GERALDINE Hollett feels like she’s come home. It’s an overcast afternoon in Dublin and, gazing at the grey Liffey from her hotel room, The Once’s lead singer has a sense she’s crossed an ocean and yet not travelled all that far.
“I’m from Newfoundland in Canada,” she explains. “There’s a huge Irish and Scottish influence. If you’ve ever been you’ll understand. You’d notice the similarities. I travel to Ireland and it’s like I’m with family. The connections run deep.”
The Once formed in St John’s, Newfoundland’s capital, in 2006. With a rootsy sound that draws on Celtic traditional playing – as brought to Canada by generations of migrants – their music is full-blooded and rollicking, shot through with a powerful melancholy.
They’ve just released their fourth studio album, Departures, and are currently on tour as support to Passenger. At the start of their tour with Passenger, The Once confess to having been overwhelmed by the large venues. However, several weeks in, they’ve found their stride.
“At moments we’ve had to fight to get people to pay attention,” says Hollett. “That is something that support bands have to deal with. We play for 30 minutes. The idea is to give people a sense of what we do, so that they’ll come to our shows. In the beginning maybe people would applaud as we came out – and then it would die down as they realised we weren’t Passenger. However, they seem to be coming around.”
It’s been a tough slog she says. Starting out in the mid 2000s, The Once struggled to expand their fan-base beyond Newfoundland, let alone break out of Canada. However, they received an early favour in the form of a $5,000 gift from a wealthy fan, so that they could record an album. It was precisely the leg-up required.
“There are definitely moments you feel nothing is happening and it can be difficult in terms of touring. You struggle to maintain your enthusiasm. On the other side, when you feel that things ARE happening then it is the best fun. You can’t wait for the next gig.”
While Hollett acknowledges Newfoundland’s Irish heritage has made its way into The Once’s DNA, she would be hate for the group to be regarded as some sort of twee folk affair. They see themselves as firmly contemporarily – drawing on the past, for sure, but always with a modern twist.
“I wouldn’t even put us in the traditional thing,” she says. “I think we are more modern than that. We love Celtic music. However we exist in the present, not the past.”
The group came together by accident. Hollett was performing at a theatre festival when she became acquainted with fellow musicians Phil Churchill and Andrew Dale. “One night three of us ended up playing songs together. Right away, we could sense a musical chemistry. We were asked to play a gig outside of the festival – just the three of us. So we did: that was the start of the band. It’s been our lives ever since.”
The Passenger support slot arose serendipitously. Two years ago, The Once were playing at a radio station in Glasgow. On straight afterwards was Passenger, aka Englishman Mike Rosenberg. He was so impressed by what he heard he invited them to his studio in Australia to sing-back up on his new album.
Though Departures has just been released, The Once are already thinking towards their next LP. “It isn’t easy when you are touring,” says Hollett. “On those days you aren’t playing you’ve got press, television..all of that. But we do our best to be disciplined. I try to write something every day.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved