Lynn Miles steps on the Southam Hall stage in very special Session with NACO

Ottawa's Lynn Miles lead the way on Nov. 25.

Ottawa’s Lynn Miles is well known for her work as a singer-songwriter and, these days, as a member, with Lynne Hanson, of the folk music ensemble The LYNNeS.

But stepping on the Southam Hall stage and playing a concert of her songs with the National Arts Centre Orchestra, that’s something different for Miles.

“They approached me (about a year ago) and I said yes. They left it to me to decide who I wanted to get to do the arrangements,” she told ARTSFILE in a recent interview about the gig.

“So I chose my friend Peter Kiesewalter. He was excited to do it. This is a direction that he has wanted to go in. He has done something similar before with the East Coast Opera company.”

Miles, along with Tom Wilson (Junkhouse, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Lee Harvey Osmond) will kick off a special series of four concerts featuring collaborations between NACO and Canadian pop, rock and folk musicians called the NAC Sessions. It’s part of the NAC Presents series.

The show featuring Miles and Wilson takes place on Oct. 4 in Southam Hall.

“I worked with Peter for a long time before he moved to New York. I picked him because I am comfortable working with him and I knew he could do it. I knew he’d understand where I was coming from.”

Kiesewalter and Miles had something in mind when they came to getting down to work. These were two records by Joni Mitchell — Both Sides Now and Travelogue. Both feature orchestrated arrangements of Mitchell’s songs.

“We had this bar and we wanted to use the whole orchestra. Kiesewalter is a clarinet player and he is familiar with woodwinds and horns. We have really incorporated a lot of that (sentiment).”

Miles has written some 900 songs in her career. So picking a few was a bit tricky.

“I had to figure out which ones to use and that was really hard because they are all my babies.”

Over time “I just kept sending him songs. There were some that I really wanted and a couple where I said ‘You decide’.” In the end they whittled it down.

On the program are Miles’ standards such as Something Beautiful, Surrender Dorothy, Try Not To Be So Sad, I know It Was Love and a new tune called We’ll Look For Stars which is the second of five new works under the Southam Commissions. These are new works that will be produced by the NAC in 2018. The initiative was announced in December 2016 to mark the 100th birthday of Hamilton Southam, the NAC’s founder and it’s first Director General.

The initiative was announced in December 2016 to mark what would have been the 100th birthday of Hamilton Southam, the NAC’s legendary founder. It was his vision and drive that led to the NAC’s creation as a Centennial Project and a new national home for the performing arts in Canada. He oversaw the construction of the building and in 1967 was named its first Director General.

This whole venture is certainly one of the bigger things Miles has done, but it’s not totally unfamiliar.

After all she played the violin and flute in the orchestra at Sir Robert Borden High School.

“I know how these things work. I played classical music and I studied classical piano. And I love classical music. I have also sung the music from the Lord of the Rings with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and a huge choir at Place des Arts with Howard Shore conducting. I have done that; I know how to do it. I’m not nervous, I’m just really excited about it.

“I know what sections of the orchestra are capable of. The newest part is the arrangements but when you do a show like this, because the players are so good, you don’t need weeks of rehearsals, just a couple of days.

“You do have to have your stuff together. I will probably have the music in front of me and when it’s my time to sing I’ll just come in.

“In the concert, Peter will conduct. I feel comfortable with him conducting, because he wrote all the charts. He knows when everything is going to happen.

“And we have our own band. Peter Van Alten is on drums and I have played with him for 20 years. John Geggie is playing bass and Rebecca Campbell will be singing a couple of songs.”

Miles did cede some control to her arranger, but that was a practical decision.

“I wrote the songs but I am also aware that I have a limited sort of knowledge of music. So I am always happy when somebody comes along and says: ‘Have you ever tried this?’

‘I am not precious about my songs. I’m more precious about my lyrics while musically I’m open to suggestions. I totally allowed Peter to take liberties, to put in some orchestral parts that change the feel of things. If it went too far I did reel it back in, but I basically gave him a blank slate. It really never was too much for me.”

Miles’ musical journey started on the violin at age eight or nine.

“I played it in public school because it was offered. Then I played the flute in public school because it was offered. I just wanted to play music. I was also starting to play the guitar on my own and I realized that I could play piano on my own.

She kept going on the violin right into high school at Sir Robert Borden. She would also listen to classical music at home.

“I had just moved from London, Ontario, and music saved me. I took two music classes a day and it saved my life and kept me in school.

“In Grade 10, they a had a string program which was so exciting. and they had an orchestra. I got to play the Brandenburg Concertos, Beethoven and all this stuff that I absolutely love.”

The following year she changed high schools and there was no orchestra. That put an end to the violin.

“You really have to study hard on the violin. I think it’s one of the hardest instruments and I was already playing guitar and writing songs. I wanted to do that. I can still play the violin but it’s not good. It’s one of those instruments that you have to practice every day.

“I started studying piano at 16 to learn how to play classical. I got my Grade 8 in piano and was studying for Grade 9 but by then I was playing in clubs and I stopped. And I was moving around and I didn’t have a piano. In fact, I’ve only gotten a piano in the last year and a half.

“It used to be that every time I would walk past a piano I’d get sad. Now I have one. I ended up buying a Yamaha digital piano. It looks like an acoustic piano, but I live in an apartment and I can plug it in and play at 3 a.m. with the headphones on. It has the action of a real piano which is what I wanted. I can play classical on it. I have Haydn, some Bach, Scarlatti and a little bit of Mozart on it.”

She still is on the move a lot. Miles has just landed back home after touring with Lynne Hanson steadily since January. By the way, The LYNNeS have just been nominated for five Canadian Folk Music Awards.

She’s very pleased to hear about the new acoustic shell that is now inside Southam Hall. Sound quality was a concern when this concert was first raised about a year ago.

After the NAC concert, Miles said she is going to take some time to reflect and  think about what to do with a batch of new songs that she has written.

“I have to figure out if I’m going to make a new record. People don’t buy records anymore, but it’s like a compulsion for me. I have made 15 albums and I want to make another one. I actually have 30 songs I could record, but do I do it. It’s such a cash outlay and such an effort and you end up with a box of CDs in the house. I am trying to figure out how to do it though because I love to put the songs out into the world.”

There is a definite cycle to things, she said, but the music business can be tough.

“There are definite song cycles and I am used to writing in a 10-song-cycle, but you do have to adapt. I do understand that. I got a cheque from the States for my online royalties. It is for $8.94 cents US. When I say adapting that’s what I mean.”

There is money to be made in music but not by musicians, she said.

“The people at the top are still getting the big bits. The music business is worth $52 billions and musicians take in about 12 per cent of that. Somebody is getting rich but it isn’t the musicians.

“But in the end you do have to make a living or you have to do something else. And if you do something else, it detracts from the thing you are good at and you love.”

Meanwhile there are discussions about a full hour concert with NACO at some later date and after this performance, she’ll have new charts and arrangements that would allow her to do another show with another orchestra.

Tom Wilson Beautiful Scars & Lynn Miles We’ll Look for Stars
With the NAC Orchestra
Where: Southam Hall
When: Oct. 4 at 8 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.