It can be a very special occasion when a musician is able to share a stage with one of their musical heroes, someone who sets the standard for you. A number of years ago, guitarist Don Ross was in a workshop with one of his heroes, Bruce Cockburn, at a festival in Alberta. What made it extra special was they performed together on Bruce’s song 'Stained Glass'. It’s a memory that has lasted all this time for Don. Now they’ve collaborated again on Don’s new album, Water, with a re-worked version of 'Stained Glass'.
“We’ve known each other for years,” said Don from his Prince Edward Island home. “When I was putting the album together, I said, ‘Would you be interested in re-doing the tune?’ He said, ‘Yeah', so I dropped in on his house in San Francisco.”
Once the recording equipment was set up, Bruce mentioned he tended to speed up when playing 'Stained Glass', so they used a click track to record Bruce on guitar and vocals. Back in PEI, Don added his own guitar, bass and an ethereal bed track using a MIDI keyboard.
“When I sent it to Bruce, I was so gratified when he wrote back with, ‘It’s absolutely beautiful. Yahoo!’ Then I sent him the whole album, and he said, ‘I’m really proud to be on this record. It’s really well done.’ Coming from him, I practically started crying on the spot.”
The new album, Water, is Don’s first solo outing in many years not on a label. Instead, Don used a Kickstarter campaign.
“I agonized for years about how to put the next record out,” he said. “It got more and more to the point where I thought, every time I put a record out I’m giving up half the control of it, like a bunch of my publishing, in perpetuity. There’s little to justify it anymore. So I thought I’d go directly to the fans.”
Adhering to the adages “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” and “The answer is always ‘no’ if you don’t ask,” Don leapt headlong into the world of crowdfunding.
“I got on Kickstarter and put together a video, a proposal and a bunch of tiers and, freakin’ hell, I raised the money in 28 hours!,” he said. “And then another 100 per cent more over the course of the next months. So I actually had a budget to work with.”
And having a budget meant Don could fulfill his wish list of people to work with. Besides Bruce Cockburn, there are contributions from bassist Michael Manring, guitarist Sean Hall, The Atlantic String Machine, The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and his wife, Brooke Miller, on guitar and vocals. Arranging some of the tunes on Water for strings wasn’t a foreign task for Don but newfound skills certainly helped.
“I’ve always done some orchestration,” he recalled. “When I got my undergraduate degree at York University about 5,000 years ago, I had to have a book that had the ranges of instruments. So I kind of knew what I was doing, sort of, but not really.”
Wanting to go back to school to further his musical foundation, Don found an online Master’s program in orchestration.
“I registered, I got in, and the program started about a month before the wheels fell off the earth."
After all of Don’s gigs were cancelled, he decided to do the program in just a year.
“I would not suggest it to anyone,” he said. “It was the most work I’ve ever done in my life. I had to learn if you can pair your bassoons with your flutes, or your horns and your oboes, and then write really well for strings. It was a mammoth task but I really enjoyed it.”
What helped Don work his way through the online course was the fact he and Brooke were living on St. Margaret’s Bay in Nova Scotia, just up the road from Peggy’s Cove.
“I set my studio up and could literally look out my sliding glass door at the ocean just a few meters down the hill,” he said. “It was really inspiring and quite idyllic. I would be in there for hours and hours a day, so to take a break and get some exercise I would grab the dog, put him in front of our rowboat and visit these little islands way out in the open bay. Basically if I kept going I would have hit Ireland eventually!”
But there was more than inspiration from living on St. Margaret’s Bay. It felt safe during COVID-19 outbreaks.
“We were outside of Halifax, which had a real problem with COVID infections. My father was safe too, living just up the road from us. After we moved to PEI and recorded all the material and the restrictions started to lift, it really felt like a re-surfacing. So hence the name of the album. Water played this really strong role throughout the composing and recording of the music.”
For more on Don Ross and Water, go to donrossonline.com.