ICYMI: Yellowknifers: The Music Maker

In celebration of Reuben and the Dark’s arrival at the top of the charts (Friday saw the band’s new single “Heart in Two” take the number one spot in the CBC’s national countdown), here’s Laurie Sarkadi’s profile of band member Shea Alain, first published September 8, 2015:

Good thing Shea Alain’s dad never suggested he try out the new guitar he bought, or worse yet, take lessons. If he had, the defiant adolescent would have likely spurned the instrument, and his own future as a rising indie recording artist.

“I was forced to play piano and I absolutely hated it, as most people do when they’re forced to do something,” says the 26-year-old member of Reuben and the Dark, the breakout, soulful, folk-rock band from Calgary.

“And then I remember my dad always had a guitar around and he sang and I think it was when I was 13 or 14 he bought a classical guitar from Fiddles and Stix, brought it home and he never really said ‘hey you should play this’, it was always kind of just sitting around. I think it was because I was never really forced into it, it was something I was drawn to.”

Because he learned to play guitar by himself, and for himself (and had musical foundations laid down by those dreaded piano lessons), the hours of practicing felt rewarding. He soon caught up with his cohort of electric-guitar-scratching middle-schoolers at William Mac. The trajectory from there started off typically: a string of high school bands (Chris and the Doves, Tennis Court Oath ), an angsty 17-year-old writing poetry that he turned into songs. Then three things happened that would set him apart from the pack.

“My mom, every show we’d play, she’d always be like ‘man, no one can sing’, and so I took singing lessons in high school for a few months just to get some breathing down and that really helped me.”

Next, he won two musical contests as a singer-songwriter: Rock the Folks in Grade 12, and then Music in the Park; which allowed him to record a self-titled CD in 2007/2008.  

While music seemed to be his calling, he had his sights set originally on being a soccer player, having risen through the ranks of AMSL (Aurora Minor Soccer League) onto high performance teams that competed at the Canada Summer Games and Arctic Winter Games. That dream died when his parents, Donna Nash and Denis Alain, delicately pointed out he was really good, but not really that good.

Still unsure of his intended career path, he chose to travel and live in the UK for a year after high school, volunteering at a college in Coventry for young adults with physical and mental disabilities, where he started guitar and poetry clubs for them.

“The role was to be there for them socially, taking the students to the pubs or soccer games or concerts. Kind of my main goal of living in England that year was to see as many concerts as I could and to go to as many soccer games as I could, so it was great.”

It was a year of learning to live on his own, learning the highs and lows of partying, and learning, ultimately, that helping people in need was what he wanted to do. He looked into nursing programs and from that discovered the field of respiratory therapy. With all the baby boomers getting older, people with the skills to keep them breathing were in high demand.

In 2009, at the start of his three-year program at SAIT in Calgary, he met singer-songwriter Reuben Bullock at an artist’s collective. Shea was struck by Reuben’s dark, emotive lyrics, and textured voice. Soon they were playing music in the stairwells of the Alberta College of Arts and Design, across the street from SAIT, and eventually doing shows together; Shea lending his flawless harmonies and steady rhythm guitar to Reuben’s anthemic compositions.

Reuben’s solo act morphed into the five-piece, multi-instrumentalist band Reuben and the Dark. In one of those timely twists of fate, a British producer associated with Florence and the Machine heard some tracks, which led to Shea and Reuben traveling to London for recording sessions with Chris Hayden (Florence’s drummer). Hayden produced the band’s critically acclaimed debut album, , along with Canada’s Stephen Kozmeniuk (Madonna, Nicki Minaj).

After a few years of toughing it out on the road, Reuben and the Dark signed with Arts and Crafts in 2013, putting them in the same company with Feist, Moby, Gord Downie, and dozens of other recording heavyweights.

Still, Shea remains employed as a respiratory therapist (he graduated in 2011), in Yellowknife. His supportive boss, Dan Stockton of North Cair Medical Supplies, allows him time off to tour, notably with Counting Crows and Australia’s Boy and Bear, and the band is currently recording its second album, which will have even more high profile input and support with hopes of breaking into the lucrative U.S. market.

Albertans have solidly backed Funeral Sky with a lot of radio play, and using the song “Bow and Arrow” in heavy-rotation Travel Alberta TV ads. When the opening chords to the tune rang out at the recent Calgary Folk Festival, 4,000 adoring fans starting singing along and “totally losing it,” says Shea. “It was definitely a highlight of the past year. That, and playing at Folk on the Rocks last summer.”

His bandmates recently left Calgary to settle in Toronto, but Shea opted to stay in YK, “because my family’s here and all my close friends.” Currently, he splits his time between Yellowknife and Toronto, and wherever the tour takes him.

He’s exploring ways to share his talents on the local music scene, including scoring Jen Walden’s new short film with Elora Braden and Jesse Wheeler. And he hopes Reuben and the Dark can score a gig at the Snowcastle someday.

What are your earliest memories of Yellowknife?

Being really excited to eat sugar cereal on camping trips when we’d go out on Great Slave Lake, because that was the only time we’d be able to eat Gushers and Dunkeroos. I think growing up with the Callas boys was a big part of it, and learning how to whittle, and camping and fishing with them, and also in the winters getting towed behind the Ski-Doo on saucers or the tube and going out for hot-dog roasts on Duck Lake.

What’s your favourite thing about Yellowknife?

Bruno’s Pizza just off the top… really shaped my upbringing. The other main thing is just how young the city is, how young people are here. I think there’s such a variety of characters here coming from all different backgrounds, and a lot of people here want to be a part of the community and put into it. In a lot of places I’ve lived, I haven’t really seen that before. Just a lot of people who are community oriented and supportive.

What’s your least favourite thing about Yellowknife?

It’s mainly restaurants and late-night dining I guess: the options. My big thing would be sometimes it’s just late at night and I’d like to get a burrito. Can’t do it. But I’m really looking forward to the Brew Pub. I’m really hoping that’s going to help the situation.

How do you spend your summers?

I guess the summers would be split between here and doing festivals across Canada. Then I find at festivals it’s so stimulating and it just gets a little crazy, so it’s nice when I come back here to try to get out to the lake and try to get some exercise – I don’t get any exercise on tour – and just kind of let my mind breathe a bit more.

How do you spend your winters?

What kind of keeps me going in the winter would be indoor sports here, socially and physically that kind of keeps you warm. And then I try to get out to some cabins in the winter as well, and try not to let the cold inhibit the activities I do. Another great thing about music is I don’t feel bad when I’m spending a lot of time inside, because if it’s cold it’s kind of nice to buckle down and try to do some writing or be sitting next to a wood stove and playing some tune.

What kind of opportunities have you found in YK that you don’t think you’d find elsewhere?

I think the opportunity to get outside. I think growing up here I took that for granted. The more I lived away I realized I just want to get away, I just don’t want to see people for awhile… just that kind of opportunity. I think too, when you’re younger, as far as travelling for sport and being able to go to Alaska and play soccer and all of those trips, those kind of opportunities you don’t have too often.

Are you a Yellowknife lifer?

I think I am. We’ll see, like, I know inside I am. You know, looking back you look at growing up here and how there’s a lot of things that I did take for granted and it would be great to be able to raise a family up here if that opportunity presented itself. And just to have those experiences raising my own family. But we’ll see what happens with the band. I do want to give that a good shot and see where that ends up.

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