It might come as a shock that the boys of songwriting duo Portage and Main didn’t exactly get off on the right foot when they met. Harold Donnelly and John Sponarski, who are now (in their words) virtually inseparable had a bit of an incident years ago when each was playing in a different punk band at a Richmond show that went awry.
“We, uh, had a bit of a rivalry,” Sponarski admits, taking a bite of his pulled pork benny at the Red Wagon on East Hastings.
Donnelly argued that the show, which took place at Hamilton Community Centre, had his band’s singer, Taelor Deitcher (who now DJs as Felix Cartal) accidentally breaking a microphone after it fell off the mike stand. “That’s our side of the story,” he says. “That’s our story and we’re stickin’ to it!”
But Sponarski, who was playing the gig in a group call Solemn Fist, begs to differ.
“Basically, we [Solemn Fist] threw the show out in Hamilton, so it was all of our gear, he says. “In true dysfunctional fashion, they decided to trash the stage and wreck all of our shit. Long story short, it’s water under the bridge.”
A few years later, Donnelly and Sponarski are now best friends who’ve traded up from punk to folk rock. Along with keyboard player Georges Couling, the former rivals released their self-titled debut album in March—a 12-track record that they wrote, produced, engineered, and recorded with help from session players Ben Brown (drums) and Mike Agranovich (bass). Portage and Main is a country and western exploration carried by the singers’ harmonizing vocals and twangy guitars, and harmonica lines that seem to predate even Bob Dylan or Neil Young. Tunes like “Tonight” and “Follow Me My Love” showcase the boys’ knack for classic Americana.
Both Donnelly and Sponarski admit that the direction of the music comes primarily from them.
“There’s kind of three of us who are the ship-runners here, but me and John do all the writing,” says Donnelly.
They give Agranovich and Brown a big nod, though, making sure they don’t understate the role they had in the recording of the album.
“They were pretty instrumental in making things happen,” says Sponarski. “The way we did it, Harold and I wrote the record. We rehearsed for four days with the band and then we went into the studio on the fifth day.”
Donnelly is quick to note that the “studio time” was split between his and Couling’s basements.
The ensuing record sounds as organic as the recording process itself—and it’s clear that its roots are in two friends writing songs together.
“From the very beginning, the goal was to be honest,” Sponarski says. “We connected on a lot of issues that were going on in our lives at the time. Our friendship started because we both reached out to each other about things that were happening in our lives—I knew what was going on in his life and he knew what was going on in mine, and we were just two friends seeking help from each other.”
Take, for example, “When You’re Gone”, a song that Sponarski had originally started writing about his sister, who was about to move across the country. At the same time, Donnelly’s best friend was about to haul up stakes.
“There were a lot of things going on in our lives that were so parallel to one another. If I had a lyric that was personal to me, there was always somehow that he was able to totally relate to it,” Sponarski says. “Seeing all that stuff happening, everything fell into place when Harold and I started writing together. It just felt right, just honest.”
Donnelly is visibly bashful about the praise he’s receiving from his bandmate, but not totally reluctant to admit the two work well together.
“We know each other’s history and know what we’re about, so that always helps. I think you grow up and you try different things—we’re definitely different people than we were when we first met each other,” says Donnelly, noting that there’s been a bit of a departure since they were playing punk shows at community centres. “Knowing that history is important.”
Portage and Main play the Shipyard on August 27 with Dustin Bentall.