When Anne-Louise Genest confessed to a slight hangover after an evening of gin and tonic, her sister asked, “Didn’t I tell you your grandmother’s rules for drinking?”
After hearing such sage advice as “don’t let strange men mix drinks for you” and “gin will ruin your complexion”, Genest immediately knew she wanted to set it down in song.
The result became the title track for former Yukoner Annie Lou’s recently-released stringband album, Grandma’s Rules for Drinking.
After more than 20 years in the Yukon, Genest moved to Parksville, on Vancouver Island, two years ago. On November 17, though, she was in Saint John, New Brunswick, where Grandma’s Rules For Drinking was in contention for both solo artist of the year and English songwriter honours at the 2012 Canadian Folk Music Awards (CFMA).
Eight hours before the awards gala, Genest felt excited about being recognized nationally by her musical peers, especially for her songwriting.
“I love icing on my cake, for sure, and the icing of a win would be delicious and fantastic,” she said. “It would be great to win, of course, but I wouldn’t be devastated if I didn’t.”
The Toronto-born artist began “noodling around” with the guitar during her university days, but, “It didn’t stick and I didn’t keep it up,” she admits. It wasn’t until after moving to the Yukon in 1989 that she began seeing herself as a musician.
In 1994 she teamed up with Whitehorse musician Kim Barlow to form their first band, Ladies Auxiliary. But it was a gig as opening act for Ani DiFranco at the Yukon Arts Centre that prompted her to write her first song.
“I sort of doodled at it – I enjoyed playing, but wasn’t very serious about music,” she says. “Then I just got serious at a certain point. I really decided it was something I wanted to do and put my attention to, and got into writing in a more focused way.”
After two solo albums as Anne Louise Genest (Trouble in 2002 and Big Dream in 2004), she took a hiatus to learn other instruments and start exploring old-time and bluegrass music in earnest.
When she re-emerged as Annie Lou, her self-titled first album garnered a CFMA nomination for best ensemble, as well as Juno and Western Canada Music Award nominations.
“It was a really strong album, which I think is what got the attention.”
Both that album, and the newest one, display the mix of lighthearted and darker material that typifies her chosen genre.
“It’s music that came from people who were having very hard lives, and I think music was the thing that got them through,” she says.
That bittersweet string-band quality resonates especially in the title track from Grandma’s Rules for Drinking, as well as in the autobiographical “Teach Me to Dance” and the album’s only cover tune, “Take Your Leg Off Mine”.
“My goal is to connect, so I’m conscious of that when I’m writing,” Genest explains. “I’m not only writing something for its own sake, I’m aware of how I want to … say what I want to say in a way that’s unique, perhaps funny, that’s going to catch someone’s attention.”
As she waited in the lobby of the ornate, century-old Imperial Theatre for the CFMA gala to begin, Genest had her fingers crossed for the English songwriter award.
At the post-awards reception three hours later, Genest summed up her reaction to not winning in either category with a single, philosophical word: “Alas”.
Then she restated her gratitude for the “huge adventure” of her two decades in the Yukon.
“I kind of feel like I wouldn’t have played music if I hadn’t gone to the Yukon,” she says. “I feel that was the thing that really broke my heart open to allow that in.”
As for missing out on the “icing” of a win?
“I’ve still got the cake,” she laughed.