Chamberfest: The story of the Queer Songbook Orchestra

Queer Songbook Orchestra.

About seven years ago, Shaun Brodie was at a bit of a crossroads in his musical career.

“I had been freelancing for many years. I did my training in classical performance on the trumpet at the University of Victoria but I never pursued classical.

“I went into the indie pop scene and freelanced with a number of groups. I also did a lot of studio work for a decade or so.”

In his mid-30s, “I didn’t see that being sustained for many more years. I was interested in being more invested in something.”

He also had a real interest in telling stories.

“I always had a real interest in reading or listening to documentaries about musical back stories, the kind of stuff that goes on in the studio that you never hear about.”

He applied to the journalism school at Ryerson University but he didn’t get in. That turned out to be a blessing.

After a period of reflection he thought about putting together a “music based project looked into these back stories, and because I’m queer, I looked at it through that lens.

“I am fortunate to know a lot of really good musicians so I started seeing if people were interested in trying out this experiment. Initially we got together an 11-piece group.”

And the Queer Songbook Orchestra was born. Five years later it’s still together and growing in scope and reach. The QSO will be at Chamberfest on Aug. 6.

In those early days, Brodie started commissioning arrangements and gathering historical stories. As for the bills, he started putting expenses on his line of credit figuring that he would have been spending the same money on tuition if he had gotten into Ryerson.

And then the QSO started asking members of the queer community for personal stories they were willing to share. In the past year these stories have taken priority in QSO shows, he said.

“Delivering these personal stories to an audience really resonates with people. A queer audience gets it because they have lived it. For the straight audience, it can be an education.”

The QSO played in Winnipeg this past fall, Brodie said. His straight cousin was in the audience.

“The next day we were talking about concert he said he was really surprised how similar those stories were to his experience.”

The first performance of the QSO was in 2014.

That first show was in a legendary Toronto performance space called Videofag in Toronto’s Kensington Market. It was run by Ottawa native Jordan Tannahill, who is an award winning playwright now living in London, Eng. and his former partner, the actor William Ellis.

“They were welcoming to ideas and encouraged workshops and residencies,” Brodie said. He had been going there to see performances and was inspired.

“I was motivated to do something on my own there. I had this fantasy of doing something in that space.” So when the QSO started to form, Brodie wanted to have a show at Videofag.

“Jordan and I started having weekly breakfast meetings when he was living in Toronto. We talked about the vision for this project and how it would work.”

The QSO would not have happened without Videofag, Brodie said, because “I don’t think I would have had that spark of inspiration or a place to do it for the first time.”

That first show was memorable.

“It was a small space. The band took up half the room. We did a Friday night and then a Saturday matinee. Only about 35 people could fit in. We sort of squished in and made it work.”

It was recorded and Brodie still draws inspiration from it.

“I can’t believe how good it sounds. A friend who recorded it sent me the mix a week later and I remember sitting in my room listening to it and just being blown away and realizing this thing actually works. I realized I couldn’t stop.”

A QSO show contains a mix of music drawn from the historical music record from the American and Canadian songbooks. The songs have significance for the queer community.

In between each song there are stories, both personal and historical, which connect to the music.

Lately the emphasis has titled towards the personal stories from the community.

“Last year we put a call out across Canada for people to send stories that we would use to build a new show that we toured last fall to smaller cities from Whitehorse to St. John’s.”

The call succeeded. People from across the country sent in their own stories and song picks.

“It created a really moving show,” he said.

Brodie has been asked after a show “‘Do you ever tell any happy stories?’ I didn’t feel the question was totally fair because the stories are very real and honest. Even if it is a story of struggle, which queer stories often are, there is usually some humour in it as well.

“Generally they are honest, raw and real. They can be funny. People cry and laugh, you kind of get it all.

“There are still often moments when I feel a bit overwhelmed just by the exchanges happening in a show.”

The stories are always told by a couple of narrators coming from the local community, as they will in Ottawa.

The narrators become a universal voice delivering a universal story.

Brodie says that for those who may not know their work the name orchestra can be a bit mystifying because they don’t play Mozart.

But, “there is intent behind the name. It is for, and representative of, the queer community. I know there will be people who never step in the theatre because it is called that. And there might be people who are nervous to step in.

“But the reality is that anybody can come to our shows.”

However, Shaun Brodie says that as a closeted teenager in Regina, “there is no way I would have gone. I would not have entertained it, but it would have been so good for me if I did go. It would have been life-changing but everyone in their own time.”

Today, Brodie derives a lot of satisfaction about he the QSO has accomplished. The ensemble has two recordings out including one, with the trans artist, musician, writer Vivek Shraya, which was longlisted for a Polaris Prize in 2018.

After Ottawa, the QSO is off to Saskatoon and Regina for shows.

“We played Regina last fall and that was a trip for me. I was never really out in Regina. I waited until I went to university and I was out of there.”

He hasn’t been back much for the past 17 years.

“The Regina Leader Post did an article on the QSO that was pretty wild. There was a front page promo that said it was a homecoming show for a queer musician. I was happy with the article, but I did imagine the 14 year old me seeing that.”

Chamberfest presents the Queer Songbook Orchestra
Where: Ottawa Art Gallery
When: Aug 6 at 10 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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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.