The magic of Ottawa’s music scene can often be found in the mixing and matching that goes on. Look at the lineup of a band on a given night and you might recognize folks from other ensembles you have seen in action.
The synergies of these side hustles can certainly be exciting.
Consider the case of Silent Winters, which features two members of the prominent local band Amos the Transparent. For Olenka Bastian, the duo was a chance to return to her musical roots.
“Before joining Amos,” she said, “I had been in the folk world, singing in coffee houses and writing my own songs on the guitar. I have always loved folk music — performing it and listening to it.”
After several years with Amos she felt the need to do something more pared down, something for herself.
She mentioned the idea to her bandmate Jonathan Chandler.
“I told him I wanted to record a folk album, because he is a producer as well and he said, ‘Well, how about I do it with you?’
“I couldn’t turn that down because he’s a great songwriter and singer. We were already so comfortable singing together, so it was a natural fit.”
Bastian is on hiatus from Amos these days. She started her break this past summer but she isn’t sure she’ll be going back.
“You can’t do it all all the time,” she said. “I’m just taking a step back to focus on Silent Winters.”
She also has a lot of commitments and “you can’t do it all. If I can, I will go back.”
She lives in Russell where she runs a very active landscaping business with her partner Josh. Living out there means getting to town can take up to 45 minutes and that kind of travel for two bands is a lot.
So decisions needed to be made, choices need to be taken.
“Everyone has a side hustle that they do for music, for us it is Silent Winters. It’s a common thing. If you love music and want to try other genres” that’s just what you do.
“It’s important to open up opportunities to work with other musicians and learn and grow. If you stick with the same people all the time it can become mundane.
“Silent Winters was important for me. I wanted to experience other musicians so we have collaborated a lot (with the help of grants) with local artists. Even with members of the NAC Orchestra. Violinist Carissa Klopoushak performs on the duo’s new Christmas album called Christmas Morning. Silent Winters released their first album in 2017. It’s called Fireworks & A Small Brigade. It earned two Canadian Folk Music Award nominations. Their second album is called The Duke Hotel and it featured Kinley Dowling and Ottawa’s Peter von Althen.
Bastian and Klopoushak originally connected through their mutual Ukrainian ancestry.
“I have known her for years so it was such a natural fit (for the album). The songs sound so much better with a violin in there. She’s so talented, she just walked in, said ‘I was thinking this’ and started to play.”
The idea for a Christmas album is one of those things that involves the right place, right time.
“Last summer, we thought we’d release another Christmas song because had done one last year. Half way through the summer we were approached by a new folk label out of Edmonton called Fallen Tree Records.” The label is run by Peter Chapman who used to work for Stony Plain Records. He started his own label, Bastian said, to focus on smaller ensembles like Silent Winters.
“He asked if we had anything.” She replied that they were working on a Christmas song. That quickly grew into an idea for an album and Silent Winters started a blizzard of activity.
“We needed 10 songs. One was the original and then John and I sat down and hammered through a list of favourites. It was a bit odd to create a Christmas album in the summer.” But it is what it is.
The songs are mostly standards such as White Christmas, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, I’ll Be Home for Christmas, Winter Wonderland and Happy Holiday run through Silent Winters unique take.
They tackled Baby, It’s Cold Outside with a role reversal in which she sang the male part.
“That was fun. It completely changes the persona of a song that so many had issues with last year.”
The original song is the title track.
Given that Jon lives in Stittsville and Olenka is in Russell, they did a lot of the work on the songs over their smart phones by sharing voice memo files, “because I’m not going to go to Stittsville every day. I’d send an idea to him and he’d send one to me. Then eventually we got together and hammer out the final song.
“It works for us. Years of music making helps that out. When you find someone whose vocal range suits yours, it’s really nice. John has a rough deep voice and I have a chorally trained voice. So the purity on top of his roughness is lovely.”
Bastian sang in the Ottawa Carleton Catholic School Board Choir and chamber choir so she got a lot of vocal training within those ensembles.
“We sang at the opening of the Canadian War Museum and we sang for Nelson Mandela when he got his Canadian citizenship.”
Choir singing taught her to be dynamic with her voice, to be stronger or softer and especially to harmonize.
“I hear harmony all the time; it’s just something I grew up with.”
There was a lot of singing in her family home and at church.
“I was always an alto or a second soprano.”
She started playing coffee houses and then Amos put out a call for a female singer to join them on a recording.
“I was interested, so I wrote an email saying Do Re Me?” She sent along some songs and ,et the band at Whispers in Westboro. Soon after they wrote her and she was invited on board. After six years with the band it’s time to move along.
She says she thinks she would have gone on her own way if Aos hadn’t come knocking.
“But I wouldn’t have the connections, and I wouldn’t have John. He’s such a gift of music. I couldn’t write half the music I have without him. It would have taken a different as all journey’s do.” That says: be ready if the door opens.
In town: Silent Winters is performing a sold out show at the National Arts Centre on Dec. 13. For information on their Christmas Morning album please see silentwinters.com.