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Calgary Flame


From his bedroom window in Calgary, singer and songwriter Mark Hamilton can see planes zooming off from the airport. Often he’ll imagine he’s on them and daydream about their destinations. Though he’s lived in Edinburgh, Brighton, and Berlin, he’s always drawn back, somewhat against his will.

His love and antipathy for his hometown fuel much of the music he writes. Hamilton is the man behind Woodpigeon, a loose collective in which he is the only constant, and a hub of Calgary’s music scene – at last count, 62 other musicians have played with the band. Chances are you haven’t yet heard of them, or perhaps you’ve confused them with one of a flock of similarly named acts. “On one tour I did,” says Hamilton, “some smart-ass promoter did an all-Pigeon show — four bands with ‘Pigeon’ in their names.”

But even though Canada hasn’t yet caught on, Europe certainly has. UK newspapers and music magazines describe the band’s tuneful, folky orchestral pop as “bloody marvellous” (The Times) and “effortlessly gorgeous” (The Word); French journalists’ praise, Hamilton says, “is almost embarrassing” in its effusiveness. Belgian designer Olivier Theyskens uses their music to soundtrack haute couture runway shows, and in Iceland, apparently “everybody cries” at the music’s melancholic beauty.

European audiences cleave to the band’s finely crafted but unassuming charms, but in the U.S., Woodpigeon’s goose was cooked last year when its first album, Songbook, received a decidedly middling review from über-tastemaking website Pitchfork. The patronizing write-up opens: “I imagine Woodpigeon founder and frontman Mark Hamilton has a good heart,” before proceeding to do its best to break it.

Thus, instead of migrating south, Woodpigeon ventured east across the Atlantic, back to where it was, in fact, hatched. Hamilton had moved to Edinburgh in 2002 with like-minded Calgarian friends, having realized “that all the bands that we truly loved were coming out of Scotland.” He found he had an “instant connection” to the country from where his father’s family hailed, and it was there that the film-school graduate learned to play a second-hand acoustic guitar and started writing songs.

The band truly took flight when Hamilton returned to Calgary in 2005 and met up with a group of fellow disaffected musicians. “I live in the worst city for faceless, nameless suburbia,” he says with a resigned laugh. But the friction between them and their city provided a spark: “Calgary became so expensive that artists couldn’t afford to have space. Everybody suddenly became quite productive because we were essentially manufacturing our own invisible space, where work became the only thing that we could do to scrounge out some sort of existence, a place for us here.”

Indeed, Hamilton’s output over the past few years has been prodigious: he has followed up Songbook with two albums, each accompanied by an album-length companion CD of extra material. This week, he releases Die Stadt Muzikanten, which comes packaged with Balladeer; together, the discs comprise 27 tracks of new music, many of them featuring complex arrangements and numerous musicians.

The songs were recorded over the past two years with a shifting cast that reflects changes in Calgary’s music scene. Early on in the project, Hamilton recorded a gaggle of 22 vocalists, which he dubbed “The Pesky Druthers Singers” (named after Calgary, which he calls his “annoying preference” for a place to live), as an “attempt to get a document of the city. A number of people in that choir were in bands I really liked at the time. Either they’re all gone, or their bands are over.”

In Calgary, Hamilton says, “You have this vibrant scene of people working together and seeing each other all the time, and those people either leave or they go off and travel so much that they’re never here. Personally, as soon as I started getting notice outside of Calgary, I was never around.”

Die Stadt Muzikanten is both a celebration of escape and an affirmation of roots; its sound is at once modern and antique. It was influenced by Hamilton’s sojourn in Berlin in 2006 and by his memories of his maternal grandparents, who had immigrated to Alberta from Austria after World War II. Having visited their part of the world, he feels a stronger bond with them and with their journey westward.

“I spend a lot of time talking about spending time far away from here,” Hamilton says, “but I am resoundingly Canadian. We are actually living amongst history: the Blackfoot people have lived in Alberta for 15,000 years. We often complain that there’s nothing historical here, but there’s huge history right outside my doorstep; it just happens to be a hill that’s sacred rather than a cathedral.”

In the fall, he and fellow Calgarians in other bands plan to venture across Canada by train and play at stops along the way. Hamilton certainly has a quirky kind of investment in his country: he recounts how one Canada Day, while on tour in Saskatchewan, he and a friend stopped by a nearly abandoned former railway town and handed out maple leaf-shaped cookies to its somewhat bemused remaining inhabitants.

Now, when he sees the planes taking off from his window, he says, instead of dreaming of Europe, “I’m thinking about places like Yellowknife and St. John’s. I do want to romanticize my country.”

— Originally appeared in The National Post, Jan. 15, 2010


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