The New Old Guys

It started with an appearance at the Olympic torch-lighting ceremony in Vancouver last year.

Manfred Janssen and Jim Vautour were performing the iconic “Land of Gold”, something they penned together in the late 1970s that many people consider the Yukon’s unofficial anthem.

It was the third performer at that event, swing jazz pianist Grant Simpson, who came up with the idea of showcasing some of the music each of them had written over the years.

“I knew that Jim was writing new songs, and Manfred was writing new songs, and I was writing new songs, so I said we should do a concert together,” Simpson explains.

Just how many songs the three have created is hard to pin down.

After all, as the poster for next week’s Songwriters in Concert event boasts, their combined output represents about 140 years of work.

“That was my little comment to slide into the poster,” Vautour admits. “It just seemed like a fun thing to say.”

Vautour himself started writing songs around the age of 14.

“Do I remember my first song?” [Pause.] “Nope. Senior’s moment.”

Since then, he has written about 60 songs, of which he considers 25 or so to be keepers.

Simpson does remember his first song. The title, at least.

“Oh yeah. It was called ‘Swirling in the Wind’. I don’t even know how it goes anymore.”

That song is one of about 60 that Simpson has registered with the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN), although his total output is over 100.

Janssen doesn’t even guess the number of songs he has written.

“I always think of it in terms of the box of tunes I have full.”

But does he remember his first?

“In fact, I do. ‘In the Morning’, it was called. I’ve plum forgotten it, I’m sure, but if I go back through the memory banks, I could probably work it out,” he says.

“If I had the lyrics sitting in front of me, I think it would sort of come to me.”

While those first creations will obviously not be on next week’s bill of fare, the show will include both old and new material.

“We’ve tried to make a blend, with some classics that Manfred and Jim have written and have some history that people know, and then some new works,” Simpson says.

“It’s really fun playing on each other’s tunes and coming up with some arrangements based on the three of us.”

Janssen and Vautour both have their musical roots in Ontario, but joined up to play as the Two Rivers after hearing each other’s auditions for the Farrago Music Festival in Faro in the late 1970s. The group lasted for three years.

Simpson, who is best known for his jazz and theatrical music, including his annual stint with the Frantic Follies, actually started off in the same acoustic vein as the other two.

“All my early work was rooted in West Coast folk music, really.”

About a year ago, it dawned on him that he was now part of a different songwriting and performing demographic.

The way he put it to Janssen and Vautour when he was pitching the idea of a joint concert was, “You know what? We’re the new old guys.”

As a younger musician, he explains, the people he looked up to were in their 50s and early 60s.

“And all of sudden, I’m there. I don’t know how that happened, but I am.”

Simpson admits that having a few more miles on life’s odometer has changed his approach to music.

“I think I put less pressure on myself, because I just want to write and perform really good music without all the other stuff that’s there when you’re younger,” he says.

“I think probably Jim and Manfred and I are all in the same place, where all we want to do is make good music.”

Janssen acknowledges a similar change, saying his work has become more refined.

“I think you see things differently, and you write differently. Things have a lot more perspective. There’s a lot more clarity sometimes,” he says.

“I mean, now when I talk about heartbreak, I know what it’s about. I know when I talk about how my bones ache, I know what it feels like.”

While Janssen and Simpson have both maintained busy performance schedules over the years, Vautour’s musical profile has been a bit lower.

“I haven’t taken it quite as seriously, life-income wise,” he says.

“I’m a bit of a closet kind of songwriter guy. I’d gotten away from it for close to four years. I’ve just started writing again in the past year, and I’m enjoying it. My favourite part of music is writing.”

Simpson strikes a similar note.

“I really love writing lyrics, so about five years ago I dove in and started to focus on my songwriting itself. I wasn’t stuck in any genre or any particular style, I just wrote what I felt like writing.”

The result, he says, is a body of new work he feels good about. Later this month, he will head to Bob Hamilton’s Old Crow Studio to record a dual CD with singer-songwriter Kate Weekes.

Simpson, Vautour and Janssen will present their Songwriters in Concert collaboration on Saturday, April 9 at the Old Fire Hall, starting at 7:30 pm.

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