Downey on way up

Tara Bradbury
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Sherman Downey and The Ambiguous Case riding high on successful year

Fresh from his MusicNL Male Artist of the Year award win, Sherman Downey (right) performed two shows with his band The Ambiguous Case in St. John’s Friday night.

A couple of days after last weekend’s MusicNL conference in Rocky Harbour, Sherman Downey was looking for the perfect spot to display his Male Artist of the Year award, where it would be the most visible.

He’s considering making it into a pendant, but fears it might be a bit bulky.

Christmas tree topper? Hood ornament?

“I’m just so stoked to have it,” Downey said.

Having just put out his debut CD, “Honey for Bees,” with his band The Ambiguous Case late last December, this was Downey’s first MusicNL award, and one of five nominations (the others were Album of the Year, Entertainer of the Year, Rising Star/New Group of the Year and Folk Group of the Year).

The buzz about his music started long before now, however.

At MusicNL’s 2008 conference in Gander, Downey was one of the most anticipated and well-received performers at the showcases.

Earlier this year, he toured the CD in the Atlantic provinces, placed fourth at Toronto’s Indie Week festival, played a number of gigs in Vancouver for the Winter Olympics and performed at the East Coast Music and Juno award ceremonies.

The band also played to sell-out audiences in St. John’s and Corner Brook, where Downey lives. He’s currently taking a break from his day job as a teacher.

The MusicNL nominations were certainly welcome and appreciated, but not entirely a shock to the band, given all the work they’ve been doing lately. Although a cliche, the win was secondary to the nominations, Downey said.

“Once we got the nominations, I didn’t really think about winning too much,” the Codroy Valley native told The Telegram. “I know you hear people say that, but I know that’s true. Everybody was looking to see who the nominees were, so once we got the nominations, I think we got a lot more attention on that level, anyway. It’s nice to be nominated because of the work we’ve been doing all year — it’s nice to know that MusicNL was behind us on that front, for sure.”

The Ambiguous Case, consisting of Andrew Ross on banjo, Bill Allan on accordion/trombone/guitar, Jonny Payne on mandolin, Neil Targett on bass and Paul Lockyer on drums, with Downey singing and playing guitar, had played together only once before “Honey for Bees” was recorded live in the studio. As the CD came together, the band did, too.

Downey wrote the album’s 10 acoustic-driven songs, which are hard to categorize: they’re a little bit folk-pop, a little bit bluegrass, with bits of Paul Simon and Jack Johnson mixed in.

“Windowsill,” Downey’s favourite tune on the album, includes more unusual elements.

“I like it, just because there’s a lot of energy and it’s kind of different from any other. There’s a bossanova feel behind the whole thing, and it’s fun to play. There’s also yodeling,” Downey said. Downey is the yodeler, having learned from his grandfather.

The music for that song was written as a jingle for a local insurance company.

“We were approached to do it, and we came up with the idea and a first verse and brought it to the company, but time constraints didn’t allow us to get it done in time, and between the jigs and the reels, it didn’t happen,” Downey explained. “It was maybe the first tune that I was under a whole lot of pressure to write quickly — it’s nice to know that you can do that.”

Downey and The Ambiguous Case are working on songs for their next album and have about eight ready to go. He hopes to release the CD next summer, if all goes well with the funding applications he’s submitted to places such as the Canada Council for the Arts and the Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings.

They’re also working on a possible tour of Ireland in the coming months.

Now that Downey’s had success with MusicNL, he’s set his sights on the 2011 East Coast Music Awards, to be held in Charlottetown, P.E.I., in April.

“It would be so nice. Our CD is eligible, so we’ll see what happens,” he said.

In the meantime, he and the band are continuing to play gigs, and performed at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre with the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra Friday night before hitting The Ship with fellow MusicNL award winners The Pathological Lovers for a later show. Downey and The Ambiguous Case will play the Bar Room Downstairs in Corner Brook Nov. 12.

“I think our live shows are fun and I think people see that we’re having fun,” Downey said. “I think no matter how much work you do behind the computer, trying to get in touch with people that way, the thing that still makes a difference is getting out and chatting to people and playing, and I love that part of it.”

Organizations: Rising Star/New Group of the Year and Folk Group of the Year, East Coast Music, The Telegram Canada Council for the Arts Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra

Geographic location: Rocky Harbour, Corner Brook, Gander Toronto Vancouver Codroy Valley Ireland Charlottetown

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