Cranbrook singer-songwriter and raconteur Douglas Francis Mitchell evokes the spirit of the Kootenay region with his fourth album, which will be showcased in live performance at a March 3 concert at the Key City Theatre.
Released late last year, Kickin’ Round the Kootenays is a collection of songs that Mitchell has written over the years about living in the Kootenays. The 16 songs brim with insight and humour, with melodies and lyrics that emerge from Mitchell’s personal experience, observation, and an intimate connection with the place and the people.
“The creative process is challenging and invigorating,” Mitchell said of his songwriting. “Ideas are limitless. Once I latch onto an idea, I’m totally engrossed and committed to see where it goes.”
There is no one method or particular pattern out of which Mitchell’s music is generated.
“Sometimes a line will surface and the song develops around that line,” he said. “The first line from the song ‘North Star,’ which is about skiing at Kimberley, came from hearing kids laughing as they skied through the trees.
“Other times it’s simply an impression or an idea from reading that strikes me or a phrase overheard on the street. While waiting for my wife outside a store, I heard a fellow say ‘I’ve been told to be who I am, even if that’s just a drunken drifter.’ A friend used this phrase when describing his rescue on a mountain: ‘I wasn’t lost, I just wasn’t found yet.’ Those two lines ended up in the same song.”
Many of the songs offer a tour of the region via Mitchell’s own adventures in it. “Kootenay Pass” is a reflection of crossing that stormy summit over the years. “Rocky Mountain View” is about appreciating the beauty of the Rockies from various perspectives.
“Loose Lines,” “Kootenay Pass,” “North Star,” and “Kootenay Quality” are a few of the more recent compositions. Two songs are about local legends Bud Abbott and Dan Joe — the former was instrumental in the theatre and music scenes, the latter a friend of Mitchell’s who inspired and mentored many at Aq’am.
Other pieces are about aspects of the culture that surround us and to which we all contribute, such as “Breakfast Gurus,” which looks at the atmosphere of the coffee group at the A&W who meet every morning to solve world problems.
Many songs in Mitchell’s oeuvre are written to remind himself of attitudes and values, like “Your Face After Forty,” “Give It Away,” “Savour Every Sandwich” and “Best Medicine”. “Open Happiness” was written as a criticism of a Coca Cola advertisement. In “Turkey Duck Blues,” Mitchell used his grandson’s three favourite words (trucks, ducks and shoes) as many times as he could in a story about a farmer selling off his poultry, because he was tired of cleaning up after turkeys and ducks.
Mitchell was asked to write the song about the late Bud Abbott, to mark what would have been his 100th birthday. And, like several of the songs on Kickin’ Round the Kootenays, Mitchell was joined by musical accomplices on the recording — in the case of “Bud Abbott,” Jamie Neve, Dave Prinn and Randy Marchi.
Guest musicians abound on the album, filling out the sound and giving it a community feel. Multi-instrumentalists Wally Smith and Rod Wilson of the Blarney Pilgrims feature prominently on several songs, as do the Confluentials (Christina Blaskovich and Barry Coulter). Ally Blake plays violin on “Better Get Used To It,” a song featured on CBC. The song “Belly of Your Neighbour,” which is based on lessons learned from working with the Ktunaxa Nation, featured the Ktunaxa youth drum group Adrumnik. Others add guest vocals and other instruments.
Kickin’ Round the Kootenays, like Mitchell’s previous three albums (Laughter of the Heart, Let Yourself Sing, and Unprincipaled) was recorded and produced by Jamie Neve at Neve Media Studios in Wycliffe. “None of the albums would have happened without Jamie’s generosity, expertise and encouragement,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell is hosting an official album release concert at the Key City Theatre on Friday, March 3. He’ll be joined there by the Blarney Pilgrims and the Confluentials. A performer as much as a songwriter, Mitchell is a popular audience draw, and feels the synergy between artist and audience.
“Performing live with other musicians is a joyous experience,” he said. “Contributing your part to the spirit of the song is energizing. It’s all about the song, not about showmanship or ego. It’s about doing justice to the song, authentically sharing the song with the audience. If you enjoy performing the song to the best of your ability, the audience is usually right there with you. It’s a shared experience.
“I think the songs are authentic and convey my view of the world. Usually even after a few years, I still like the songs I’ve written. Of course I want others to like the songs, but it’s more important that I like the songs.”
In the song “Laughter of the Heart” I tried to convey the magic of music:
“Once you learn to play your part
Music follows wherever you are
You’ll never be alone again
Music is your constant friend
So wail away on whatever you play
Play like only you can play
For everyone there’s a part
Music is laughter of the heart.”