Junos 2022: Calgary-raised writer Brendan McLeod explores wartime past, pandemic present with album and poetry collection

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For the past couple of years, Brendan McLeod has been giving a lot of thought to both our country’s past and the general weirdness of our present. In fact, the two major works he has released could not seem further apart in period and subject matter.

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On Sunday, the Calgary-raised, Vancouver-based songwriter, poet, actor and playwright will be in Toronto for the 2022 Junos. His band, The Fugitives, are nominated in the traditional roots category for their album, Trench Songs, a well-researched project that found the act setting lyrics written by frontline soldiers during the First World War to new music and melodies.

On May 20, McLeod will release his debut book of poetry, Friends Without Bodies, which began life as a collection of impromptu verses written for friends during the pandemic that he had no intention of publishing.

“I wish there was more (overlap,)” says McLeod. “Because that would make it easier on the workload.”

Call it the dilemma of the multi-faceted artist.

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Trench Songs was borne out of a multidisciplinary one-man theatre show called Ridge. It’s about Canadian soldiers in the trenches during the First World War, an interest of McLeod’s ever since he read Pierre Burton’s Vimy as a 13-year-old in Calgary.

Not surprisingly,  researching this theatre piece had him often entering grim territory.

“Halfway through the research, I  realized ‘Wow, this is a lot of dark topics to get through and I think we’re going to need a more palatable way to get it across to the audience,’ ” he says. “So I started researching World War One soldier songs and wondered if I could rearrange a couple and it really took off. The band got really interested and stuff. So it very much happened very organically. Trench Songs is sort of an accidental album. We really liked the songs and it would be nice for it to live outside the theatre show as well.”

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McLeod said he found a “treasure trove” of songbooks at McMaster University that were specifically dedicated to the trench songs Canadian soldiers created and sang. They were youthful, occasionally humorous and often angry. For McLeod, they were also inspirational.

“I didn’t mean to do an entire album of these songs, it’s just when I was looking at the songbook I was like ‘Wow, these lyrics are hilarious. They’re dark-humoured. They’re poignant. They’re cutting.’ They fit really into that tradition of folk music protest songs. There were a lot of underage soldiers in World War One, there is a lot of singing about being mad at their superiors, made at politicians. I would listen to them and they would be more traditional and be rearranged by soldiers in the trenches. They’d be singing them together and I’d listen to the arrangements on YouTube or whatever and they’re awesome but there’s also a lot of static on the vinyl and a lot of marching songs and it put it into a specific time and place. By rewriting the melodies and arrangements, I wanted people to hear it with that immediacy you get when you just read them as lyrics. You hear them like they are unfiltered because you are hearing them as contemporary songs.”

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McLeod left Calgary after graduating from Western Canada High School. He first went to the University of Victoria and later moved to Vancouver. The Fugitives, which also includes co-songwriter Adrian Glynn and musicians Chris Suen and Carly Frey, began 15 years ago. Initially, it was more of a spoken-word project with “three poets and a musician getting together” with a heavy focus on lyrics. But it continued to evolve. Suen and Frey were brought in on banjo and violin, respectively, and it evolved into more of a traditional folk band.

“We let the creative process drive it,” he says. “I never set out to be in a “folk folk” band but that’s what it’s become in the last five years and I’m loving it because I love the tradition of that stuff.”

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McLeod studied philosophy and always wanted to be a writer. But it wasn’t until his mid-20s that he became part of the spoken-word scene.

“I always wanted to be a writer but never tried to perform it,” he says. “One day, classic story, I walked by a cafe and saw a guy with a weird hat spouting weird verses and thought ‘Yeah, I’ll try that.’ ”

Meanwhile, McLeod’s debut book of poetry was inspired by a far more recent dramatic period in Canadian history. Friends Without Bodies began as poems he wrote for friends, chronicling the pandemic from its early days of March 2020 and into 2021’s fourth wave. It includes everything from a brief and awkward Tinder conversation during lockdown to a grim roll-call of death and illness entitled “1,706 Ontario Cases this Morning. 21 dead,” to a funny but poignant ode to loneliness called “My Roommate Moved Out Today.”

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“I started posting a bit on Instagram and started getting reaction and people texting me saying ‘Hey, can I get the full poem?’ ” says McLeod, who is also the author of a 2007 novel, The Convictions of Leonard McKinley. Write Bloody North, which focuses on the word of spoken-word artists, began publishing some of the poems and eventually turned them into a book. While he didn’t consciously set out to document this strange period in our history, like everyone else, he had no idea how long the pandemic would last.

“The last poem in the book is Day 533,” he says. “If you told me I had to write 533 days of poetry I would have said ‘Nope, I’m not doing this project.’ In that way, it’s good that it kind of sneaks up on you. In retrospect, I really like that I did it, partly because I’m really happy with the collection, but also it is really a great time capsule. In the book, there are some timelines so we can remember what happened when. I think I would have forgotten about the strange things that happened. I’ve got one about a sports commentator who is out of work because all the sports closed down so he’s going around and commentating on dogs fighting for bones. It was just weird things that happened that I would totally have forgotten about.”

The Junos take place May 15 in Toronto. Friends Without Bodies is available May 20.

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