All-female songwriters’ circle happening this weekend

Justin Brake
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Singer/songwriter Ilia Nicoll will perform Saturday alongside Sandy May, Sherry Ryan and Katie Baggs at an all-female songwriter circle at the Rocket Room in St. John’s. — Photo by Justin Brake/Special to The Telegram

Some of St. John’s most esteemed young folk singers are working together to carve their own niche in the city’s music scene.

The recent growth in popularity of songwriter circles, which typically feature a small group of musicians sharing a stage in an intimate setting where they share stories and perform their songs, has presented new opportunity for young female songwriters.

“I was listening to (a radio program) the other day and they were talking about how, until the mid or late ‘90s, it was just this common understanding that you never put two female acts on the same bill,” says Sandy May, lead singer of St. John’s alt-country band The Domestics. “And I guess that’s how Lilith Fair was started.”

Lilith Fair, the popular touring music festival founded by Canadian singer Sarah McLachlan, featured some of the world’s most renowned female musicians in its four-year run — but it never made it to Newfoundland and Labrador.

“Not to draw all these lines in the sand, but you wouldn’t bat an eye at two male bands (being on a bill),” says May, who moved to St. John’s from Halifax with her husband and daughter in 2007 and is behind this Saturday’s songwriter circle at The Rocket Room on Water Street, which will feature three other local songwriters.

“(Gender) shouldn’t matter at all,” she continues. “But the fact is that up until not long ago it was like, no, we don’t (put too many female musicians on a bill) because you can’t draw a big crowd or whatever.”

As of late, however, several women have featured prominently in the city’s folk music scene. In turn, many of them are creating a network of support for themselves by sharing the stage with each other and playing to attentive audiences.

This weekend’s circle will include performances by May, Sherry Ryan, Katie Baggs and Ilia Nicoll.

Ryan, an award-winning songwriter from Middle Cove, released her third album, “Sister of Mine,” last year.

Baggs, who fronts popular local folk bands Dead Language and All The Wiles, celebrated the release of her debut solo album earlier this month.

Nicoll, who hails from southern Ontario, has shared the stage with several local bands but rarely performs on her own.

She has been quietly at work on her debut solo album, however.

“I was talking to Ilia one night and she was talking about just being nervous to play electric guitar in front of people, and I know I felt really similar in starting out,” May recalls.

“Like, ‘what if I don’t play it right or look stupid?’ And I don’t know, maybe guys are like that too, but I just sort of feel like they probably start out together maybe not being super great and then get better with one another,” says May.

“We were just sort of talking about that and thought it would be nice to be supportive of other women musicians in the city, and it’s just something I don’t get to do very often — play with other women musicians.

“You can’t really say all women approach music this way and all men approach music that way,” she continues. “But I do feel like instinctively there is a little bit of a different approach, and it’s kind of nice to draw support from one another.”

May and her husband and band mate, Ian Cornellisen, are currently at work on the follow up to their 2011 effort “State and Arrow”.

Advance tickets for Saturday’s songwriters’ circle at The Rocket Room are $15 and available at Fred’s Records, O’Brien’s Music and Model Citizens.

Remaining tickets will be sold at the door. Doors open at 8 p.m. and showtime is 8:30 p.m

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Water Street, Middle Cove Southern Ontario

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