At 69, Ottawa’s Paul Rainville returns to music with a debut CD

Paul Rainville. Photo: Alan Dean Photography

Well-known Ottawa actor Paul Rainville has put an old passion back on centre stage with the release of his self-titled, debut album.

Rainville sings lead and plays acoustic guitar on the 10 original tracks, some of them dating back years. Produced by Chelsea musician Ian Tamblyn, the album features respected local names like Rebecca Campbell (accompanying vocals), Petr Cancura (horns), Ken Kanwisher (bass) and others. The album, available on CD Baby and, launches May 8 at Irene’s Pub Restaurant.

It’s a dandy record. The moods and styles – from whimsical to intimate, from jazzy and bluesy to folk and classically influenced – are as varied as Rainville’s 40-year acting career at the Great Canadian Theatre Company, National Arts Centre and on stages across the country.

It’s also a bit of an anomaly: most folks don’t wait to release their first album until, like Rainville, they’re about to turn 69.

“I joke with people, ‘I wanted to start another dead-end career,’” says Rainville with a laugh.

More seriously, he says that “I’ve always felt (as an actor), I’m an interpreter of other people’s words and I wanted to be the author of something that was uniquely mine.”

The Ottawa native actually set out to be a classical guitarist, studying music at Dalhousie University in the mid-1970s. But he suffered from extreme stage fright, once freezing at a concert. “That’s when I took a theatre course. I said, ‘Maybe if I can get some experience on stage, I’ll relax.’ I walked out on stage, and I heard the voice say, ‘You’re home….’”

Rainville’s course was pretty much set at that point. An early member of GCTC, which was established in 1975, he’s proven to be a highly adaptable actor who brings remarkable fluidity and empathy to his work. Over the years, he’s played everyone from King Lear to Dick Cheney (Stuff Happens) to a man suffering from aphasia (The Secret Mask). A bilingual performer, he’s also done film and radio work. This summer, he’s in Jacob Berkowitz’s two-hander Entangled at the Ottawa Fringe Festival and he says we should see him on GCTC’s stage next season.

However, Rainville never stopped writing or playing music, although he didn’t perform publicly. Some of the songs on the album go back to his early, stage fright days, including the summery opening track Rolla Road. Describing it as “an amalgam of old love affairs,” he says it was written in the late 1970s but refers to an earlier time when he was living near Dawson Creek, B.C., where he was – briefly – enrolled in a government training program to be a carpenter (“I was a terrible carpenter,” he says). 

Other tunes are more recent. Slow Motel Fast, from 2005, is a lonely, on-the-road song about pining for someone when that person is far away. He wrote it during a long weekend while staying at a motel on Lake Simcoe, where he was performing in a show at the now-destroyed Red Barn Theatre.

In Ken, He Just Giggled, Rainville sings about riding naked on a snowmobile, “three sheets to the wind” and howling at the moon at 3 a.m. He knows the person who actually did this, but Rainville, being discrete, instead puts himself in the song, singing in a slightly bemused fashion, “I was naked on New Year’s Eve in a snow-covered field.”

Rainville recognizes the similarities between acting and singing – the storytelling component of the snowmobile ride, for instance – but he’s loathe to let his music intertwine too closely with theatre. “I like that (music) hits you in a different place.”

Rainville’s songs might never have been committed to posterity had Tamblyn not encouraged him to record them. The two have known each other for years through GCTC, and Tamblyn says he’d often heard Rainville — “a very good and a very dedicated guitar player” – during rehearsal breaks at the theatre.

When the two found themselves working on Up to Low, a stage adaptation of Brian Doyle’s novel for young people that played Arts Court in 2015 and the NAC last season, Tamblyn heard Rainville backstage singing the tunes now on the album. He liked their “theatricality” (Brecht and Weil would approve of Chanson du Boulevardier, he notes) and said Rainville should record them. Tamblyn, who’s in his early 70s, also mentions that Rainville has had heart issues, another good reason to get the songs recorded: “The winds of mortality are whistling around our ears increasingly these days,” says Tamblyn.

Rainville says he’s been gearing up for his album launch by playing every open mic he can find. At Irene’s, he’ll be backed by Cancura and others. “This is the first time I’m playing with a band,” he says. “I kind of can’t believe it. These are all excellent musicians. It’s like learning to drive and someone hands me a Maserati and says, ‘Here, try this out.’”

Paul Rainville plays Irene’s Pub Restaurant, 225 Bank St., May 8. Tickets at the door.

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.