Skydiggers honour friends and family with the music

Andy Maize and Josh Finlayson of the Skydiggers. Photo: Heather Pollock

There is a family cottage on Barnes Lake just east of the small town of Ladysmith, Quebec. It’s a special spot for Josh Finlayson.

The co-founder of the Canadian band Skydiggers has “written a lot of songs up there. It has been a good place for me to go. It is quiet and you can get absorbed in something.”

That kind of focus has led to three decades of making music in Canada with his friend Andy Maize.

“We started in 1988,” Finlayson told ARTSFILE. “Certainly when you start you don’t consider what 30 years might look like, but I think we were lucky. We were in the right place at the right time in the business when Much Music was the national broadcast vehicle for getting songs to people right across the country.”

In those days, he said, you could start in small 200- to 300-seat clubs and keep going back to them to build an audience.

“We were able to do that one fan at a time seemingly. We were on a great little indie label called Enigma when we started out. And that evolved into another label when Enigma folded. We put in a lot of time touring.”

Today, he says, this legacy is a great thing to have.

When they started it “was Andy and myself. We originally got Peter Cash involved. he is Andrew Cash’s brother. Peter played with us for about eight and then he retired. He didn’t like performing.”

There have been other changes since but about 10 years ago the band settled and the same lineup has been there for the decade.

“One big addition,” Finlayson said, “has been Jessy Bell Smith. It’s great having a female singer and female energy in the band and on stage.

“It was so welcome and good to have that energy enter into what was just a bunch of f*****g dudes. It was like a hockey dressing room all the time.”

Change in the lineup is inevitable, he said.

“You have to embrace it and you have to let it lead you places where you normally won’t go. It’s something I’m most grateful for.”

The band is on the road and will be in Ottawa this weekend at the National Arts Centre in a concert assembled by the Festival of Small Halls and the NAC. They will be performing with Basia Bulat and Donovan Woods.

Skydiggers are packing a new record called Let’s Get Friendship Right. As the title might suggest, there is a fair bit of poignancy around this record.

“Andy and I both lost our fathers in the past few years. And we lost a friend who played with us for years named Paul MacLeod. Gord Downie, too, was a good friend of ours.”

The deaths of friends and family members got Maize and Finlayson thinking and that, for them, usually leads to music-making.

“So we went to the Banff Centre and pulled together some new songs. Andy has gone there quite a bit over the years. He loves it there. It was at the end of a tour and w thought we should take a few days (to work). We hadn’t done that in a long time.”

They then took the material generated in Banff to the famous Kingston, Ontario area Bathouse Studio set up by the Tragically Hip.

“It’s a very special place. I have so many great memories of the Bathouse. It was set up by a band for musicians and it is one of those places with a lot of memories and good karma.”

This process was a return of sorts to the beginnings of the band.

Over time both had gotten busier and busier. So much so, Finlayson said, that “when we were making new records, we’d often have our own new songs and we’d bring them to each other to finish them together or they would be finished. This time was more collaborative.”

They brought multi-instrumentalist Aaron Comeau to the studio and invited “a friend of ours who has played with us for years, Peter von Althen down from Ottawa. He is a teacher there now, but he still plays.

“It was more of a cathartic process we wanted to do for ourselves but sure enough in short order we had a record” — their 20th in fact.

The title comes from a Tragically Hip song called It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken.

“We did some shows this past summer with (Hip guitarist) Paul Langlois and did a bunch of the band’s songs at festivals. I think the plan is to do it again this summer. One of the songs that Jessy sang was It’s A Good Life.”

Maize and Finlayson had a different title for the record — If I’m Scared, but because the record is “very much a tribute to Gord and the Hip” and others they changed the title.

Maize and Finlayson have an enduring friendship and when you see you friend lose family members and you lose friends, “you start to realize just how fleeting it all is. None of that is lost on us.”

He also knows he is fortunate to still be doing what he loves.

“We know music is good medicine for everyone — for the people who listen and the people who make it.

“I can’t express how grateful I am to have music in my life. On so many fronts it has been a great companion and a great friend.”

Skydiggers are a part of an enduring tradition of Canadian music-making that really caught steam in the 1990s built on the momentum of Much Music videos and lots of radio play. Thank you CanCon rules. Bands such as 54.40, Grapes of Wrath, Sarah McLachlan, the Cowboy Junkies, Rheostatics emerged then and the list goes on and on.

“The bands also started singing about Canada, so as an audience member you could identify with the songs and the bands.

“I think and I know just by being around for so long and seeing how big an impact bands had on younger musicians growing up. I remember seeing Bruce Cockburn at Massey Hall and Murray McLauchlan and thinking it was cool that they are from Canada. That gave me the audacity to think if he can do it anyone can do it.

“I hope that was what translated from my generation of bands. I do see that in a lot of younger bands.”

But, he cautioned, big success isn’t necessarily for everyone.

“It can be challenging. The life of a touring musician is not for everyone. And it’s a bit alienating and isolating. It also can be difficult to find people with whom you have the chemistry to spend that kind of time together.”

Despite that he’s back on the road.

“It’s a chronic condition. It’s the only thing no one can take away from you. It did take years for me to understand that being a musician is like being a carpenter or being a plumber. There is something very blue collar about it. It’s a trade. You have to learn how to get good at it.

“You have to be totally focussed every day on the road for the two hours on stage. because otherwise the only thing that will happen is you will go through some existential crisis asking what the f**k am I doing. You’ll walk off stage feeling badly about what you did.”

He’s looking forward to the Ottawa show for the opportunity to work with other musicians and perhaps be introduced to new audiences.

“The Festival of Small Halls is trying to put together interesting bills that help cross-pollinate audiences. For us any performance with an audience means we still have to do our job and be best version of ourselves.”

NAC Presents and Festival of Small Halls present A Winter’s Night
Featuring Donovan Woods & The Opposition, Skydiggers, Basia Bulat
Where: Babs Asper Theatre
When: Dec. 13 and 14 at 7:30 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.