Sometimes it’s not the effects of one’s environs that leads an artist down a particular path. Indeed, if one lives in an isolated area devoid of outside influences, then the impetus is to explore new music based strictly on instinct or other inclinations.
That was the situation Andrew Collins found himself in. A native of Toronto, Canada, he immersed himself in an array of different genres — bluegrass, jazz, classical and Celtic music chief among them — while formulating his eventual direction. Early outfits the Creaking Tree String Quartet and the Foggy Hogtown Boys attracted attention at home, specializing in music that was mainly of the instrumental variety. He also pursued a solo career, one which resulted in a series of individual albums, and eventually a Juno nomination for his third outing under his own aegis, Cats and Dogs.
With some success now under his belt, Collins put a new band together, one that includes Collins on mandolin, mandocello, fiddle, mandola, guitar and vocals, Mike Mezzatesta playing guitar, mandolin, mandola, and fiddle, and James McEleney handling bass and vocals. The result was the Andrew Collins Trio. The group has released four albums to date — A Play on Words, a sophomore set entitled And It Was Good, and two efforts recently released simultaneously, collectively dubbed Tongue & Groove. While the trio continues to explore mainly instrumental music, they’ve also stretched out their sound, incorporating not only the bluegrass music that Collins was originally introduced to by a friend in high school, but other sounds as well, from folk to jazz to more exotic and original influences. While their sound is deft, introspective, supple and skillful, the band has managed to expand their reach by incorporating occasional vocals and unlikely covers that include songs by David Grisman, Nick Drake, Graham Nash, Roger Waters, Ray Price, and Roger Miller.
Nevertheless, Collins still writes the majority of material and it’s his dexterity and that of his bandmates that distinguishes their specific sound.
“After seeing the David Grisman Quintet play for the first time, I broke down and finally bought my first mandolin,” Collins recalls. “Since then, I discovered other mandolin heroes such as Matt Flinner, Chris Thile, Emory Lester, and so many other musicians that influenced my music — Bela Fleck, Darol Anger and David Grier, among them.”
That was just over 20 years ago. Collins says that at the time, he found himself in a very small circle of like-minded musical aficionados. “I was living in Whistler, BC when I first took up the mandolin,” he explains. “Shortly after that I moved to Vancouver for almost a year. While there, Canada didn’t have a large bluegrass scene. At least not one that I knew of. The only young people that I was aware of — that were really serious about their music — were a very small group of players that were back in my home town of Toronto. I moved back to immerse myself in this community of about five people. Luckily, my timing was great, because this was a couple years before the film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, and we were embraced as some of the founders of the Toronto scene as more people became aware of the music.”
“Over the next 20 years, Toronto’s bluegrass scene has exploded,” he continues.” There are tons of great bands in Toronto and all across Canada now. In fact, you could find some bluegrass music every night of the week. Because of Canada’s immense size and disparate space, musicians will often gravitate to Toronto, although there are great scenes in Vancouver and in the Maritimes.”
While Collins cites Sam Bush, Bill Monroe and Jethro Burns among his seminal influences, over the years he’s continued to expand his musical palette. That exploration began with those earlier outfits the Foggy Hogtown Boys and the Creaking Tree String Quartet, and quickly encompassed his solo efforts and an occasional side project well before the Andrew Collins Trio began commanding his attention full time five years ago.
“I’m most excited about the new double release, which features one album of all vocal material and one album of all instrumental music,” Collins concludes. “Since so much of my material has been instrumental over the years, people expect our show to be almost all instrumental. However I love to sing, and we’ve always incorporated vocals into the show. We got so used to people at the CD table asking which album has the songs that we sing, that I decided to finally do an album of all vocal music. As the recording date approached, I thought that since most people think of us as an instrumental group, we might as well do an album of instrumental music as well. Thus the birth of a double album.”
Recently the band has also expanded its geographical reach. They began touring internationally, playing stages in the U.K., Germany, the Czech Republic, Israel, Australia and, increasingly, the U.S.
“Actually, we’ve been playing the US more than in Canada,” Collins says.
Consequently, Collins has been able to come to his own conclusions why bluegrass is so well received across the globe. “In this day and age, in a world that has so much electric music, where the sounds are so treated with effects and often even computer generated, the average person has been alienated from the unadorned sound of acoustic instruments being played,” he surmises. “Bluegrass is a very technically demanding music. The tempos are high, improvisation is a huge component, vocal and instrumental mastery are kind of necessary for it to be played right. I think that when the average person hears it, they are often surprised that acoustic music can be so compelling, and that those sounds could come simply from stringed instruments and fingers. Also, this music encourages the listener to take part. Rather than encouraging the listener to simply consume the music, there’s a huge jam culture that encourages people to take up an instrument and start playing it as well. I love the fact that we, as bluegrass fans and musicians, are ambassadors to the music we love. By going out and playing it, we’re showing people whats possible, and encouraging them to take part as well.”
Still, Collins admits he still has work to do at home when it comes to spurring local audiences to find a bond with bluegrass.
“New acoustic music isn’t as widely known in Canada, so there’s a bit of educating the audience of its existence,” he suggests. “It’s great to play for audiences that think you’ve invented something new. (chuckles) Honestly though, it really has been so warmly received.”
To his credit, he’s attained a certain elevated stature as a result of the fact that he’s garnered some seven Canadian Folk Music Awards and no less than five Juno nominations.
He notes that all the accolades have been the result of a certain acoustic acumen. “There’s something about it that is connecting with people,” he says with satisfaction.