Chasing the french

Joan Sullivan
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Colleen Power's next album may need footnotes

Musicians usually tap their own lives for inspiration. But songstress Colleen Power is delving for material in a less likely spot - the archives of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University. Power is researching old files and diaries, intent on composing a six-pack or so of songs gleaned from the historic leavings of French experience in Newfoundland.

Power is an engaging performer, with an on-stage persona of a nice mix of substance and playfulness which was deftly established with her debut album, "Lucky You Are" (2000) and easily sustained through her follow-ups, "Face And Eyes" (2004), and "Terre-Neuvienne" (2007). She writes good stuff and delivers it with an unmistakable, inviting air of having fun.

Colleen Power's "Terre-Neuvienne" was the first full-length francophone recording released by a Newfoundland artist. Submitted photo

Musicians usually tap their own lives for inspiration. But songstress Colleen Power is delving for material in a less likely spot - the archives of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University. Power is researching old files and diaries, intent on composing a six-pack or so of songs gleaned from the historic leavings of French experience in Newfoundland.

Power is an engaging performer, with an on-stage persona of a nice mix of substance and playfulness which was deftly established with her debut album, "Lucky You Are" (2000) and easily sustained through her follow-ups, "Face And Eyes" (2004), and "Terre-Neuvienne" (2007). She writes good stuff and delivers it with an unmistakable, inviting air of having fun.

She's been nominated for many Newfoundland and Labrador Music Awards and East Coast Music Awards, winning, among others, best female artist and best alternative artist at the ECMAs in 2001. She's played with a gambit of artists from Ron Sexsmith to Joel Plaskett, been featured on CBC Radio's "Definitely Not The Opera" and had her songs embedded in several TV series and films.

So why is she hanging around the Queen Elizabeth II Library?

History lessons

Take note of the title of her third album, the first full-length francophone recording released by a Newfoundland artist. Power is from Placentia, once the French capital of North America, and has loved the language so much she studied it and became bilingual. She hosts an on-and-off show at MUN's CHMR called "Ici Pour Les Chansons."

Now she wants to review all the documents pertaining to the French in Newfoundland that she can get her hands on, plus visit St-Pierre-Miquelon and her hometown's historic site of Castle Hill. Over the next two months, she hopes to emerge with maybe six songs, maybe an album, about the French of Newfoundland.

"I'm looking at everything from the 1600s to now," said Power, on a brief break from her reading, sitting in the third-floor common area of the QEII. "Not any specific period. And hopefully I'll come out of it with a few songs that aren't boring or preachy."

Neither adjective seems remotely apt for Power, whose recent gigs include doing school workshops with students - an intensive art in itself - helping them develop their own songs. "Sometimes they sit there like this (she crosses her arms and ducks her head) and I say, 'OK, you're not getting a song out of this!' I'm there to help them get their own music out. Some of them show up with their own melodies that they sing for me and I play it for them on the guitar."

Plus, there's the reason she's so drawn to the French language in the first place. "I write in both languages, but French lends itself more easily to poetry. It has less harsh consonants. You can say something in English that might sound harsh, but in French, it sounds beautiful."

She sees her songs falling into a couple of different spaces - the French place names of Newfoundland and Labrador, the different landmarks they dubbed and noted. Her investigations are also taking her deep into the personalities of some of France's envoys and satellites here. When she took a break for this interview, she was amidst the papers of one Baron de Lahontan, who was directed to detail the numbers of French settlers here, how and where they lived, where they had settled (supported by drawings), how they harvested the fishing industry and were used (or misused) by the then-current fishing rights, and the wildlife around them.

"He was a bit of a spy," Power said, "sent to survey."

She also means to follow up her examinations here with work in St-Pierre - on French territory, written in their language. "Because the research that is from the English is biased against the French, and I want the other side," she explained. Although it's hard to take an unbiased point of view in a song, because you have three or four minutes to say what you have to say, so you have to take a side."

Power is enjoying this project, and determined to see it as far as she can. "It's not my goal to just do the minimal."

I'm looking at everything from the 1600s to now. Not any specific period. And hopefully I'll come out of it with a few songs that aren't boring or preachy.

Organizations: Newfoundland Studies, CBC Radio, Queen Elizabeth II Library

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Placentia, North America Castle Hill France

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