For Maria Dunn, writing a song begins by “having my antenna up. There’s a moment, a way a story or a phrase touches me I get a chill down my spine, and I’ll say to myself ‘That’s a song.’ It may not come out as a song for a while, but that’s how it begins,” the Alberta based songwriter says
She often finds those sorts of sparks in stories from history. Dunn has written about a mining strike in Cape Breton, a hunger march in Edmonton, the life of a miner in depression era Alberta, the feelings of those left behind after a shooting in Quebec, and the stories people from varied countries who built their lives in the new to them land of Canada. Dunn is herself an immigrant to Canada, “though my situation was very different — I was born in Scotland, and my family emigrated to Canada when I was a baby, and my father had a good job. Still, I think that has helped me understand their feelings, their stories,” she says.
Dunn didn’t start out to be a musician telling these stories in song, though she always loved music, and there was music in her home. “Mum played piano, and I remember dad sitting around campfires singing Johnny Cash songs, Lonnie Donegan songs, things like that, and they were active in their church, they had a band,” she recalled. “I studied classical piano, and I knew I loved music, but I knew I wasn’t going to be a classical pianist. I looked around, I couldn’t see any other sort of musical career than that.” She decided to go for a degree in psychology at the University of Alberta, and looked into music on the side. One of those side roads brought her to the community radio station. She ended up having a show at the station for more than a dozen years, “and that was really my education in all the great songs, that are out there,” she said. Dunn started going to folk clubs in Edmonton, and “getting up there with my guitar and playing traditional music, and country sort of music, and then that gradually turned into writing my own songs.”
A distinctive way Dunn has become involved with her community of Edmonton and the larger communities of Alberta and Canada as a whole is her connection to stories from history and ability to turn them into songs that are both individual and personal. She’s become known for that, and it has brought her work to new audiences. “I love playing folk clubs and festivals,” she said, “ and I’m also often asked to play for labor organizations, or social justice gatherings, where they might have asked me to write a song that distills something about the organization.” Dunn finds that wherever she is playing “the best audience is people who like to listen to stories.”
One of those stories came from, and took her back to, her native Scotland. She had spent some time living and working there when she was younger. “Scotland and my grandparents and my relatives there — they were so important to me as a young person in trying to figure out who I am, where I come from,” she says, and she had written a song inspired by her grandfather’s life in Glasgow, Shoes of a Man. Nearly a decade after she’d first put it on record, Dunn was invited to perform at Celtic Connections in Glasgow, one of Celtic music’s most prestigious festivals, “To be invited to perform at Celtic Connections was a huge thrill, and on top of that to get to sing that song I had written for my grandfather in front of a Glasgow audience — that just meant so much to me,” Dunn recalls.
Dunn’s music is both Celtic and Canadian, and of course, uniquely her own, all aspects which work together in her recording The Peddlar.The title track is an allegory about the costs and the selling of war and war like attitudes; Tell Her I Was Brave Takes a look at the costs of war in a more intimate way. Chavala, Eva, is the life tale of an immigrant to Canada, while You Can’t Take That Away talks of grief and loss and of surviving those things. William McIlroy’s is a remembrance of a well loved uncle, and When Katie Comes a- Callin’ is a celebration of friendship; The Elder Sister is a take on a traditional ballad, while Sailor Song reinvents another traditional idea with a surprising twist. Storytelling is a thread which runs through the music, as is Celtic flavored melody and instrumentation. “My last album, We Were Good People, came out of a residency with a labor group here in Alberta, and the songs were all inspired by that and focused on that subject. When Shannon (Johnson, who produced the record) and I sat down to figure how to get these songs to hang together, we knew there’d have to be a different approach. Since several of the songs came directly from my love for Celtic music — I’ve been listening to it all my life and those melodies are so natural to me — we decided to use that idea to unify the songs.” Johnson is no stranger to Celtic music: with her brothers she’s part of the Juno winning band The McDades.
Dunn tours regularly across North America, and while doing that she’s also been working on a series of songs about women’s work, and issues based of the lives and experiences of women who came from all over the world — or just in from rural Alberta — to work at a clothing factory in Edmonton. “Some were just in from the country, trying to support their families,” Maria Dunn said. “Others came from Italy, and then China, and Vietnam — there’s so much richness there, so many stories. That may turn into an album, too.”