Is there, in the expanse of music made by Queen’s alumni, a "Queen’s sound?" The answer seems to be an unsatisfying No. And yet, every musician we asked about a Queen’s sound cited a common foundation to the music they’ve made as Queen’s students, past and present.
"To me, if there is a Queen’s sound, it is based on the notion that you can go anywhere on a Thursday, Friday, Saturday night – you still can in Kingston – to see a band play,” says Gord Sinclair, Artsci’86, who played bass with the Tragically Hip. “Kingston has always produced really good musicians and really good artists, and I think that’s partly due to the culture of the town,” Mr. Sinclair says in an interview from his home in Kingston. “People have grown up and seen live music played in front of them. I think it’s great that young bands are still trying to do it.”
In the mid-1980s, when half of the Hip members were studying at Queen’s, “there was ample opportunity to get your act up on stage.”
The Hip played venues such as Alfie’s, the Terrapin Tavern, Lakeview Manor, and sometimes the Grad Club.
“The more you get the opportunity to play, the more you develop your talent as a musician and as a performer. We were particularly blessed with a very charismatic frontman and singer, Gord Downie, who relished that opportunity to get up in front of people.”
The live experience is formative, he says: “That’s what allowed us to develop our sound.”
Live music was also foundational for Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy (Artsci’83). Mr. Cuddy told the Queen’s Gazette in 2015 that his years at the university were “a very productive time for me… It was the coming together of a lot of things.”
While at Queen’s, he met Walter Macnee, who mentored him on guitar, says Mr. Cuddy. He also reminisced to visitkingston.ca about nights in campus and city clubs watching artists such as Bruce Cockburn, Stan Rogers, Willie P. Bennett, and others.
“I was just mesmerized when I saw those acts, very inspiring.” He grew confident enough to get up on stage himself, at Grant Hall in 1978. A few years later, Blue Rodeo would form and go on to sell millions of albums and win a dozen Junos.
The answer, then, is that the Queen’s sound is evident in the talent and style that was heard and honed in the essential live venues on campus and in the city.
The next album from Funeral Lakes will be inspired by both Queen’s University and Kingston, with city inspiration on the surface, and campus inspiration down a little deeper.
Funeral Lakes is couple Sam Mishos and Chris Hemer, who are working on a master’s in geography (Sam) and a master’s in cultural studies with a focus on Canadian national mythology (Chris).
The duo’s upcoming second full-length album, with the working title North American Martyrs, is about “national mythology and deconstructing some of the myths and taking a more critical look at the people and events we celebrate,” Mr. Hemer says from their home in Kingston.
He says the city is a huge influence.
“It’s a somewhat historical album, so I’ve been spending a lot of time just walking around and observing and photographing what’s around us and using that as inspiration.”
The music is part of a project for his master’s, and Sam’s studies of geography also inform the music they make.
“The line between our band and our academic lives is pretty blurred. There’s a lot of crossover and it’s hard to separate the two,” Mr. Hemer says.
“In undergrad, I had a lot of space and opportunity to grow as a musician being at Queen’s, and then I think a lot of our music was academically informed, and we grew as individuals and as musicians and academics, and it all kind of coalesced into this project.”
Their music – CBC described hearing “eco-activism, Catholicism, and escapism in their indie folk music” – was born when the pair met at Queen’s and took full advantage of the ample opportunities to play live.
“It was a pretty formative experience,” he says. “It was easy to grow as a musician because there were a lot of places to play on campus. We were part of a music club that had a jam space that was pretty well free to use. We got to kind of cut our teeth there.
“In terms of Queen’s as an institution, there was a lot of opportunity at that point of time in my musical trajectory to do things if you wanted to do things. I think that was really important and helped me grow.”
The music of Sam and Chris – she’s from Toronto and he’s from Vancouver – is also inspired by Lake Ontario.
“We feel pretty lucky that we’re in such close proximity to nature. It’s a great place to turn off your brain for a bit and not think about the world so much and appreciate what’s around us.”
Danielle Hope Edwards
Danielle Hope Edwards (ConEd’23) says that songs she’s written while a student at Queen’s have been “impacted by the experience of finding myself, of growing up or going to university for the first time.”
As the 21-year-old wrote in her song Coming Home, to be released by early next year, “Sometimes we feel that we do come here just to understand there’s a whole lot we can’t comprehend.”
The song, she says from her home in rural Prince Edward County, is about “coming to the point where you know it’s OK to embrace the new experiences, that we’re coming home, we’re coming into ourselves, we’re coming into new experiences.”
When she left home for the first time, she found Queen’s and Kingston to be “very homey” and supportive. She knows that everyone has their own experience, and “it might not be the same for everyone, as I believe everyone expresses their experiences differently. So, that way, there might be a Queen’s sound.”
That collegial atmosphere – and the opportunities to play live her soul-gospel-R&B-inspired music and to write in cosy coffee shops – had a clarifying effect on her songs.
“I feel that the older I get and the more I start to write, it continues to get better, and also clearer. Some of the songs I’d write before, I thought, ‘This is very good but nobody’s going to understand what you’re trying to say.’ So, I’m coming to the point where I’m breaking things down, making it still authentic but more plain.”
That positive Queen’s experience strengthened the hope that is both her middle name and her musical raison d’être.
“I have a lot of hope, and I want to put that in music and share it. I have struggled with mental health [issues]and I want to write about that and share it. Maybe someone else can relate. Ultimately, that is my goal with music, to just shine bright with it and if it blows up, it blows up, and if it doesn’t, there are still people whose lives are being touched through those songs I write and the lyrics I write, and I’m just grateful.”
The influence of Queen’s University weaves like a looping thread through the music of Wild Rivers.
The band, which includes Devan Glover (Artsci’15), Khalid Yassein (Artsci’15), and Andrew Oliver, returned to the Kingston area to finish their latest record, Sidelines, at the Tragically Hip’s Bathouse Studio in nearby Bath.
“We wanted to remove ourselves from this city because where you live and where all your friends and family are there are so many distractions,” Ms. Glover says from her home in Toronto. “We really wanted to go somewhere where we could just wake up, make the record, go to sleep, hang out all the time, and just be fully in it.
“It was kind of a nice thing to be back in Kingston for it, so it just felt like the right decision.”
Ms. Glover and Mr. Yassein met at Queen’s and “started to play shows, write songs, get a bit of a following in what we think is one of the best music cities in Canada,” Mr. Yassein says from his home in Toronto. “We still feel like our education and time at Queen’s contributed to our music career in a lot of ways.”
He says the city’s location between Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto brings in a lot of live bands to see, and that helps support many venues to play in.
“It’s a fantastic live music scene,” he says. “It punches above its population. The scene shouldn’t be as good as it is but, for whatever reason, there’s an appetite for it. There’s enough venues, there’s enough people that believe in the music.”
Ms. Glover adds, “A lot of our early stuff is acoustic, folky, and I think a lot of that was because we started playing in Queen’s coffee houses and open mics, the more chill environments. That definitely influenced how we approach our shows and our early music, just because there’s so many great spots in Kingston and at Queen’s for that sound.”
“That made me think that maybe the Queen’s or Kingston sound is like a live sound,” Mr. Yassein says.
Whatever the sound is, Ms. Glover says, “Queen’s is the reason we are a band still.”
A sound that brings me back
by Arisa Valyear
It’s been six years since I called Queen’s home, but this sound always brings me right back.
I was sitting in a red velvet, upholstered seat at Massey Hall watching Queen’s-born band Wild Rivers perform just a few weeks ago when I heard it. That quiet and unhurried, modestly composed yet beautifully delivered sound that could be from only one place. A place tucked behind the jagged banks of the St. Lawrence River where the tricolour flies and limestone lies: Queen’s.
As I listened to the band unveil a stripped-back rendition of their song Safe Flight, I was gently jolted back home by each note. Back to Lake Ontario’s cresting waves, which Devan Glover’s soaring vocals so perfectly mimicked. Back to the hum of humid air that floats up from the water and blankets University Avenue in the summertime, which Khalid Yassein revived so effortlessly with his enveloping vocals and low and steady guitar.
The sound of Queen’s is different from the sound of Kingston, which is heavy at times, with throaty bass and clashing percussion (look to the Tragically Hip’s Grace, Too or the Glorious Sons’ Heavy), and then soft and delicate at others, with sultry lyrics and swinging melodies (think Long Time Running or Kasador’s Skeleton Park). Where Kingston’s sound is more complex and steeped in contradiction, the Queen’s sound is less so. It’s calmer, clearer. It stays light even when it gets loud. The Kingston sound commits fully to its embodiment of sonic extremes; the Queen’s sound stays rooted somewhere in the middle.
I was lucky to be able to contribute to the university’s unique musical identity in a small way while I was at Queen’s, both as a performer and concertgoer, but I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I didn’t know that the humble, four-person band I was part of, carried by three vocalists, an acoustic guitar, and a folksy fiddle, would help cement a certain musicality within the school’s vine-covered walls. I didn’t know that gig by gig, our routine covers of indie-folk songs like the Lumineers’ Ho Hey and acoustic pop-song mashups were slowly reinforcing a signature sound, one that so perfectly occupies the space between restraint and recklessness.
I didn’t know it then, but I know it now. The farther I drifted from the university, the clearer the realization became.
And that night at Massey Hall, even though I was miles away, the sound of Queen’s found its way back to me. And I hope it always will.
Arisa Valyear, Artsci’15, MA’16, is a musician, music historian, writer and editor now based in Newmarket, Ont.