jumped on the TikTok band wagon, created an account, and the content they have posted there has amassed over 24 million likes.

On April 8, Mother Mother also dropped a new song, I Got Love, which Guldemond said is inspired by the pandemic.

"A lot was stripped away from so many people ... but at the same time there is this thing within us, for lack of a better word, I think its love," he said. "We at least have access to that and so that's what the song is kind of about."

The pandemic, said Guldemond, also helped him find a gentler side of himself, one he felt he was masking with sarcasm and cynicism before.

"I think I have softened a lot in light of what we all just went through," said the singer.

Off stage and on air

Dawn Pemberton has not been singing before a live in-person audience since last spring, but her voice is still being heard.

The Vancouver soul singer actually booked a new gig during the downtime, as the host of Get on the Good Foot, a radio show broadcast by CKUA in Alberta that celebrates Black music — an idea pitched by Pemberton.

But radio hosting and the occasional virtual event is not a replacement for performing for Pemberton, who was scheduled to be in two now-cancelled Vancouver theatre productions which would have meant singing on stage eight times a week.

Dawn Pemberton singing at the release of her solo album Say Somethin' in 2014. (Marc Bjorknas)

"I miss the feeling of being at a live show with lots of people," she said. "I really miss humans"

Pemberton is ready for when the spotlight turns back on though, having kept up with singing lessons she had been taking to prepare for her stage roles before anyone predicted a pandemic.

"It's actually better than its ever been," said the singer about her voice.

Old language, new music

Lil'wat musician Russell Wallace said not only did COVID-19 cost him his love of performing with, and for, others, it also took the lives of people close to him.

He found some solace working on a new album, Unceded Tongues, that was released in February and combines pop, jazz and blues with Salish musical forms and is sung in the St'át'imc language. 

Lil'wat singer, composer and producer Russell Wallace released a new album in Feburary 2021. He told CBC the album was years in the making and the pandemic gave him the time needed to buckle down and get it done. (Russell Wallace)

Wallace, who is not fluent in the language, said it was "a wonderful experience" tapping into the knowledge of others in his community to improve his own skill.

Wallace learned not only more about his language, but more about himself. In the wake of loss, he found resilience:

 "We are still standing, we are still laughing, we are still singing."

On the road again — maybe

Singer songwriter Frazey Ford said the pandemic has a lot of musicians, whose identities are so closely interwoven with their work, questioning who they are now.

"We need to have those communal experiences in order to feel alive," said Ford, who was forced to cancel shows in Europe, Australia and the U.S. and has tentatively re-scheduled for late 2021 and 2022.

Vancouver indie folk singer Frazey Ford was forced to cancel or reschedule almost 40 shows due to the pandemic. (Alana Paterson)

She said she has no idea what the future of performing holds, or if people will be willing to crowd venues again any time soon, but whatever the future holds, Ford has taken this down time to work on new music and she is ready.

"It's a huge loss for everybody," said Ford. "My sense is that, once these shows start happening again, there will be so much joy and healing and appreciation."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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With files from The Early Edition and interviews by Michael Juk