The legend of Belle Starr dates back to the 1880s when the woman known by that name fought alongside some of the most notorious outlaws in American history—exploits that earned her the additional description as “the female Jesse James.” Some say that the modern music industry contains traces of that same outlaw mentality, so it’s entirely fitting that the trio of young women now known collectively as Belle Starr share the same fearlessness as their spiritual forebear when it comes to their music.
However, it’s not as if their combined talents don’t speak for themselves. Belle Starr unites three of Canada’s top fiddlers and singers, creating a unique musical concept that is sure to make an instant, indelible impression upon roots music fans all over the world. What Stephanie Cadman, Kendel Carson and Miranda Mulholland each bring to this project is a ton of collaborative experience, accumulated in a short amount of time, with a host of other notable artists. The results are the glorious harmonies and innovative arrangements that provide the foundation of Belle Starr’s debut EP, The Burning Of Atlanta.
Recorded at Blue Rodeo’s studio, The Woodshed, with the aid of producer Russell Broom (Jann Arden, SheDaisy) and a stellar supporting cast consisting of guitarist Colin Cripps, bassist Maury LaFoy, keyboardist Steve O’Connor and drummer Lyle Molzan, Belle Starr put their unmistakable stamp on the EP’s diverse selection of five songs including Fred Eaglesmith’s “Summerlea,” the Jenny Whiteley-penned title track, Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)” and Dolly Parton’s immortal “Jolene.”
It’s merely the first step for Belle Starr though, as a full-length album is finished and ready for release later in 2012. This huge initial burst of creativity is a testament to the chemistry the trio felt when they first performed together as part of Jason McCoy’s Christmas At The Grand concert special for CMT in 2010. Surprisingly though, Mulholland says that the idea to form the group came about almost by chance.
“I was doing at gig at the Canadian Country Music Awards with Joel Stewart’s band, the Future Hall of Famers, and I saw Kendel playing with Dustin Bentall. I already knew Kendel because I’d subbed for her in another band she was with, and I knew Stephanie from playing together in Bowfire, so I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to have a band with three girls who all played fiddle and sang harmonies.”
“We realized right away how well we improvised with each other, which is pretty rare with lead instruments,” Carson adds. “I’ve played in so many bands where I’ve had to be careful not to step on what the guitar player is doing, but I believe each of us has great ears and is a sensitive, intuitive kind of musician, which is what makes this project so exciting for me. We spent a lot of time in the studio, but now that we’re starting to play live, the way the songs are evolving on stage is truly magical. It really feels like we’re just scratching the surface of what we’re able to do together.”
For Cadman, being in Belle Starr is a completely new experience, even though the Ottawa native has put in her fair share of time on stage since graduating high school. She worked in musical theatre and for five years performed her solo show, Celtic Blaze, around North America, which showcased both her musical talents and Ottawa Valley step dancing skills. For all that, this is the first time Cadman has been in a band. “I love it,” she gushes. “Plus, it’s so great that a lot of our repertoire so far consists of songs by Canadian artists I’ve admired for so long.” Cadman adds, “I feel like one of my main contributions has been on the percussion side of things. I’ve been able to employ my step dancing background when we’re on stage and it’s just the three of us. And I think my fiddle style incorporates the most east coast influence, since I’ve worked in PEI so much. All of our styles have been able to shine through in this project.”
For the Alberta-born Carson, her first exposure came through busking with her brother on the streets of Victoria B.C. when she was seven years old. Later, a steady gig with Vancouver Celtic rockers the Paperboys had her crossing paths with legendary songwriter Chip Taylor (“Wild Thing,” “Angel of the Morning”) who produced Carson’s two critically acclaimed solo albums for his New York label, Train Wreck Records. She also was a founding member of B.C. string band Outlaw Social, and has regularly recorded and toured with Dustin Bentall.
Nevertheless, Carson didn’t hesitate to sign up with Belle Starr when the opportunity presented itself. “I didn’t really know Miranda that well, and I hadn’t met Steph, but I like to think of myself as a fairly open-minded person,” she says. “It just seemed like it was going to be a lot of fun, and we were in a lucky position from the start, having some good people in our corner. The project has grown so quickly and now it’s very clear to me that this is something special and has its own voice in the form of three fiddles. So many bands want to have strings as a part of their sound, and the fact that we have that capability is pretty mind-blowing.”
That sentiment is echoed by Guelph, Ontario-born Mulholland, who first hit the road as a member of The Mahones and most recently joined Great Lake Swimmers, with many stops on the road in between. The Burning Of Atlanta, says Mulholland, is the sound of three people getting to know each other. Now, she says, that bond is unbreakable, and Belle Starr’s music will continue to reflect that. “There was some concern at the start about who would take the lead on certain songs, but all of that went away while we were working on ‘Jolene.’ We actually built the track around Steph’s step dancing and kept adding parts from there. We really wanted to highlight our distinct voices on that one, and the way we all worked together to bring that out, for me that was when we discovered the Belle Starr sound. I think, above all, that taught us the lesson that songs kind of claim you, not the other way around.”