by Ann Lang
Between Radiohead and Tom Petty covers, a folk singer-songwriter named Sherman Downey casually slips one of his own tunes into his set. It's the first time the 32-year-old has ever performed his own music during a gig. But Downey doesn't tell the audience at this small-town pub that he's about to play an original song.
VIDEO: Watch Q's interview with Sherman Downey
"I'm sure every songwriter's been exposed to people saying, 'Ah don't go playing any of that made up stuff,' and not putting any value on the fact that you're pouring your heart out," says Downey, laughing. "[The bar owners] want songs people recognize. But it's kind of catch-22. You're not going to recognize them unless you play them."
Downey observes the audience’s reaction at this pub in central Labrador’s Happy Valley–Goose Bay. Are their toes tapping? Fingers snapping? Are they getting bored? He takes mental notes.
“Maybe certain sections of the song would become longer or shorter, depending on people’s reactions, if it looked like they were getting bored or whatever. Of course that never happened when I was playing," Downey jokes.
Some members of the audience ask whose song he just sang and, before long, they start requesting his tunes. Suddenly, Downey realizes he may have the chops to become a singer-songwriter.
That was seven years ago.
Now, Downey and his band, the Ambiguous Case, have won the title of “best new music act in Canada,” courtesy of CBC listeners who voted for them in the CBC Searchlight competition (and, in some cases, vigorously campaigned). This five-piece band from Corner Brook, N.L., beat out close to 3,000 artists and bands from across Canada to win that honour. The prize includes a trip to Toronto, where they’ll be featured in a CBC Music video session and paid to perform at the CBC Music.ca Festival. They’ll also receive $20,000 in music equipment, courtesy of Yamaha Canada Music.
"It's amazing ... the outpouring of support particularly from within the province — but also from across Canada — has been awesome," Downey told CBC Music's Grant Lawrence. "We're pretty anxious to get to work now."
Growing up in Codroy Valley in southwestern Newfoundland, Downey lived in a community called South Branch (population: 238), where there was one store, no traffic light and 30 people in his high school graduating class.
“I ended up listening to whatever my uncles were into at the time and getting loads of mixed tapes of the stuff they thought I should be listening to rather than ‘that shit on the radio,’” Downey says. “I remember cruising around listening to Ozzy and Guns N' Roses turned up so loud that the nostalgia only comes now when I think to cup my hands over my ears.”
“At home, my folks had a lot of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Cat Stevens, Hank Williams and the like; good country and folk records ... the arrangements grabbed me, and the lyrics were compelling,” he continues. “I feel the same about those albums now and listen to them all the time. I'm not embarrassed to say that I sometimes play in a cover band that nails 'Run Like Hell.'”
Eventually, Downey pursued a degree in education and became a high school teacher. But music was always in the background (including a stint as the lead vocalist of a punk rock band called Hung Up).
“There was a time where I would scream my way through punk shows and, despite the emotion involved in that sort of performance, I never felt as though I could express myself, you know?”
Downey eventually started to compose folk songs, and continued performing solo and in cover bands while working as a teacher. After a few years, he decided to leave his job and pursue music full time.
“I thought that any money coming in elsewhere would make me lazy in music,” Downey recalls. “It was a decision to cut off finances everywhere else, so I’d be desperate to make it in music.”
Initially, he says his parents had their doubts, and his longtime girlfriend, Krista Conway, says she “panicked a little.”
“Going from a guaranteed career and a paycheque to do something just because you love it when there’s probably not going to be a whole lot of payoff in the beginning was cause for alarm but I was really happy he was doing something he loved,” Conway says.
Downey says, so far, the decision has paid off. In the last four years, he and the Ambiguous Case have performed in Vancouver during the Olympics, at Juno and East Coast Music Awards events, and they’ve toured Australia. Newfoundland’s music industry association, MusicNL, has named him male artist of the year, and awarded grants to help produce two albums. Six months ago, Downey and his bandmates started working with manager Bob Hallett, one of the founding members of Great Big Sea.
Hallett recalls the first time he saw Sherman Downey and the Ambiguous Case perform onstage. He was at a music industry showcase, where audiences are notoriously difficult to engage. But Hallett says Downey and his band made the room come alive.
“They have an ability to bring people into their world very quickly, and make the whole room feel like they're in their living room,” he says. “The songs are big on participation, full of hooks and grooves that get people dancing and singing along. Plus the way Sherman talks to the crowd ... he has that ability to look people in the eye and make every single person in that audience feel like he's talking to them.”
"When they’re onstage, they’re working for your approval and affection in a really tangible way,” Hallett continues. “That's a quality I look for in any band I work with, and they have it in spades.”
But can they have the kind of success experienced by bands such as Great Big Sea?
“I wouldn’t get involved in anything to aim for the middle,” responds Hallett. “The songs he writes are very, very good ... and I think one of the reasons they’ve had so much success in this contest is not because of their friends voting their asses off, but because when people hear this music there’s something about it. It has that catchy, emotional core that makes music live forever.”
Now that Sherman Downey and the Ambiguous Case have won the CBC Searchlight competition, Hallett’s hoping it will give them the confidence they need to succeed.
“Searchlight has proven to them that they are capable of doing this,” he says. “When you live in a small place far from the machines of the music business, it's very hard to see how you get from there on to the stage of the Junos. My own band suffered from that sort of inferiority complex when we started. The reality is, it's not that far. You just gotta be better than everybody else. And I think Sherman Downey and the Ambiguous Case are better than everybody else.”
The band’s second album, featuring the Searchlight-winning track “Thick as Thieves,” is scheduled to be released in about a month.
In the meantime, Downey manages to live off his music through a combination of touring and side gigs in cover bands, performing music by Muse, Pink Floyd, the Odds, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Wilco and Prince. He and his bandmates admit they’re far from rolling in it — “I can’t remember the last time I bought a new pair of jeans,” Downey says, laughing — but drummer Paul Lockyer says they’re not a fancy group of guys who need much to be happy.
“We live within our means,” says the 33-year-old. “I was never intrigued with cars and big homes. My civic and basement apartment are fine for me.”
When Downey decided to quit his teaching job, he says he promised he would give himself about five years to succeed.
“It’s been about four since then,” he muses. “And I think we’re doing OK.”
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