His songs reveal honest and potent observations of life, inspired by a dramatic and dynamic past. www.facebook.com/aengus.finnan
Described as “Disarmingly Artful” by The Toronto Star, “A Travelling Archivist” by Saturday Night Magazine, and a “Maverick Balladeer” by Echo magazine, Aengus Finnan’s story-style songs explore the beauty, grace, grit and sorrow of real people and places.
Born in Dublin Ireland to performing parents, and raised in Shelter Valley, Ontario on an organic cooperative farm, Aengus studied Visual Arts at Lester B. Pearson United World College, Theatre at Concordia University in Montreal, and graduated as valedictorian for the Faculty of Education at Nippissing University in North Bay. He has worked as a research diver and ornithologist in Alberta, and as a school-teacher in Moosonee on the remote Canadian James Bay coast and in Inuvik (in the Canadian Arctic).
His 1999 independent debut “Fool’s Gold” (currently out of print) drew quiet praise and included his much requested love song “Lately” (featuring the backing vocals of Juno Award winner Jenny Whiteley), while his 2002 sophomore release “North Wind” garnered critical acclaim and showcased his touring band and friends Trevor Mills and David Rogers, as well as Serena Ryder on backing vocals. The album features primarily original songs as well as an intriguing adaptation of a grim and rarely recorded traditional Ontario lumbercamp song “Lost Jimmy Whelan”, as well as select covers of material by Slaid Cleaves, Maria Dunn, and Bill Caddick. From this album his original songs “Rolling Home” and “O’Shaughnessy’s Lament” were awarded the prestigious New Folk Songwriter’s Award at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas.
Aengus has an unreleased Live album recorded at a 2003 fundraising concert for the inaugural Shelter Valley Folk Festival, as well as an album of field recordings of Robert Service poetry he recorded throughout the Yukon. He produced a community fundraising album called Valley Voices in 2002, and later co-produced “Coastline of Our Dreams”, an Tamblyn tribute album. His songs have been recorded by numerous artists including Irish American tenor Seamus Kennedy and Newfoundland songstress Joy Norman. His song “Lightfoot” was included as a bonus track on “Beautiful”, Canada’s first ever tribute to Gordon Lightfoot released by Borealis Records.
Aengus spent 6 years touring (1998-2004) including highlight performances at the Yukon International Storytelling Festival, The Kennedy Center for the Arts, in Washington DC, and performances in Japan and Australia. Since 2004 Aengus has been slowly paying off his music career debt and hopes to record and tour again in the future.
Most recently he worked as the Self Employment program manager for the Northumberland Community Futures economic development agency and he is currently the Touring and Audience Development officer for the Ontario Arts Council, overseeing the Provincial, National and International Touring and Residency programs as well as the Ontario Arts Presenter and Travel Assistance programs.
He is also the founder of Art Beat (a community outreach initiative for the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals), co-founded “The Way We Feel” (a Gordon Lightfoot Tribute concert series), served as Board President for the OCFF, helped establish the Northumberland Arts Council, and Chaired the inaugural Park Theatre Foundation Board. In 2003 he founded (and served as Executive and Artistic Director for) the Shelter Valley Folk Festival. As a side project he renovated an old general store/butcher shop in his boyhood hometown of Grafton and there ran The Lawless Gallery of Fine Art featuring the work of Canadian painter Michael Glover. The Gallery was also home to a winter concert series.
For his artistic and humanitarian work in Canada he was awarded a Canadian national decoration (the “Medal in Honour of The Golden Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II”), and has been twice nominated for the Premiers Award for Excellence in the Arts.
Often a second effort doesn’t measure up to an outstanding debut; North Wind does. In the opener, a woman awaits her lover from days on the road. Not settling for an easy lyric, Finnan doesn’t have her simply miss him, but rather his shoulder. His word choices consistently create visuals that move us to emotion, crafting songs beyond a linear story line into a string of senses.
The solo barn framed in snow on the CD cover is the sort of catalyst that sparks this ability to offer up whole stories from fragments. Aengus stopped by the grave of a man who died forty years after his wife and newborn twins, and brought us O’Shaughnessy’s Lament” from this bare beginning. Though every song is unique and strong, I find “Ruins,” the story of a farmer forced to part with his land and move into a nursing home, a highlight. Finnan’s youthful vocals singing “If I had a young man’s pride” bring alive the reality of who this aging farmer had been. Bulldozer cellos move the tension, and wolf-howling flutes signal aloneness as he calls on the spirit of his other loss, Anna. Though they seal their land’s fate by torching everything, we know the repetitive “Isn’t it a crime” doesn’t refer to arson.
SING OUT! Magazine
Album Review North Wind
North Wind, the latest release from Aengus Finnan, features his award winning O’Shaughnessy’s Lament. Set among Cobalt, Ontario’s, silver mines, Gordon Morash considers it the quintessen-tial Canadian song and story.
Back in October, in the midst of her cross-Canada jaunt, the Queen spent an evening at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto being entertained by some of the cultural best this country had to offer. Oscar Peterson was there, as well as a contortionist from Cirque du Soleil, the Tragically Hip and chanteuse quebecoise Ginette Reno.
Reno’s cri de coeur was a sumptuous little ditty that had been a Top 10 hit in 1969 for the late actor Richard Harris. On that October night, MacArthur Park by American song-writer Jimmy Webb – with full orchestral accompaniment, and its enigmatic refrain, “Someone left the cake out in the rain” – was what passed for Canadian to Her Majesty.
So, whom else would you have called? Well, Gordon Lightfoot was missing in action due to recovery from abdominal surgery, but where were the likes of James Keelaghan, Tamarack, Garnet Rogers, Bruce Cockburn,, Ian Tyson, all of whom have been known to pen songs of Canada and its people. And where, for that matter, was Aengus Finnan, who suffers from the age old Canadian complaint of being better recognized in the United States than in the Dominion.
Ironically, in October, Finnan, too, would feel the touch of royalty, when he received the Golden Jubilee Commemorative Medal for his work, not as a perpetually on tour singer-songwriter, but in the area of humanitarian works. The Irish born former schoolteacher from the Ontario towns of Shelter Valley and Moosonee has appeared lately at such tony venues as the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. He’s been honoured for his business acumen (in Canada, he is his own booking agent, promoter, publicist, manager and grant writer), as well as his writing. At the 2002 Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, his yeoman work on the a cappella O’Shaughnessy’s Lament was hon-oured with the New Folk Songwriting Award.
And naturally, despite the ducat from the Queen, you might expect him to have an opinion on the royal gala’s lineup – and not just because he wasn’t there onstage. “it’s a shame that so often popular voices get heard and promoted while the voices that truly reflect this country, the land, and her people are left on the street corners hoping to pay off their business loans so they can write more songs that matter.”
Songs that matter. 0’Shaughnessy’s Lament, from Finnan’s just released second album, North Wind, is indeed one of those. The story of a Cobalt, Ont. silver miner’s loss of his wife in labour, as well as the twins she was carrying, has the ring of a modern day classic. In part, this is because of Finnan’s aching performance, but the song carries the weathered feel of an old story, oft told, oft considered.
If there is a commonality to Finnan’s most heart-felt work, it is in his archaic writing voice, a trait shared by the very best fiction practitioners currently working in the historic genre, writers like Wayne Johnston and Guy Vanderhaeghe. You’ll hear it on the railroad work song, Swing Boys Swing from the new album, but also on Finnan’s 1999 debut, Fool’s Gold, in songs such as The Ballad of Marguerite de la Roche and The War Bride’s Waltz. He is accustomed to hearing people comment on how he writes far older than his 30 years, a skill that can be difficult for a writer to grasp and make believable.
“It surprises me how often the ‘age’ of my songs is commented on,” he says, “but personally there is no greater honour than to have an original composition mistaken for traditional. Most of my songs are indeed set in or drawn from the past, but I have a grave concern for authenticity. I try to cast myself into roles, gather research materials, and use ‘method acting’ techniques to locate inspiration by immersing myself in a particular building, area, or moment in order to feel valid in writing.”
And sometimes serendipity steps in, as it did for 0’Shaughnessy ‘s Lament, written after a visit to Cobalt, Ont., Canada’s former silver mining capital. He describes the song as a gift that he was not expecting to receive on the day he visited the miners’ graveyard. When he reached the grave of Martin O’Shaughnessy, whose wife and twins had died at childbirth 40 years before he himself was buried, Finnan was overwhelmed by what had been … and what, to a writer, could be.
“Standing before the grave looking out over what is left of Cobalt, the ruins of a mine at the base of the hill, the sun setting back slowly into the scraggy bush, I thought on what it must have felt like to be this man, a miner, coming time and time again to visit the grave of his family,” he explains of this bolt from the blue.
“The story was no doubt lived a hundred times over in communities across the land, but in that moment, swimming with images from the day and imagining the long cold walk and many silent prayers said and whiskey curses slung up to God, I let myself sing a solitary line that he might have sung: ‘Oh my sweet Rosella May, I miss you dearly.'”
A windblown soundscape is the only accompaniment to Finnan’s baritone, and there is the occasional catch in the singer’s throat on the recording that tells you this was and is no easy song to perform. Though he was able to compose much of the lament as he drove – “I sand it again and again until at my hotel and able to write it down, referring to scrawled notes on a page set on the dashboard,” he remembers certain lines and elements, including the softening of a death image of the miner’s wife, remained unfinished for over a year.
“A pitman’s fear, a hard rock man vowing no strike of silver could ever replace his love, and imagining that he might dig through to her grave,” he says, explaining his writing process. “These images prompted me to sing that he would throw all the silver away ‘if I could dig you up and hold you one more day.’ In my mind, his love is such that he imagines she would be exactly as he remembers her. I used that line for a year until it was commented on several times as being a particularly gruesome image.”
Eventually, he would change the line to, “If I could have you near and hold you one more day,” to conform to an audience’s more natural visual expectation of “a corpse in his arms by the lantern light.” Just to cement the importance of O’Shaughnessy’s Lament, there is a photo on the back of the CD package of Finnan on the day, he says, he “stopped at the grave to deliver the song to its rightful owner.”
While this might be considered the quintes-sential Canadian song and story, there is nevertheless an identification for any listener with a loss that continues for 40 years. That Finnan succeeds so well in conveying his miner’s pain and loneliness makes not only for a chapter of people’s history, but art of the highest order. And trust the Americans to recognize it, while Finnan struggles to have his albums stocked in this country’s record shops.
“My work is intriguing for American audiences, and perhaps because they haven’t been watching me climb a ladder from busker to main stage performer, they take me in as a professional international performer right away. In Canada, there is a hesitance to embrace and help build one of our own. It is the age old story of waiting until we are valued elsewhere or receive a Juno to warrant our work.
Canada’s Folk Roots Music Magazine
CD Review – North Wind
Recipient of Medal in Honour of The Golden Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Awarded the “New Folk Songwriting Award” from the 2002 Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas
Winner of the”Songs From The Heart” award from the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals
“Fool’s Gold” nominated “Folk/Roots Album of the Year” by Canada Music Week
Nominated “Touring Artist of the Year” by the British Columbia Touring Council