Listening to Marin Patenaude sing “Tall Thin Man in a Black Cheyenne” may cause that song to become lodged deep in your mind, prone to float up into consciousness at unexpected moments.
Maybe it’s Patenaude’s clear and understated voice; maybe it’s her piano’s repeating phrases, and their small variations; maybe it’s how the notes of the simple melody correspond to the emotionally evocative lyrics. Most likely it’s all those things dovetailed together. The music is a very personal and poetic blend of jazz, country, blues, and folk.
The song marked a crucial moment in Patenaude’s life, a few years ago just before she moved to Vancouver. She was back living on the family land where she grew up, outside Horsefly, in the Cariboo. “A dear friend came to visit me in his absolutely beautiful Cheyenne pickup he’d been working on restoring for years—ever since I’d known him—and it was finished,” she recalls, interviewed in her East Van apartment. “He was taking it for a drive up north. It was so exciting when he brought it by my house. We had a great history of friendship.
“You can hear the country references—going to sleep to the sound of coyotes. I remember waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning and writing half that song, and just feeling the freedom to do that. I felt I was tapping into a source I didn’t really know I had, and that was the inspiration for me—‘You have to record these, you have to do this more often.’ ”
Patenaude grew up in a very music-oriented family that listened to a range of genres, from opera to metal. As a small girl she was already playing festivals in the family band with her dad and two older sisters. In her teens she identified strongly with the songs of Joni Mitchell, Loreena McKennitt, Ani DiFranco, and Sarah McLachlan, but decided to focus mainly on an acting career and farming for some 15 years. Then music came roaring back. She attended Capilano University, majoring in vocal jazz, but only began performing again following the intense creative period in Horsefly when she wrote most of the songs on Marin Patenaude and the Follow Through, last year’s excellent debut.
The important thing for Patenaude was to keep the production on the album’s songs honest to their time and place of origin. “I was building my house up there in Horsefly—and building it alone. I would spend a lot of nights up there alone in the woods—well, not completely alone, I had my dog. It was a challenging time. I didn’t have a lot of sense of being part of the community, I didn’t have a partner, and I didn’t have kids. When you’re living in such a rural place, if you’re not focusing on your family it’s easy to go to a deep dark place—especially when you live in a cabin with no power, no running water, just the wood fire and my guitar and me—which I also loved, I absolutely adored it. Those are precious moments.”
Next month, Patenaude is back in the studio to record her second album with the Follow Through—guitarist Cole Schmidt, bassist Darren Parris, drummer Kenton Loewen (who coproduced the debut album), keyboardist Tyson Naylor, and cellist Peggy Lee. And whenever possible, she returns to her source of inspiration, the cabin in Horsefly. “I’m there every chance I get, to put a couple of days work into it. The house is on our family land, so it’ll always be there. It’s an art project for me, and I’ve learned more about myself and gained more skills building that house than at any other time in my life.”
Marin Patenaude performs a free show on Friday (February 23) at Performance Works as part of Winter Jazz.