Planes, trains, long drives and all-nite diners; the troubadour’s home, it seems, is always a few more exits down the highway. Itinerancy has long been a constant in Holly Andruchuk’s life, so it’s hardly surprising that her songs reflect years spent coming and going, arriving and departing, saying hello and waving goodbye. The Winnipeg-born, Alberta-raised and Toronto-based singer-songwriter pens poignant, country-flecked narratives drawn from her time in Canada’s big cities, small towns and the wide-open points in between. “Songwriting is a truly cathartic experience,” Andruchuk explains. “Pretty much everything I write is non-fiction.”
Produced by studio whiz and recording artist Eric Bridenbaker (currently seen wielding a mighty axe for electro-metallers Distorsis), and featuring backing from the Brothers Elliott (Simon, Jeremy and Ben) and Dave Marshall, Prairie Dawn & The Morning Dove, Andruchuk’s latest solo EP, is a showcase for her intimate-yet-expansive country-rock. From the sunny melody, sprightly picking and smooth-as-glass vocals of “Seven Years,” through the last baleful bars of “Looking for Linko,” with its roaring, feedback-drenched guitars and crashing percussion, each track sways, shivers and shakes with vibrant characters and hard-won insight.
Three distinct locales pop up frequently in all of Andruchuk’s work. First is Standard, Alberta (pop. 350), a one-horse town 90 km due east of Calgary. Her home from age 12 to 18, she embraced the cowboy culture and small-town atmosphere while knowing it was just one of many stops to come. With a sister at school in Toronto and another in Bordeaux, the world beyond the county line never seemed too far away. Roots only run so deep. “When I left, I didn’t think, ‘I’m leaving to become a rock star,’” she says. “But I knew that what I needed to do I couldn’t do in Standard.”
Her next stop, Halifax, was in many ways the polar opposite of insular Standard. “All my life, I’d been told that I would become a social-studies teacher, that actors and artists and musicians were a dime-a-dozen. But as I spent more time in Halifax around other musicians and artists, I started to think differently.” Even more than a decade removed from the Halifax Pop Explosion heydays of Sloan of Thrush Hermit, the city remains a welcome refuge for creative types, both homegrown and from elsewhere. Halifax’s rich live-music tradition, supportive club network, enthusiastic crowds and broad array of talent proved the perfect incubator for her burgeoning career. “After being at university in Halifax for a couple of years, my grades read like the alphabet,” she confesses. “There were just so many places to play around town.” This phase is loosely chronicled in “CBC,” a low-key ballad about a singer-songwriter’s first brush with the music biz, and probably the most romantic song about public broadcasting and post-production you’ll ever hear.
Oddly enough, the third place that informs her music—and arguably the one that’s influenced it the most—is one Andruchuk’s only visited once: Linko, a whistle-stop county about an hour-and-a-half from Thunder Bay. This speck on the map, halfway between Standard and Halifax—literally in the middle of nowhere—is where her father learned to play the accordion from his aunt; in a sense, it’s the ancestral home of Andruchuk’s music. “It’s basically just train tracks and power lines now, but it was a really special place for him.” Crisscrossed by rail lines and bisected by the highway, Linko is a place most people only encounter while on their way to somewhere else. There’s a tangible power to that sense of transience, a feeling that comes across clearly through Andruchuk’s songs. Consequently, not only is “Looking for Linko” one of the most autobiographical songs on Prairie Dawn, it’s also its most dynamic, Andruchuk’s keening wail bolstered by powerful diesel-stoked guitars and a veritable tsunami of reverb.
Small towns and big cities have their characters, but the highways that join them together are the true connective tissue of a country. In a way, those in-between places are another place where Andruchuk’s music comes from. “I actually wrote my first song on the road,” she says. “I was about seven, and my dad had found out that my aunt back in Winnipeg was in possession of his first guitar. So we went over there ‘for dinner’ in order to get it back. We drove from Winnipeg to Calgary with it in the car, and he set it into an open tuning, and I just started to play it. It’s still the biggest guitar I own - a 1950s jumbo acoustic with the fattest neck you’ve ever seen,” she laughs. And she’ll play just about anything she can get her hands on. “As a kid, I used to make friends with kids whose parents made them take piano lessons solely so I could go over and play,” she admits. “I’d force them to show me what they’d learned, and then try to play it myself. Only when I got older did I realize how weird this was.”
With their references to rail yards, heartland towns, fishing holes and familial ghosts, Prairie Dawn’s songs sound stolen from a bygone age. It’s Andruchuk’s personal, almost editorial approach to songwriting that roots them firmly in the here and now. “I think all the moving around I’ve done has forced me to constantly take stock of my environment, what it looks like, smells like or sounds like,” Andruchuk reveals. “There’s a definite connection to highways and trains, and even when there isn’t a concrete reference to those things, the music often takes on their feel. When I play guitar, I’m conscious of capturing that prairie feeling.”
Bringing a sound as big as all outdoors inside a recording studio or concert hall is no easy trick, and as much as her abilities may spring from natural talent, Andruchuk admits that nothing can compensate for determination, vision and hard work—although having a good producer doesn’t hurt. The artistic shorthand she shares with producer/engineer Bridenbaker sounds like code to outsiders, but between the two of them, nothing is misunderstood. “I’ll say, ‘Eric, this needs to be more vintage-sounding,’ or ‘a little cracklier,’ or ‘a bit less wet,’” she says, “And he’ll pull out this old box that used to be part of one of those vibrating hotel room beds, stick a bunch of wires into it and all of a sudden you’ll have exactly what you were hoping for.”
It’s strange, but that repurposed part from the vibrating bed makes a pretty apt metaphor for Andruchuk’s music; handmade, old-school, authentic and true, possessed with the ability to both rock you to sleep or shake you to your very core. Like Joni Mitchell, Loretta Lynn, and her hero Tom Petty, Holly Andruchuk writes songs that sound out of time, but never out of touch. True-life tales spun out into five-minute mini-epics, her music connects through both lyrical heft and melodic charm. You don’t hear these songs, you listen to them. And when you’re up late, alone, driving to some strange new place, you feel them, too.