Sherman Downey is keeping busy as the summer changes to fall in Corner Brook. Alongside the members of his backing band, The Ambiguous Case, Downey has performed festival dates in Nova Scotia and Ontario. He also took on a solo gig last month at Commissariat House in St. John’s.
For the roots/rock ensemble, it’s all about building on the momentum generated from this year’s win in the CBC Searchlight competition.
The group beat 3,000 other artists to claim the title of Canada’s best new musical act.
Largely built on acoustic instrumentation, Sherman Downey and The Ambiguous Case perform densely layered, peppy pop tunes that have an upbeat feel to them.
Positivity seems to weave through most of Downey’s songs, perhaps the result of his own pleasant state of mind.
Chatting with The Telegram over the phone from his home in Corner Brook, Downey described himself as a happy guy.
While Downey’s profile may only be starting to rise on the national music scene, his music has already received plenty of acclaim back home in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Sherman Downey and The Ambiguous Case’s debut album, “Honey For Bees,” earned the group five MusicNL award nominations in 2010, with Downey taking home the Male Artist of the Year honour. The following year, the group earned two East Coast Music Award nominations.
Since then, the band has performed shows in British Columbia, Australia and Memphis, Tenn.
A new album, tentatively titled “The Sun in Your Eyes,” was recorded in Corner Brook through a MusicNL grant. Downey is eying a fall release for the album, which is now in the hands of mixing engineers.
“You can pass it to one guy, and he might have it guitar heavy, and another guy drum heavy,” he said.
The group will be in St. John’s later this month for Contact East, a performing arts conference that will give Downey and his cohorts a chance to connect with promoters, festival organizers and others in the music industry.
“Instead of a conference where you find a lot of bands kind of hoping to get the attention of promoters, you get a lot of promoters looking to get the attention of the bands,” said Downey, who hopes the event will lead to international exposure for the band.
What is your full name?
Sherman Hubert Downey. (Laughs) My father thought it would be a nice homage to both my grandfathers, Huey and Bertram.
Where and when were you born?
I was born in Stephenville. I’m old enough to school you in Pac-Man. (Laughs)
What is your earliest musical memory?
I guess I’d say with my face in a ghetto blaster singing stuff like Poison. (Laughs) The first song I sang onstage was “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” and God help me, there’s a video out there somewhere.
Thinking back to when you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Around home in the Codroy Valley, in South Branch where I grew up, you went to school and you would either be going into the forestry business, because that was big around my hometown, or you became a teacher. Not that school wasn’t encouraging in whatever you wanted to do, but I really didn’t know what I wanted to be. Then I started playing music around Grade 10, and just thought I’d like to be a music teacher. But I never dreamed I’d try to buy groceries with money I made from singing in bars.
What are you reading at the moment?
It’s by the guy who wrote “The Road” (Cormac McCarthy) — “Blood Meridian.” It’s great. I’ve really been delving into a lot of the — I don’t know if I’d call them ultra-violent or anything — but gritty characters. I just read “The Devil All The Time” (by Donald Ray Pollock) and “The Sisters Brothers” by Patrick deWitt. I’ve been leaning toward the gritty (books) as of late.
Do you have any hidden talents?
I just started getting into woodworking, actually. I could send you a picture of a huge farm table I built. (Laughs) I’m leaning on it now, and the band is coming over — we’re going to be sitting around it like the Knights Templar. (Laughs) We just built a house here, so I just grabbed some of the old two-by-eights and built a huge table ... I just went out and ripped down my great-great-grandmother’s old barn and reused some of the wood there to make an entertainment centre here. I could get into it.
Where is your favourite place to be?
I’d say home in the Codroy Valley, in South Branch behind my house. There’s a river that runs behind my house there, and ... we just kind of run wild back there. It’s still pretty much the same.
If you could learn to play a new instrument, what would it be?
You know what I was looking at online the other day? A dulcimer. I play a little bit of piano and guitar. I’d love to play the banjo fluently, but I’ve surrounded myself with musicians, and one of them plays the banjo rather well.
What’s your favourite movie or TV show?
I’ve been loving “Breaking Bad” right now. (Laughs) Crazy! Movies — I don’t know. I haven’t watched a movie in ages. “The Usual Suspects,” maybe. Whenever the boys and I are out on the road, we try to have band morale stuff to do, whether that be go-karts or watching crappy movies. We happened to watch the first 3-D movie Andrew (Ross, Downey’s bandmate,) has ever seen, “Shark Night 3D.” It was so bad, but Andrew loved it.
(In an email, Downey later confirmed that “Stand By Me” is his “Awesome all-time favorite” movie.)
What the best part of living in western Newfoundland?
It’s just not too big and not too small. It’s close to home. It’s a wicked, outdoorsy life here. We’ve been up around Norris Point and Woody Point and around the Northern Peninsula a lot this summer. I find a lot times, people in Newfoundland and Labrador, they go out on vacation and they head outside the province, and I’ve always kind of done that as well. But this year, we’ve been spending a lot of time around the west coast outside, so I’m enjoying it.
What’s the most memorable show you’ve ever played?
They would be memorable for different reasons. The first time we played in St. John’s (in 2010 at The Rockhouse), when we were looking out and people were singing along, that was a pretty cool memory. ... And of course over in Australia. That was pretty fun.
What’s the best concert you’ve ever attended?
I would have to say (Spanish-French recording artist) Manu Chao. It was at the Ottawa Bluesfest. Full band, and the whole place was jumping.
What’s your favourite meal?
Man, if I could eat it everyday, turkey dinner. (Laughs)
Amongst the songs you’ve written, what’s your favourite?
(Pause) I don’t know. There’s some favourites to perform, but I don’t really have a favourite. Each time they’re written, I’m happy with each song once it’s done. I’m like, “Oh, this is my favourite song right now.” But in terms of performing and audience reaction, I’d say “Windowsill” or “Church Mouse.” They’re both fun.
Who are some musicians you’ve been enjoying lately?
I’ve been listening to a bit of Dan Mangan, Old Man Luedecke — a lot of Canadian stuff actually. Joel Plaskett.
If there was one thing you could change about yourself, what would it be?
Gee, I don’t know. (Laughs) I’m pretty happy. Maybe I wish I could love jogging, but I don’t. (Laughs)
What’s your most treasured possession?
Probably my guitar. I’m playing a Stonebridge right now, and I love it. It’s great to play and everything, but at home I’ve got tucked under my bed a poor, broken Martin (acoustic guitar). I bought it when I was going to school doing my education degree in St. John’s, and I got a student loan and, like many irresponsible students, I went out and blew $1,800 on this Martin that was just there on display. I don’t think Long & McQuade or Music Stop, as it was called at that point, were carrying Martins at the time, but somebody came in and they were doing a demonstration for Martin or some kind of a guitar workshop, and that was the guitar that was supplied to that artist. So it was left in the store, and I just went in on a whim and bought it. I played it pretty hard over the years and brought it up to Goose Bay and was tapping the guitar, hitting the guitar percussively, and it split ... I just got it in my head to break that out and repair it.
Where do you hope to be in 10 years?
Doing the same thing really. ... I hope that with the upcoming albums, hopefully there’s a third and a fourth and people keep listening. I’d love to be doing exactly this as long as it’s paying the bills.
If you could visit anywhere in the world, where would it be?
I’d like to go back to Thailand. I was there in 2003, and we spent a couple of weeks there. I’d love to go back there and spend a couple of months. I’d like to do India as well, because I’ve never been there.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
“Love what you’re doing.” That’s true. Also, I keep telling this story — we were heading out on a tour for the first time with the boys. We were leaving Writers at Woody Point. Ron Hynes was playing that same year, and we asked him for advice. Young band heading out on the road for the first time — you got any good advice for us? He said to drink lots of water, and we were like, “Oh yeah, cool.” He said it will keep the bags from under your eyes and out of your room. That’s not bad advice. (Laughs)