B.J. Snowden is in love -- with Canada. The 57-year-old, Massachusetts-based cult fave singer/songwriter has penned numerous odes to the northern nation. Her two CDs boast tunes with such titles as "Newfound- land," "Prince Edward Island" and "In Canada."
It's hard to describe this music. It's not pop, it's not jazz, folk or soul; the only thing you can say for sure is that Snowden puts her heart into it. Snowden's keyboarding and lyrics, occasionally backed by her son's overwrought electric guitar, are as straightforward as the names of her songs. "Oh, Novie, oh, Novie, my ancestors come from you," she croons. "You're tranquil, relaxing and dear."
Snowden's song "New Brunswick," on her album In Memory of My Father & My Life in Canada's Atlantic Provinces, sounds almost like an ad. "Everyone is having fun," she sings cheerily. "Everything is under the sun in New Brunswick, New Brunswick . . . fifteen hundred miles of shorelines, a great place to wine and dine in New Brunswick, New Brunswick."
Snowden's fascination with Canada, coupled with her earnest, unadorned vocals, has endeared her to outsider music aficionados. A decade ago, the staff of Venus Records in Greenwich Village plucked her self-produced demo tape from the discount bin and began playing it for customers. One of them was Fred Schneider of The B-52s.
Schneider became a fan, and encouraged the store to produce a full-length Snowden CD, Life in the USA and Canada, which he blurbed.
Snowden has since appeared in Irwin Chusid's 2000 outsider-music primer, Songs in the Key of Z. She was featured on MTV's "Oddville," and on an "Outsider" edition of public radio's "Studio 360." Last fall, Snowden appeared on ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live."
But Snowden disputes her outsider status. She was trained at the Berklee School of Music, and worked for years in various schools as a children's music teacher. Since being laid off in 2001, she's worked as a substitute teacher. In addition to her gigs at the Khyber-Pass Café in Halifax and the Knitting Factory in New York City, she also plays piano and sings gospel music each week at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Snowden brings her sincere stylings to Radio Bean on Sunday. Seven Days spoke with her by phone from the home she shares with her elderly mother in Billerica.
CATHY RESMER: You sing a lot about Canada.
B.J. SNOWDEN: I love Canada.
BS: The people are friendly. The cities are very clean. My mother and I go up to Prince Edward Island for a month in July, and we love it up there. It's just so beautiful. There are a lot of wide-open spaces. My grandmother was from Canada.
CR: And yet I notice that you don't sing at all about Québec. Why is that?
BS: The reason I didn't do Québec is because a lot of the people from Québec wanted to separate from Canada. So I didn't bother writing about them. But I do have a new song for them. It's about Montréal. I'm performing there the day before I'm in Vermont.
CR: You didn't write about Québec because you were protesting the separatist movement?
BS: A little bit, yeah.
CR: In your song about Montréal, how do you rhyme with Québec?
BS: I don't. I do have rhymes in the song, but not with Québec.
CR: Has the tourism office of Canada ever contacted you?
BS: No, they haven't! And I don't know how to get in touch with them.
CR: It seems like a no-brainer. You're, like, their biggest fan, and you're spreading the word about how great Canada is. Would you ever consider doing an ad campaign for them?
BS: Oh, I'd love to.
CR: Your music is like nothing I've ever heard before. I find it compelling, but I can't put my finger on exactly why. It reminds me of the way I feel about Leslie Hall's gem sweater-themed rap music.
BS: You know Leslie? That's funny. She and I did a show together at Coolidge Corner in Brookline. Her brother who lives in Los Angeles is a fan. He gave her my address and number, and she emailed me and asked me to perform with her.
CR: Leslie Hall is also considered a kind of outsider musician. I know you've had issues with the outsider label -- you've said you felt uncomfortable being included on the Chusid book's companion CD.
BS: Some of the other music that was on that album didn't seem to click with me. I just didn't feel as though I really fit with the other artists.
CR: How would you classify your music?
BS: Experimental. I'm trying to do different things with the music I'm composing. It depends on my mood.
CR: Are you experimenting instrumentally?
BS: Actually, I only play the keyboard and a little bit of recorder. My song "La Luna Bella" -- I play the recorder on that.
CR: I should add that you don't just write about Canada. The song "Disaster and Tragedy," for example, whose chorus is "Disaster, and tragedy, although we know this is wrong / disaster and tragedy together makes us strong," sounds like it applies to the U.S.
BS: Oh, my mother wrote the words to that song. I just wrote the music. It's a song about 9/11. Americans actually got together and donated their time and money to a lot of people, like the families of people who got killed on that day. My mother says something at the beginning to dedicate it -- "not to the rich people and the politicians, but to the regular people like you and I." Or "not to the government, but to the people of the United States."
CR: Does she perform with you?
BS: Yes. Just that one song, though. But sometimes, when I sing "In Canada," she'll sing that, too. She's heard it so many times she knows the words.
CR: Most of your songs are pretty upbeat, but not "Conspiracy," which is more like a rap number. In the chorus, you chant, "Conspiracy, conspiracy, some co-workers working against me." And there's that line, "Some bosses think these teachers are a peach, but in reality, they're nothing but a beach." It's about your former job as a music teacher, I take it.
BS: Yes . . . I worked there from 1999 to 2001. They laid me off. You probably know, out in the workforce, that there are some nice people, right? But there are some mean people. And the mean people and the bosses seem to click together.
CR: I read somewhere that your former employers had not taken kindly to your music career.
BS: Yes, you're right. I think that might have been part of the reason they got rid of me.
CR: I've heard that your performances are unique. What's a typical B.J. Snowden show like?
BS: I make people happy. Because there are so many depressing situations in the country now. Some people will come up to me at the end of the show and say, you know, "I was in a bad mood today, but you made me happy." That's happened quite a few times. There were a couple girls, [when] I was playing in Cambridge, Mass., they came in to eat. And they wrote a little thing on a napkin that said, "You really made my day. You made life worth living." You know what happened one day? A group of students from Emerson College was going to come see my show so they could have something to laugh about. And then, when they got there, they were shocked. They said, "We came here to have something to laugh about, and we were just amazed at the things you did." That's how I turn a lot of people around. They think I'm a joke.