Notes from the underground: Arboretum Festival moves the music to the farm for 2017

This year's Arboretum Festival is located on a farm.

When the first Arboretum Music Festival was held in 2011, there was something hopeful in the air, says one of the co-founders.

“At the time, the cultural scene in the city, although it has always been really strong,” said Rolf Klausener, “there was this inexplicable coalescing happening between the independent music scene, the food industry, the whole restaurant scene and the art scene in general.”

There was, he says, a lot more communication and collaboration within the industry in town.

“It was really tangible,” he says.

Klausener had been on the road with his Polaris Prize nominated band The Acorn and “I hadn’t been in town a lot in the years preceding 2011. So it was really amazing to see how vibrant city had become” when he did return.

To mark the mood “my friends and I wanted to have a little one day party where we celebrated a lot of local bands. Where we could invite friends from other cities to come to showcase in the city and to connect them our scene.”

The idea was to show off what was happening in the city.

So they held that party. They convinced about 10 restaurants to cook food and some up-and-coming craft breweries Kitchissippi and Beau’s supplied the beer and the Norman Hardie winery supplied the vintage.

It was “eclectic” musically, Klausener says. “But it was all in the realm of popular independent music … everything from folk to pop to electronic music.”

Great parties leave great memories and inevitably a desire to do it again.

“So basically we founded a not-for-profit that fall, applied for grants and from there started expanding.” All with the goal of showcasing independent music in the city. This year the sixth Arboretum takes place Aug. 18 and 19.

He believes the time is ripe for an explosion of interest in locally made music. Instead of heading to Toronto or Vancouver, “people have decided to stay for whatever reason, or, as in my case, came back. And now a critical mass of working artists has been created.”

Things are coalescing around things such as the Megaphono music conference and the House of PainT urban arts festival and the new ArtsCourt. The National Arts Centre is connecting with the local scene through NAC Presents and its renovated Fourth Stage. All of this builds off existing institutions such as RBC Bluesfest the Ottawa Jazz Festival and music havens such as The Black Sheep Inn.

“There are a bunch of nodes that have been overlapping. (The scene has) really grown,” he says.

For this son of a chef and restaurateur, connecting with food sector is vital.

“I was always interested in food. My father owned a restaurant. He was a great cook. I was interested in the ties between farms and food and the quality of food.”

He had played in smaller boutique music festivals in Europe and was struck by how good the locally sourced food was there.

“So when we started Arboretum, the food was not just an afterthought; it was a central part of the experience.”

All of the other activity has forced a change in Klausener’s job and life focus.

“I have kind of shifted in the past few years to include all of the things that I want to do. I wanted a bit more balance in my life. I have cut back somewhat on playing music, writing and touring professionally. It gives me time to run the festival.”

He’s also working as a creative associate in the NAC’s marketing department.

This year’s festival, he says, is actually the smallest with a bill of about 20 acts performing over two days.

“Our biggest was last year. We had 68 artists over five days performing at 14 venues. It was pretty monstrous. We also ran a 10 event industry conference at same time.”

Size has never been the goal however.

“We have tried different models over the years. But curation has always been our consistent focus (music and food) even though the shape of festival has changed. Last year we tried to have a monster city-wide festival. It wasn’t really for us.

“With so many great organizations now focused on developing the music industry in the city, we feel we can take a bit of a back seat to that and concentrate on great programming and making a great experience for the audience and the performers.”

The festival has also moved around. This year they are located at Rideau Pines Farm which is about 15 minutes south of Bayshore shopping centre. The festival is putting on free shuttle buses for pass holders.

“We want to try to provide an alternate experience to what’s available in the city. As we grew and we learned how to navigate the City of Ottawa’s paradigms, we realized we were slowly shifting in a direction we didn’t want to go in.

“We like to bend the rules. We like to be freer. We like events to go really late into the night. We like to make noise. We like to do things really quietly. The more we stayed in city we realized how confining it was.”

The festival has been working with Rideau Pines since year two. The farm provides produce to about 40 restaurants in the city. The festival team met with Matt Vandenberg, one of the owners of the farm and after 20 minutes of conversation he said, Klausener recalled, “‘I’ve been waiting for this meeting for three years’.”

It was a perfect match. Vandenberg had even built a stage in a forested area on the farm site.

The result: This year’s event “is not going to be like watching a show inside a hermetically sealed building. It’s going to be a pretty freeing experience.

“Every time we go there, our heart rates slow down,” Klausener says. “It also has some amazing amenities. There is a beautiful barn where we will do more intimate shows.”

One of those will feature an 11-member string orchestra playing a new composition by Montreal composer Keiko Devaux. The musicians were gathered by NACO violinist Carissa Klopoushak. The strings will perform twice on Saturday.


One of the biggest bands appearing this year is the art rock band Deerhoof.

Klausener says this “get” was a real coup.

“They have been around for two decades and are a really seminal art rock band. They haven’t played Ottawa very much. They are one of most awe-inspiring live acts performing now,” he added.

The festival says it presents “underground” music. But what is that?

“It feels like all music now is underground to some degree,” Klausener says. “I listen to everything from a contemporary Norwegian composition one to Atlanta trap hip hop the next. It’s a miraculous time for someone like me.

“If we are going to define what we curate: we are really within the realm of popular music but so would Bluesfest be. But whereas Bluesfest will be booking the higher end commercial acts. Those are not the artists we are trying to showcase.

“We are trying to offer a bit of an alternative.”

To that end, Klausener offered some must see shows.


“Our Friday night headliner, Le1f, will be pretty phenomenal. He comes from the New York underground rap scene. He is a phenomenal performer, a true maverick of the genre.”

Also worth catching on Friday night is Cadence Weapon, the Toronto based hip hop artist. He’s back to the festival for the first time in six years. He was shortlisted for the Polaris Prize in 2012.

Saturday night, the headliner is the aforementioned Deerhoof.

Local artists worth checking out: Issac Valentin. “He is in the realm of art folk/contemporary songwriting. He dabbles in Noise, folk, R&B, electronic music. He has a gorgeous baritone voice and a gift for slightly skewed melodies. He has grown into a must see artist.

Claude Munson.

Claude Munson is another local worth checking out again. He played the festival 2013. Klausener’s festival co-director Stefanie Power, who used to book acts into the Raw Sugar “spotted Claude a few years ago. He’s a weird cross between Patrick Watson and Paul Simon. He’s the local headliner on the main stage Saturday evening.

In addition to the main Forest Stage, there is a stage inside a barn which will double as an overnight night cinema for those who are camping on site. And there is a third stage in a tent on the edge of a small pond. Organizers plan late night dance parties there.

The festival has become a year-round enterprise. Planning for the next festival starts in September and the organizers also hold events during the winter and spring.

For information on all the acts playing at Arboretum please see

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.