Ivy Mairi – Missing the ferry
At the southern end of Toronto, where the metropolis meets Lake Ontario, there sits a small chain of islands known to locals simply as the Island. There you can find sailing clubs, public parks, a hobby farm, and on the easternmost island in the chain, Ward’s Island — a community of quaint houses and close-knit neighbors. There are no cars on Ward’s Island and precious little commercial activity, just a verdant oasis ten minutes by ferry from city bustle.
This village-within-a-city has been the lifelong home of Ivy Mairi Farquhar-McDonnell, who at 19 has recently relocated to Montreal, where’s she’s studying at McGill University and adjusting to faster-paced student living in a dense urban neighborhood. “It has been pretty weird not to have all the space,” she says. “On the island, I would ride my bike down to this nice beach at the other end, every day, just to think about stuff. Here, I am always in transit, running off to other places.”
How this change of environment and circumstance might effect Ivy’s music remains to be seen, but the essence of her unique background is captured on Well You (downloadable at latentrecordings.com), a debut made when Mairi was barely 17. The twelve songs reveal a blossoming talent that reflects a youthful wonder of discovery and an ageless sadness and uncertainty. There’s nothing cloying or cute about her music; it sounds like what it is — instinctive artistry captured in its gestational phase.
Mairi was schooled on piano but switched to guitar in her mid-teens, then discovered her mom’s book of folk songs, Rise Up Singing. “Sometimes I would change the chords and I would make up melodies,” she says. Well You includes two such adapted songs, “Every Night When The Sun Goes In” and “The Cuckoo” — the latter reinvented from its usual rollicking arrangement into a morose folk dirge. “That eased me into writing my own things and made me comfortable making up things,” she says.
At 15, she undertook a school project on the folk process. “I talked about Pete Seeger and adapting songs, and songs belonging to everyone,” she says. “I talked about how Weird Al Yankovic and parodies and sampling are part of the folk process.” She also began performing Cat Stevens and Van Morrison numbers at Island charitable events and busking in Toronto, developing a wrenching vocal style that can seem at odds with her exuberance.
A neighbor on the Island, cellist Anne Bourne, who has played with a host of Canadian acts including Jane Siberry, Blue Rodeo, Sloan and Cowboy Junkies, heard her and took her to meet the Junkies’ Michael Timmins. Mairi had never recorded herself and certainly had never been in a recording studio. When Timmins offered her headphones, she wasn’t sure what to do with them.
“I was so scared,” she recalls. “I had no idea if my songs sounded good or not.” She performed Pete Seeger’s “One Grain Of Sand” and her own “Please Let Me Get It”, which includes these lines: “All I own are a few songs and myself/And who would listen to a fool like me…I just feel so old sometimes.” Hard to believe, but as she delivered those weary lyrics, she was 16 years old.
Mairi recalls that Timmins’ initial response was subdued: “I think he said my songs were interesting.” But Timmins confesses he was immediately taken. “Quite literally within a couple of seconds, I fell in love with her music. It was that instantaneous and that simple,” he recalls.
Over the next year, Mairi kept writing, Timmins kept recording, and together they made Well You. The deftness of her burgeoning songwriting was an ongoing surprise and delight for Timmins. The unique covers and reinventions of folk standards were gradually supplanted from the record’s running order by newer and better originals.
On one of those originals, “Down”, she sings: “Down to the bottom of my coffee cup/But I promise I will leave a drop/But if you get there before it dries/I’ll be surprised.” “I would listen back and go, ‘There are some amazing turns of phrase in there,'” says Timmins. “It comes from appreciating and listening to all the traditional music. She really knows how important the right words can be.”
The key was to take the intimacy of her songs and draw them out with additional instrumentation — strings, xylophone, harmonica, unsettling stabs of guitar. “It was a bit of a tightrope, a delicate thing,” Timmins says. “I didn’t want to lose that thing of her sitting on her bed singing to you.”
Mairi says the notion of musical accompaniment for her songs was not something that came naturally to her. “I wasn’t able to think about arrangements at the time,” she recalls. “Now, when I write, I do think about parts. But then, it was so weird to imagine anything playing under me.”
The result has drawn favorable comparisons to, among others, doomed British singer Nick Drake, but also some puzzlement about Mairi’s youth.
“I hear my voice as my voice,” she shrugs. “I’m not upset by people talking about my age because…that’s how old I am. I like being 19, too. I wouldn’t want to pretend I’m not.”