From Alberta indie country artist Corrie Brewster to Texas singer-songwriter Tom Russell, roots artists have been known to make their most inspired albums by turning their attention to their own family histories.
Now award-winning roots-pop-Americana artist Amanda Rheaume is adding to the canon with Keep a Fire, a varied and evocative collection of mostly story-songs about her ancestors that more than lives up to the tradition of epic family-of-origin albums.
Rheaume pays tribute to her Métis heritage with “Keep a Fire in the Rain,” a pulsing piece about her grandfather and Ojibway great grandmother who lived exactly halfway between the reserve and the mine site in God’s Lake, MB – because the mixed-race couple wasn’t welcome in either community.
On “A.G.B. Bannatyne,” she offers a sprightly ode to her great great grandfather, a founding father of Manitoba and friend to Louis Riel, who hosted the province’s early legislative sessions in his home – and after whom Bannatyne Ave. in Winnipeg is named.
And on the driving “Not this Time,” Rheaume describes the harrowing voyage across Great Slave Lake taken by her paternal great grandparents, who were on route from Nelson House, MB to a Hudson Bay posting in Fort Norman, NWT. Her great grandmother and her six children travelled on a barge attached to a paddle wheeler, while her great grandfather helped shovel coal on the boat. When a storm hit, the barge, and the family, were set adrift in the elements for two days until, miraculously, they were reunited with the boat and Rheaume’s great grandfather. Rheaume’s great grandmother had a history of marine tragedies in her family – her own father died on a lake in a storm – so the song title is a toast to the fact that she escaped that fate.
The seeds of Keep a Fire were planted back in December of 2011 when Rheaume traveled over the Northwest Passage in a Hercules aircraft while en route to play for troops in Alert. Seeing the passage from above made her reflect on her maternal grandfather, Thomas Arthur Irvine, who had been a navigator on board the HMCS Labrador when it became the first vessel to circumnavigate North America in a single voyage.
Rheaume, whose family has always talked enthusiastically about its history, and whose great aunt wrote a book about it, felt inspired to start setting the family stories to song. She collected tales from her surviving relatives, teamed up with writing partner John MacDonald and producer Ross Murray, and Keep a Fire was, well, born.
Keep a Fire is Rheaume’s second full-length album and the follow-up to 2011’s Light of Another Day, but Rheaume was already a music-making veteran by the time of Light’s release.
Possessed of a powerful, slightly gritty and slightly Alanis-like singing voice and an ear for catchy melodies and instantly-accessible roots-pop arrangements, Rheaume won $40,000 in Live 88.5’s 2008 Big Money Shot competition. She began releasing EPs in 2007, culminating in a fundraising Christmas collection for Boys and Girls Clubs of Ottawa that sold 6500 copies locally. For the past several years, she has organized Ottawa’s Bluebird North songwriter showcases and co-organized the Babes for Breasts concerts and recording projects to raise money for breast cancer. In addition, she’s performed for the troops in Afghanistan three times and raised money on tour for the families of military personnel.
Rheaume was shortlisted last year for the Council for the Arts in Ottawa’s RBC Emerging Artist Award. This spring, she sang the national anthems at an Ottawa Senators game.
With Keep a Fire Rheaume is sure to attract an even grander array of accolades and opportunities.