If there is one artist who epitomizes the spirit of the East Coast Music Awards, it’s Rose Cousins. With humble beginnings in Prince Edward Island, then creative blossoming in Halifax, the 29-year-old singer-songwriter is a working artist who has chosen music as a career. She’s by no means rich with money, but she’s rich with dedication to creating and performing original and heartfelt music.
Known in music circles simply as the ECMAs, the awards weekend is a celebration of the best music from the Atlantic provinces. It’s very different from the bigger and more visible Juno Awards, which acknowledge music on national scale and showcases the flash and pizzazz of Toronto’s—er, Canada’s—biggest, some might say most commercial, artists and celebrities.
The ECMAs tend to focus on the talents and achievements of more humble acts who have a calling to write, perform and lead the life of musicians. Instead of Fergie and Pam making out in the bathroom of a dark nightclub, one is more apt to see Matt Mays and Joel Plaskett strumming their guitars in an impromptu, late-night house party jam, surrounded by ale-fueled revellers. In other words, the ECMAs are a celebration of our music.
Up for the CBC Galaxie Rising Star Artist Recording of the Year for her full-length debut If You Were for Me, as well as SOCAN Songwriter of the Year for the album’s opening track “Good Enough,” Cousins’s nominations speak volumes about her as an artist and as a person. She didn’t receive the nominations by taking the most trodden and easiest path. It was a journey of determination and faith in her abilities, and it’s her talent that found her scheduled to play in Sunday night’s awards gala with some of the best artists the region—and the nation—has to offer.
“This is the first year that I’ve really participated as an artist,” Cousins says of the ECMA weekend. “It’s kind of like band camp. You get to hang out for three or four days with all the people you don’t necessarily get to hang out with because we’re all on tour during the year. It’s a party at night, a little work during the day. You get to play, you get to hear your friends play, you get to play with them. Really cool stuff happens.”
Like a modern-day version of a character from a Lucy Maud Mongomery novel, Rosanne Millicent Cousins grew up in a potato farm on the north shore of Prince Edward Island, not far from Kensingston. She came from a big family—an older sister, three younger brothers—and when she wasn’t swimming in the pond by her house, playing in the woods or taking walks on the beach, she found her alone time where she could, mostly at the household piano. It’s where she started creating music at a young age.
“I would sit in the living room by myself and play,” she recalls. “I’m one of those people, to this day, that needs a lot of reflecting time. When I was a kid I might have found that under my bed or I might have found it sitting in my living room.”
After she graduated high school, she attended Dalhousie and played volleyball, rowed and participated in whatever extra-curricular activity would have her while pursuing her degree in kinesiology. Given her involvement in her school, it’s perhaps no surprise she went on to work for Dalhousie for several years as an event planner. Inspired by a high-school friend, she picked up the guitar, and further inspired by her late grandmother Ellen, she wrote her first song. Realizing her passion for music, she began playing at open mic events. Slowly, writing and performing became a more important part of her life.
Cousins’s early EPs, Only So Long in 2002 and Miles to Go in 2003, failed to make much of an impact. She soldiered on, compelled to continue with her brand of Patty Griffin- and Shawn Colvin-influenced folk. Along the way she became an avid supporter of the local scene, often booking shows with other singer-songwriters and playing regularly.
“What drew me in at first was her sense of humour. There’s a warmth to her, a total generosity and spirit,” fellow ECMA nominee and friend Jill Barber says. “She really embraced me and gave me confidence at a time when I really didn’t know any musicians and I was totally new to the scene. As soon as we did the show together, she was just so full of positive reinforcement of what I do.”
It wasn’t until she recorded an episode for CBC’s Atlantic Airwaves that Cousins decided to take her musical career more seriously, and was invited by producers Glenn Meisner and Karl Falkenham to record her full-length debut at the respected CBC Studio H. There she laid down the tracks for the sincere, intimate If You Were For Me, 11 songs of love and heartache with a slew of local artists as guest musicians and featuring some of the most honest lyrics and purest vocals heard from an east coast songwriter.
Just over a year ago, Cousins took a chance and left her day job, setting out to become a full-time musician. The transition officially kicked off in September with a stirring CD release show at the Sir James Dunn Theatre that showcased Cousins’ comical inter-song banter, her passionate songs, as well as guest appearances by Barber, Jenn Grant, Rose’s sister Marilyn and members of In-Flight Safety. Perhaps the best indication that she was on her way came with a show-ending sing-along with approximately 30 local musicians backing her on a cover of Crowded House’s “Fall at Your Feet.” It was a fitting way to end what many consider one of the best concerts of 2006.
“I had this emotional feeling when I had this grand finale at the end of the show,” Cousins says. “I could see everyone standing backstage, I looked over and it was like, this is incredible. My sister was there from PEI and everyone was gathered around to help me. I’m the person to help people and I’m not necessarily the person to take help. But it was an incredible day and it made the show feel amazing.”
While she admitted in an earlier Coast story that she felt apprehensive about leaving the daily routine of a nine-to-five job, she is now noticeably confident when it comes to discussing her career. That newfound self-assurance partially came from the tours that followed her Halifax release show—one in eastern Canada, the other in the mid-west and southern United States with Boston-area performer Edie Carey.
“Rose got up there and you sort of anticipate that you’re going to have to do some winning-over of the audience, they’re there to see the person they want to see,” Carey says over the phone from her boyfriend’s place in Los Angeles. “But she just nailed it. She’s an amazing songwriter, but she’s so completely herself on stage, it just knocked me out.”
Cousins is unassuming as she talks about her experiences over the last year, the awards nominations, the accolades and the steady string of shows, as though she has taken full advantage of everything that has come her way. Whereas a year ago when she’d be more likely to say, “Oh my god,” and “I think I’m going to throw up,” when talking about the opportunities given her, she’s now more apt to say “That was incredible,” “It’s amazing,” and “That’s so cool,” all expressions that she peppers throughout her interview.
“I’m not so scared anymore,” she says. “I find it so cool now because people are getting in touch with me, saying that they have this venue, they want me as part of this series. I just have this mind that if I’m working, I can get myself on track, then opportunities will come. At the same time I’m going out to get them.”
Cousins is up against some hefty competition in the categories she’s nominated in. She shares honours with In-Flight Safety, David Myles, Ruth Minnikin and Andrew White in the Rising Star Recording of the Year, and she’s nominated with friend Jill Barber, Joel Plaskett, Bruce Guthro and Ron Hynes in the Songwriter of the Year category. Although the latter group has won more than 15 ECMAs combined, the point isn’t to weigh in on Cousins’ chances of winning. It’s the fact that she now deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as these artists.
“It’s just great music and great art,” says Barber. “I have no doubt that it won’t be anything more than people giving her a listen before they’re convinced, as I am, that she’s a true artist, one I think is going to have a really long and rich musical career. I have utter confidence in her.”
It’s her spirit and will to succeed in something she’s passionate about that makes Cousins’s nominations special and offers hope that awards shows might follow suit to give notice to similar-minded artists. Better than that, the ECMAs are a chance to celebrate the people who live for music, whether it’s in small-town Prince Edward Island or thriving Halifax, and feel this is the path they must follow.
“This is what I’ve come up for my statement about this: the cool thing about this year, other than the fact that it’s in Halifax, is that I’m in the same amazing group as all of my friends and it can not go wrong,” Cousins says. “My good friends are nominated with me in every case and it’s like, I feel part of a community and I feel like I am being recognized. And that feels pretty amazing.”
Rose Cousins plays February 16 at the Schooner Room at 10am and at Tribeca at 11:15pm; February 18 at the Songwriters’ Circle at the Schooner Room at noon and at the ECMA telecast, 8pm on CBC.
Coast contributing writer Johnston Farrow’s first music awards weekend came as a King’s College journalism student, when ECMAs were last in Halifax in 2003. If you’re going to anything remotely associated to the ECMAs in 2007, you’ll probably see him there. If you do, buy him a coffee. He’s going to need one. Read his ECMA blog here.