Karl has been a freelance writer for over 10 years. He's passionate about music, art, and writing!
Tom Keenan and Matt Peters make up the band known as Heavy Bell. They came together to create the album entitled By Grand Central Station. It was inspired by Elizabeth Smart’s novel entitled By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Tom explains, “We were really struck by this poetic novel. In a nutshell, the book is an autobiographical poetic account of Elizabeth Smart’s affair with a married man as a young woman. She had four children by this guy. It’s this extremely passionate, extremely intelligent poetic examination of all sides of this affair. It goes through so many far-flung emotional extremes and we had never read anything like it. It was this explosive text and we immediately thought we should so something with it.”
They sat down at Tom’s house with a guitar and his piano and traded off reading passages from the book and writing songs based on them. He says, “The songs came out really quickly. We played through them a bunch of times, got really excited and decided that we should try to make them bigger in arrangement, so we decided to arrange them for a chamber ensemble. That process took a lot more time because Matt and I both had main career projects which kept getting in the way of this one, but also because we were learning to arrange for these instruments.”
When they decided to write for a larger ensemble, it was a process of trial and error. Tom points out, “Not having much experience with these things, we’d say, ‘I hear a clarinet for this part’ and we’d use MIDI to write a part on ProTools and then listen to the crappy version we’d improvised and try to imagine it with the real instruments. Sometimes we’d work for just a couple of weeks out of every year. We’d play the songs again, refresh our memories and get to work. Finally we had all of the arrangements ready and then we were able to get people together and record the album.”
The music that the band wrote around the words developed quite naturally in Tom’s view. He says. “We didn’t make a lot of conscious choices about the music in the preliminary writing process. It was a very organic process, if that doesn’t sound corny, the music came up immediately from the words. We didn’t say, ‘This should be that way’ because of how the words made us feel.”
The recording process for the album is one about which he’s quite passionate. Tom says, “Matt has a lot of recording experience so he engineered almost everything on the whole record, so it was really great. We recorded the bed tracks ourselves on piano and guitar. We brought in one of Royal Canoe’s drummers to be our drummer. We brought in people from the WSO, we brought in this awesome rocking brass band from Winnipeg, we brought in Alexa Dirks from Begonia to sing on it along with all of these Winnipeg stalwarts. Everyone was so gung ho to do it!”
He continues, “It was even more of an exciting time when we put together the touring band and played our first show here in Winnipeg because we had never actually heard these songs played live before with a full band, so it was exciting to transform it from this cobbled together studio album into a live show.”
Something that Tom finds deeply moving is the fact that they managed to get audio of Elizabeth Smart reading from the novel and included it on the record. He elaborates, “I find it extremely moving to hear her voice because she did these recordings shortly before she died. For example, there’s a part that she reads from early on in the book when the character is so full of joy that she feels she has enough to spare for everyone around her, but we put it at the end of the album which is the sad part of the record. I find it really moving to hear her read that passage after living a whole life that had been drastically changed by this affair.”
The main challenge that Tom says they faced was a financial one. He elaborates, “It’s such a big undertaking for us. To get all of these great musicians, we had to apply for a grant which didn’t get the first time around, so we had to try again. We’re touring with an eight piece ensemble so it’s a big financial enterprise which has been a challenge.”
On a more positive note, Tom adds, “Matt is one of the best people I’ve ever collaborated with and he’s been such a good partner. Even when we’ve been doing work ourselves that other people would normally do, we’ve had each other’s backs.”
Tom says that the album has received a positive reception which has been gratifying for the band. He says, “At some of the shows, we’ve had copies of the book for sale and they’ve just been snapped up because people get really excited about this book. At the live show, we have readings by local actors from the book and that’s a really exciting part of the show for me. These songs aren’t intended to be any summary of the plot or the narrative structure, they’re just things that popped out at us that were inspired by the book. It’s nice to have longer passages being read by really good actors and then we play music around them. It just gives the audience a sense of the source material as well as what we’ve come up with.”
The album has appealed to different audiences as Heavy Bell has toured with it. Tom elaborates, “Out east, we found a lot more fans of the book came out, especially in Ottawa because Elizabeth Smart was from Ottawa. I think the audience was a little bit older and more literary there. In Toronto and out west, we’ve generally had more music fan-based audiences.”
Trying to tour with twenty people just isn’t financially viable in the current climate, so Tom and Matt had to make a decision about how to effectively pare down the band for a touring show. He says, “We decided when we looked at all the arrangements that the smallest we could make the band without sacrificing any of what we considered to be the essential parts of those arrangements was eight musicians. We passed a bunch of parts to different instruments so everybody in the band is doing double duty singing as well. I’m really happy with how the arrangements have settled into this leaner version.”
In the immediate future, Tom says there are plans to try and take the project to bigger audiences. He adds, “As of now, Calgary is our last show booked but we’re looking at booking other shows in the future. We’d love to take it to bigger audiences but that’ll take some luck. Everybody in the band is so excited about this project and is having such a good time that we really want to do more with it.”
He’s also keen to mention that they’ll be doing their show in Calgary on February 16th accompanied by the Calgarian actors Jamie Konchak and Elizabeth Stepkowski-Tarhan.