Caroline Brooks 0T4: The Good Lovelies
So you sing in a folk/roots group whose music sounds like what would happen if the Andrews Sisters wandered into a barnyard jamboree. You've just won a Juno, and your profile in the niche folk world has never been greater. What's your next move? If you're the Good Lovelies, a Toronto-based trio featuring SMC grad Caroline Brooks 0T4, you release a Christmas album.
A Christmas album?
"We get that question a lot: 'How dare you? What were you thinking?" laughs Brooks, bursting with energy as she totes an antique mandolin in a bright red case around Queen West during a spring stopover in Toronto. "[But] we really do have this rootedness in Christmastime."
The album, Under the Mistletoe, harkens back to the group's serendipitous beginning, to a folk show on a late December night in 2006 at Toronto's Gladstone Hotel. Kerri Ough, of Port Hope, and Sue Passmore, of Cobourg, sat in with Brooks, and it being close to Christmas, the three friends decided to sing a carol. After a few bars of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, everyone knew they'd hit upon something special. "We just started singing in harmony, and it was so natural," Brooks remembers. "There's a special blend that happens with certain voices, and it was so easy [with ours.] We thought, wow, this is pretty crazy." After a year of wellreceived test runs at Toronto-area venues, the newly-minted Good Lovelies quit their day jobs and hit the road to see if the country liked their upbeat brand of what they've termed "old-timey western swing."
As it turns out, lots of people did, to the tune of a New Emerging Artist award at the 2009 Folk Music Awards and, last April, the Juno Award for Roots and Traditional Album of the Year for their eponymous debut record. On stage, the Lovelies seamlessly swap guitar, bass, banjo, mandolin, and wisecracks. "As much as our harmonies fit together, we fit together too," smiles the Whitby-born daughter of folk musicians whose crib, according to bandmate Ough, was basically a guitar case.
The St. Mike's grad learned a lot about show business by performing at Kelly's Korner and singer-songwriter nights Brooks hosted while an English and Environmental Studies major at the College. "[Playing at SMC] was really formative, trying to understand that performing isn't just music, it's [also] stage presence. I'm still learning," says the alumna, whose upbeat personality drives the band's witty onstage rapport.
She also found an unexpected source of inspiration. "Possibly the person at SMC who had the most influence on me musically was caretaker Miguel Reymundo," she says. "We would share our favourite tunes with one another; he opened my ears to a lot of world music that I'd never listened to before."
Working with College administration on the student union taught Brooks the business skills she now uses to promote the band, and she loved her subsequent job with UofT recruitment. But everyone there understood when she left. Says SMCSU colleague Christina Wong 0T3, "I'm not surprised that Caroline won the Juno. I always knew she was talented musically. It was great to watch her grow from first year to where she is now."
A meandering road took the trio from tiny bars and house concerts to opening for Bruce Cockburn and playing alongside folk luminaries Sarah Harmer and The Wailin' Jennys. Their song Sleepwalkin' quickly became a favourite on CBC radio, and last March, the Lovelies fulfilled a dream by touring the Prairies and Northern Ontario with Stuart McLean's Vinyl Caf. Along the way they have been bowled over by the kindness of friends and strangers from one coast to the other who welcomed the musicians into their homesand barnsat all hours of the night.
Levity is the key to survival on the road, away from loved ones, including husband Colin Love 0T4, Brooks explains. Having two close friends along makes the long drives easier to bear: "You saw us skipping rope [on You- Tube]? We actually own skipping ropes. When we're annoyed in the car, we stop and do double-dutch. We recently did it in Saskatoon. It was a Sunday afternoon; lots of families were out, and we made so many friends all these girls coming over and jumping with us! We have our quiet moments, but we're goofy by nature, and we like it that way."
By design their overall image is family-friendly. "We want to be good role modelsbeing self-aware, and respectful, and friendly," Brooks explains. "A lot of mainstream culture has this chip-on-yourshoulder kind of cool, and we don't identify with it." Little girls often come up after a show to ask them questions. "My advice is always: practice your instrument, not just your voice," she says, glad to challenge the "girls sing, boys play" stereotype.
The band that loves meeting fans and making friends won't let the Juno get to its head. For one thing, no one in the States has heard of it. "The Juno gives you credibilitywe're being recognized by our peers. But three weeks after we won, we toured the U.S., and a few nights there were only four people in the audience. So you stay humble," she adds. "We're extremely blessed to be doing this for a living. We're very serious about the business side of it, but when we're on stage, it's the most fun you can ever have."