The Tides of St. John’s Music Change with New Waves of a Fresh Riot
” There has been a distinct changing of the tides in the independent music community of St. John’s, NL throughout the last year and a half, and the determined crew behind the new cassette compilation Fresh Riot have been an integral part of the winds of change that seek to move the local scene toward more open waters.
“This is a compilation album of newish bands in St. John’s,” reads the mission statement of the new Fresh Riot compilation cassette. “It is dedicated to all the women, queer, trans and marginalized pals who have picked up instruments for the first time and taken up space in the spirit of making our community more inclusive.”
The Fresh Riot compilation, which drops tonight, December 10th at the Peter Easton Pub in St. John’s, features 15 songs by 15 local bands. While all of the featured artists offer an original take on an eclectic array of genres, this collection debuts some of the newest bands and musicians of 2016, some of whom are experiencing the recording process for the very first time.
By any measure, a 15 band compilation is no small feat for any music community, but this particular showcase of artists represented on Fresh Riot reflects much more than a just a diverse assemblage of new musicians. This project celebrates another great accomplishment for a burgeoning wave of musical activism that has taken a strong sweep through the St. John’s arts community in 2016.
The Fresh Riot compilation was spearheaded by activist and musician Jess Barry. For over the last year and a half, Barry has worked extensively with the local feminist collective SPAAT (Smash Patriarchy An Action Team) in an effort to challenge the disproportionate representation of marginalized voices in the St. John’s music scene. With the same dynamism that has spurred such SPAAT endeavours as Herbourage, a house showcase of women-fronted bands in response to the male dominated lineups of music festivals such as 2015’s Harbourage, there has also been an influx of conducive workshops and events focused on skill-sharing and fostering opportunities for folks who’ve “never felt encouraged to pick up an instrument or play loud music“. One of the initiatives, known as Band Off, was organized by Renee Sharpe and Unpossible NL. Band Off offered the opportunity and resources of forming a band and playing a show with “no experience necessary”.
It was Band Off that landed Barry behind a drum set in a band for the first time. Less than a year later, Barry now drums for three acts, all of which are featured on the Fresh Riot compilation.
“I was feeling really proud of how far everyone had come and the confidence that people had built and the community of support that was mounting around it, and wanted to kind of archive it as a special moment in time,” says Barry. “I also wanted to give something back to the people who had been supporting me through it.”
With a new wave of music and musicians crashing onto the St. John’s scene in such a short period of time, it was only natural that this creative energy would culminate into a need of capturing a snapshot of the new and more diverse musical landscape. This next step is what inspired “Record-A-Thon”, a one day marathon in September that saw many of the new bands laying down a song with the help of musician and recording engineer Jake Nicoll. This recording session resulted in over half of the tracklist that makes up Fresh Riot.
“The record-a-thon happened as a logical piece of making the compilation- many of the bands weren’t at the recording stage yet, and recording can be a major barrier for people (it’s expensive, it’s a skill set not that many people, especially women, have in this town),” says Barry. “So Jake Nicoll putting his time and effort and enthusiasm into recording 8 or 9 of the bands on the album during one marathon day was really what made this project possible and removed those barriers for people.”
While recording can be a stressful endeavour, even for the most experienced of musicians, the supportive nature of Record-A-Thon focused on keeping the experience fun and constructive.
“The process of Fresh Riot was mostly a really lovely day recording at Jake’s house where we all sat around and applauded one another after each take, and ate guacamole and unabashedly asked one another about our processes in songwriting,” recalls Sarah Blackmore, guitarist and vocalist for Punch Table, one of the bands featured on Fresh Riot that took part in the Record-A-Thon session.
“I had the opportunity to stay and hang out in Jake’s recording room with organizer Jess Barry while some other bands on the compilation recorded their contribution to Fresh Riot, and it was one of the best experiences I’ve had playing music yet,” adds Nicole Squires, bassist for Hard Ticket and Bad Plan, another two essential additions to the compilation. “Being able to watch other bands listening to their recorded music for the first time was magical, I don’t think anyone could believe that it was them being played back on the tape.”
On top of having a heavy hand in seeing the process from Record-A-Thon all the way to the finished product that is the Fresh Riot cassette, Jess Barry is featured as drummer on three tracks from HI WAISTED, Yee Grlz and Ribbon Tied.
“Personally, this project felt like a strange little microcosm condensed crash course of all the major elements of being a “musician” or whatever. I’m now playing in three of the bands that are on the comp, so there’s the musical element of having learned how to play an instrument and how to play shows and figure out gear, etc. etc.,” says Barry. “There’s also the recording element – recording with Jake and hearing yourself recorded for the first time was super weird and cool and the whole energy of that day was definitely a highlight – hanging out all day listening to your friends record tracks for the first time was totally amazing and really memorable.”
In addition to the songs churned out during the recording binge with Nicoll, Barry remarks, “I actually even got to (badly) record one of the bands myself, last minute in my living room with my extremely limited knowledge of how to do that.”
There was roughly 32 people involved in the recording process of Fresh Riot, and many of those folks chipped in along the way with more than just their musicianship. The artwork was designed by Carmella Gray-Cosgrove, who, in addition to contributing musically as a part of GLIB, was also an integral part of organizing the project. Barry recalls that it was a “flurry of back and forth” with Gray-Cosgrove that landed the well-suited title of Fresh Riot to the compilation.
“We wanted to capture the newness of the bands, the feeling of doing things for the first time, and to incorporate a feminist angle – much of the energy behind the feminist activism we’ve seen in the year and a half or so really builds on that of the Riot Grrrl movement of the 90s,” Barry explains. “The “Riot” part is also to signify that although it is about the music, it’s as much about the politics of people who may previously have felt excluded taking up space in this way.”
Beyond the course of the recording experience, there was also a lot to be learned in the practice of developing the final product for tonight’s release. “There was figuring out how to get the tapes made, figuring out the album art with Carmella, setting up the Bandcamp, booking and organizing and promoting the release show”, states Barry, “it hit on a lot.”
As Barry iterates that Fresh Riot was “meant to be warm and fuzzy, and a celebration of the work that so many people have put in to make all of this possible”, it is quite clear that the propitious experience taken away by those involved cannot be understated, and will not be forgotten any time soon.
“For me it was a break from a more confrontational approach to activism to do something that felt good and creative and supportive to the people around me,” Barry affirms. “I asked a lot of questions, had a ton of help from everyone involved (especially Jake and Carmella) and it was a huge learning experience for me which I am really grateful for.”
The supportive sentiment was shared by Squires of Hard Ticket and Bad Plan while realizing the importance of “helping to boost your music community’s level of confidence, as well as providing crucial opportunities to record music and looking at the mixing process”.
“I took away a great feeling that there was a good moon rising in St John’s music. This moon is crass, it is full of mistakes, it is honest, it is full of women, it is non-judgemental, it is varied,” states Blackmore of Punch Table. “That’s really uplifting to feel.”
While tonight’s release party festivities is indeed a celebration of what Fresh Riot has achieved, Barry reminds us that this shouldn’t be misconstrued as a “we fixed the problem and now everything’s good”.
“As inclusive as I tried to be when putting it together, it’s not super representative outside of a group of predominantly white, cis women who mostly all knew each other already,” says Barry. “There is still a lot of work to be done to make the St. John’s music scene more inclusive to women, other marginalized genders, people of colour and queer folks, etc – this is just a step in the right direction.“
So where from here? Now that Fresh Riot has become a reality, we wanted to know what Barry, Squires and Blackmore would like to see folks take away from the project, and what they’d like to see more of in the St. John’s music community.
“I hope that the continuation of initiatives like Band Off, Unpossible/RPM, St. John’s Women in Music, and a community that is really supportive and invested in making things better will encourage others to keep trying new things.”
“I think Fresh Riot represents a forward push in the music scene in St. John’s. We need to support new bands and new musical growth in our community, especially from those voices we don’t hear very often; this project should be seen as one of the necessary first steps towards a much more inclusive and supportive music scene,” says Squires. “There seems to be a serious lack of these opportunities for new bands in St. John’s with a limited budget – I’d like to see these trends grow and expand to support both new acts and emerging recording technicians! Also, START BANDS!”
“The message I would like people to take away from it would probably be look at what you can do, not only in a short period of time, but with little to no experience! From conversations I’ve had with other artists on Fresh Riot most of these bands are comprised of folk who never felt they could do the band thing, and here we are! I want people to take away that being new and “fresh” is an exciting opportunity to create something new and weird and innovative, not to feel intimidated,” adds Blackmore. “Also I want people to know that a band is an illusion. No one knows what they’re doing/everybody knows what they’re doing because nothing is “right”.”
Come join the celebration tonight, December 10th, at the Peter Easton Pub in St. John’s with Fresh Riot representatives Hard Ticket, Yee Grlz, Ribbon Tied, Punch Table and HI WAISTED. If you can’t make it to the party, don’t fret, you can stream the tape in its entirety right here.