James Keelaghan spends much of his time reading about history, unearthing a trove of fascinating nuggets about our past. He then translates those tales into songs, bringing them to life and sharing the emotions with a wider audience.
Eleven albums into his recording career, he remains as passionate about history today as he was as an undergraduate student in Calgary. That will be on display Mar. 20 during the next installment of the Folk Night at the Registry series.
“People have an abiding sense of history, a love of history. I was raised in a family where history mattered as a topic of conversation, where history is very important,” he said of his early influences.
A Juno Award-winning Canadian folk singer-songwriter, Keelaghan’s love of a good story has made him a favourite with both domestic and international audiences. He’s renowned for the stories he brings to life, and the depth of the detail he brings to his lyrics.
“I’m always on the lookout for a good story or idea. My sister told me the story that became “Kiri’s Piano,” a song that visits a dark chapter in Canadian history: Japanese internment camps in the Second World War. The image of someone sacrificing their prized possession in order to maintain their dignity was too powerful to ignore.”
That song has become a Keelaghan classic. As has “Cold Missouri Waters,” a haunting ballad about a Montana forest-fire tragedy.
Then there’s “Captain Torres,” which tells of a ship that sank leaving no survivors during a horrific 1989 storm in the Cabot Strait. It fits the bill as what The Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie last month called the tale of loss at sea required of every Canadian performer. (As noted during a Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame event with Gordon Lightfoot, discussing “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and The Hip’s “Nautical Disaster.”)
“I’ve always had the urge to write,” Keelaghan explained from his Winnipeg home. “Some things weren’t being said in the way I wanted to say them, some things were not being written about at all. That’s why I started to write the historical material. That led me to writing my own personal narratives as well.”
A proponent of lifelong learning, he noted there are always new facts, new stories that can be translated into song. He recommends we all give into our natural curiosity: learning does not end upon graduation – “There’s a lot of stuff that we’re not taught in school.”
In his music, that philosophy unfolds as literate, multidimensional songwriting.
While that comes through in his recordings, it’s in the live shows that the stories really come to life, he maintained. There’s nothing like the immediacy and the intimacy of live music.
Just as his songs attempt to capture the essential human condition in the stories he draws from, Keelaghan suggests the live music taps into something visceral, that same gut feeling that draws him to a tale in the first place. When a song connects with the people in the crowd, he knows it.
“You see it in their faces even as you’re singing.”
Those in the seats for the Kitchener show will hear from his new album, House of Cards, plus “as many of the classics as I can fit in.”
James Keelaghan takes the stage Mar. 20 at 8 p.m. at the Registry Theatre, 122 Frederick St., Kitchener. Tickets are $20 ($22 at the door), available at the Centre in the Square box office by calling 578-1570 or toll free 1-800-265-8977 or online at www.centre-square.com. For more information, check out www.folknight.ca.
This is the fourth show in the Folk Night at the Registry series. Next up are The Marigolds, who’ll perform Apr. 10.