“For me it’s becoming clear that I like the craft of songwriting and recording, but I love turning the light on in people,” says Shelley O’Brien.
“They become so empowered. It’s their experience in nature, it’s their artist.”
O’Brien launched The Soundscape Project in Victoria in April, bringing it to the Yukon in July.
Described as “developing the hypothesis that we are all artists with a deep love of nature”, the project leads attendees through various exercises, with the end result being a recorded song and a lot to think about.
In an afternoon, O’Brien can turn a skeptic into an advocate, helping participants finding and honing in on their inner-songwriter.
It all stems from her roots. O’Brien grew up in small town northern B.C., “near the mountains, close to the river”.
Her upbringing in music began with classical piano, but things shifted when she got a job on a cruise ship in 2005 as a piano bar entertainer.
“I’ve been working on cruise ships on and off for years. I really used it as much to develop myself as a musician as to workshop songs that I started to write,” she says.
“I would play them for audiences and ask them what they thought. I then realized that I am a songwriter and I can’t help it.”
O’Brien also picked up her first ukulele on her excursions, and began writing beside it.
She wrote her first album on a cruise liner headed up to Alaska in the summer of 2007. Though the recording process may have been stunted at times, she finally released You, Me and the Birds in 2009 with the help of notable producer Matthew Rogers in Vancouver.
“I shopped for a producer. I listened to the kind of sounds that moved me, and I ended up going with a producer that produced what I was into,” she says.
“Luckily, Matthew became a great musical partner. We just got each other.”
Since her debut release O’Brien has toured extensively in Europe and in Australia, taking her “ethereal pop songs” to cities such as Paris, Venice, Melbourne and Reykjavik.
Most recently she released Vivarium in October 2011.
As her website states, “the album plays almost as a declaration of love for the Canadian landscape… Her lyrical imagery firmly rooted in nature, O’Brien moves through vast northern spaces with familiarity and awe.”
The Songscape Project came out of the processes from writing her latest album.
During the workshops, she leads participants first through a meditation meant to reconnect them with nature, then with “sound-mapping”, an exercise designed to help focus the individual onto the sounds constantly around them. From there, the group splits off and each person works on lyrics based on what they thought about during the activities.
“I wouldn’t necessarily do the activities that we do, but a lot of the songs came out of me spending a lot of time, for example, canoeing in Algonquin… being alone in nature,” she says.
“We are all creative. It’s so natural, it’s like breathing. In my mind these are to things people forget, or deny…”
With the project O’Brien hopes to become a conduit for creativity.
“The idea was that if I could do any little thing to try to help people reconnect, then I’ll feel like I’ve done something worth while,” she mentions.
“If you tell someone the glaciers are melting and we are cutting down too many trees, it’s on a mental level. But if you can get in somehow so that people feel this connection for themselves… that’s my hope.”
The response for the project and from the initial workshops has been almost overwhelming. In those sessions, the ages ranged from five to 65, and there has been consistent interest in follow-ups.
Her first session in the Yukon was held in Tombstone National Park.
“In Tombstone, one participant said he was really skeptical and had a huge writers’ block going on. And another one [had] never written a song.”
Both of them wrote and recorded an original tune in less than four hours.
O’Brian’s next sessions are held in Dawson City, a place she returns to after being a summer transient almost 10 years ago.
The first has already taken place at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre, and the next happens August 8-9 with the City of Dawson Youth Outdoor Adventure Program.
On August 11, from noon to 4 p.m., another open workshop takes place at the Klondike Institute of Art & Culture (KIAC).
For a finale, on August 16during the Yukon Riverside Arts Festival, participants from O’Brian’s project will perform the tunes they wrote to an outdoor audience.
For more information on the project, O’Brien or to listen to her albums, you can visit http://shelleyobrien.ca.
“On a certain level I’m doing this project with connecting people with nature, but on a different level, because I grew up in nature, I’m digging a bit deeper as an artist,” she says.
“I’m trying to figure out what it is to be wild—trying to link it to a primal level and let that influence my art—questioning where the wildness is in me and how it has been halted by living an urban life for so long.”