Too Many Sisters
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Too Many Sisters
biography

May 2006, Carla MacNeil, violin in hand, and Stephen Stanley walked on stage at a low-key gig at Mitzi’s Sister in downtown Toronto. In Carla’s own words, the night was a “glad you missed it” affair, but the rehearsal leading up to the gig excited Stanley enough to dig into a major change of musical direction. “I knew that I wanted to introduce a violin into the new songs, but I hadn’t bargained on fnding someone to share lead vocals with.” Instantly, it became clear that the new duo was where it was going.

Stanley frst came to prominence as a founding member of Toronto’s indie faves Lowest of the Low. During their celebrated career the band released four CDs, sold more than 100,000 records, and toured endlessly. Perhaps their high-water mark was the release of their 1991 certifed gold album Shakespeare My Butt... which ranks sixth on Chart magazine’s best Canadian albums of all time and received the coveted lifetime achievement award from Toronto’s 102.1, the Edge. The band was inducted into the Canadian Indie Hall of Fame in 2008. Stanley released his frst solo disc That Thin, Wild Mercury in 2003 and supported it by exercising his renowned performance muscle in various venues throughout Ontario and Western New York.

While Stanley frst learned to play guitar at age 13 in a class with six senior citizens, MacNeil, who grew up in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, honed her craft under more auspicious guidance; namely Canadian East Coast music royalty Kendra MacGillivary, Sandy MacIntyre and Dwayne Cote. These internationally celebrated musicians each shaped MacNeil’s approach to her instrument of choice. A million square sets and kitchen ceilidh’s later, MacNeil moved to Toronto in 2001 for a brief stint with pop band Tenzing Norgay.

The duo’s music might best be described as East Coast Alterno-Folk. That is to say, East Coast as in Greenwich Village in the early sixties (you know, Dylan, Ochs, Van Ronk), but that’s just a jumping-off point. MacNeil refers to it as “traditional enough that I get a little homesick at certain points of our set, but rock enough to keep me in Toronto.” It seems Stanley could never really abandon his Lowest of the Low roots after all.

With a new, exciting sound in mind, Stanley began to write songs that ft the duo’s style, and more so, songs that suited MacNeil’s sweet ethereal vocals. The “glad you missed it” gig soon became a dusty memory, and two year’s worth of extensive gigging in Toronto was well underway. Some high points included a set opening for UK legend Lloyd Cole at the Mod Club, a four-day collaboration with Australia’s Mick Thomas of Wedding, Parties, Anything, and a now annual weekend set with Ron Hawkins at Graffti’s in Toronto’s Kensington Market, infamous for drawing a batch of cops due to overcrowding.

Stanley & MacNeil frst recorded the track “Take Me in Your Hands” for the Rheostatics’ tribute record, The Secret Sessions, in 2007, and have now completed and released their debut album, Non Barking Dog.

Non Barking Dog includes 12 recordings made up of 11 new Stanley-penned songs, plus a cover of the beautiful “Useless Desires,” written by Austin, Texas singer/songwriter Patty Griffn. The album was produced by Stanley’s ex-band mate Ron Hawkins, who also lends a hand on keyboards, vocals, guitar, and percussion. The stellar rhythm section on the disc consists of The Weakerthans’ Jason Tait on drums, and ex-Lowest of the Low bass player Dylan Parker. The work was recorded and produced starting early in 2008 at James Paul’s Toronto, Ontario recording facility, The Rogue. The lead-off track, “Skyscrapers,” was, Stanley says, “the frst song that has ever been partly written for me in a dream.” In this dream, Wayne Coyne, leader of Oklahoma City’s favourite sons The Flaming Lips, was “standing directly across from me and pointing at me. He was angry and kept repeating four lines over and over, saying I had to use them in a song. When I woke up I could only remember two of the lines: ‘The newspapers tell me why, all the scrapers scrape the sky.’ Pretty damn good really. The lyric for that song was written in its entirety the next day. It morphed into a love song about the places and landmarks that you see everyday as you go through life, and how they are inexorably linked to the people who are most important to you.”

The song “A Lonely Sound” was Stanley’s frst attempt to write something that would showcase MacNeil’s unique voice. Inspired by the road movie genre, it tells the story in three parts of a woman who is running away from her life, knows that she has to, but is looking at the whole thing as a giant mistake. Early on, Stanley says he tried to demo this song with him singing the lead, to disastrous results. “Carla’s haunting vocal on this song makes it completely believable. It was her vocal work on the development of this song that turned a solo project into a band.”

Sometime last summer Stanley took a short break and headed north. “I believe that getting out of the city (Toronto) at least once a year is important to my perspective and state of mind. On this particular trip I took along a small-scale acoustic guitar that I had recently purchased for my daughters. This thing is awesome to play, quite inexpensive, and it always reminds me of the guitar sound you hear on Woody Guthrie or Phil Ochs recordings. So, it is easy to be inspired by this instrument. On the second morning away, I woke up with the phrase ‘same old joint’ running through my brain. Literally 45 minutes later the song by the same name was fnished in its entirety. I love times like this as a writer, because you really experience something that is beyond you. It doesn’t happen often for me, but when it does, I ride that wave. The song became the story of returning to a place that is all too familiar, but facing it as a stranger. Alienation is a dominant theme on this record, for sure.”