Music with a conscience: Rosie and the Riveters offer some high-powered vintage sound

Rosie and the Riveters. From left: Allyson Reigh, Alexis Normand and Farideh Olsen. Photo: Crystal Skrupski

Rosie the Riveter conjures up a lot of connections. The iconic image of a woman working in an assembly plant during the Second World War speaks about a time when women were entering the workforce in large numbers.

It also references so many of the concerns that still exist today around empowerment and independence and equality.

And culture too: For three Canadian singers, Rosie is a musical metaphor … so much so that they have adopted the name for their “vintage” inspired trio Rosie and the Riveters.

“We like to say we offer vintage inspired folk music,” says one of the members of the trio, Alexis Normand. “We started out as an 1940s inspired trio like The Andrews Sisters. Our harmonies sounded like them. We have a natural vintage vibe. We are all very interested in that.” Normand is Fransaskois. She was born in Saskatoon and came to Ottawa to study music in French at uOttawa. She was also a page on Parliament Hill.

Today, the music the trio sings isn’t so ’40s-inspired any more but there are still some elements. You can get the sense of it from their new high-energy album called Ms. Behave which is the backbone of a tour that is bringing Rosie and the Riveters to the NAC’s Fourth Stage on May 16.

“(The sound) came to us naturally,” Normand said. “We started really singing gospel. The first tune we arranged for three-part harmonies was Keys to the Kingdom, a traditional gospel tune with some dupes and bops in the background.

Ms. Behave is the group’s second full length album.

“We started writing this record last year. We had our first retreat for it in February 2017. We went to a cabin in Walker Lake, Sask., (about an hour north of Saskatoon) and later to another cabin near Elk Ridge which is three hours north of Saskatoon.”

The isolation seems to have worked.

“We set out with two goals: one was to write as many songs as possible and the other was to make sure we were writing about topics that were important to us, that we cared about. Forty songs later we brought our collection to producer Joshua van Tassel in Toronto and he helped us whittle it down to the 12 on the record.”

This record came together in a much more collaborative way, Normand said. “We worked on each tune together right from the get go. Sometimes someone would bring in the embryo of an idea.

“It’s really something we shared three ways. Our last record we worked individually. This time we decided to be a bit more vulnerable and share our creative processes.”

Opening up artistically helped the three women become closer as a trio.

“It’s a vulnerable place when you are writing. You don’t always have great ideas and you have to feel safe to bring up ideas, even the bad ones. Sometimes you have get the bad ideas out of the way to get to the good ideas. In the end there are no bad ideas. It’s about taking that leap together.

“I personally listen for a feeling and for how the music moves me.” The style of music doesn’t matter, she said, a good song is a good song.

With subject matter that involves such things as believing the victims of sexual assault and gender equity, this trio isn’t afraid of the F-word … that is Feminist, folks.

“When Farideh Olsen started the band, her desire was to create an opportunity for women to come together and collaborate and learn from each other. We all had solo singer-songwriting careers before we formed the band.” The other member of the trio is Allyson Reigh.

“That’s been the spirit that has driven the band forward ever since. We learn from each other and help each other out.  I think that spirit is present in our music.”

They also put their money where the beliefs are by investing 20 per cent of merchandise sales in micro-projects involving women around the world. They have now supported more than more than 200 project we have supported to the tune of  nearly $10,000.

“It felt like a natural, practical extension of what we are about. We use the Feminist word now. It was something we had to learn to embrace and understand what it meant for us. When we were done writing those 40 songs, we realized we are kind of feminists.”

The name of the trio wasn’t picked for feminist reasons, she says. But with the new record “we are definitely embracing the F word.”

Part of the navigation of the issues they discuss was squaring these serious concerns with the fact that the trio has always been lighthearted in their performances, she said.

“Our creative challenge was to know when and how to be heartfelt and touching and when and how to be funny, quirky and witty. We have always been a lighthearted band. We want our audiences to experience joy and leave the concert a little bit more lighthearted.”

They have also been singing about serious issues for some time now. They wrote the song I Believe You in February 2017, before the onslaught of all the #MeToo allegations.

“The song supports the survivors of sexual assault. Even at that time there were stories. The Jian Gomeshi trial was happening and other stuff was coming up.

“We are trying to write songs that affect us. This is something that came up in our songwriting dialogue and we decided this was obviously important to us. We felt we needed to write a song about it.”

NAC Presents Rosie and the Riveters
Where: NAC Fourth Stage
When: May 16 at 8:30 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.