In a changing world and industry, N.B. musicians returning home to stay

·8 min read

David Myles always thought he would retire in his hometown of Fredericton.

But the summer of 2020 brought a decision that came as a bit of a surprise even to him.

"I expected to stay in Halifax a long time," Myles said of his 15-year residence in that city.

"I thought we were there, I was settled. But then we came to New Brunswick on vacation and — it just messed me up," he said with a laugh.

He said his wife brought up the subject of moving home early on in their three-week trip this summer to visit family.

It seems that was like a dam breaking for the family.

From there it was a "crazy turnaround," Myles said.

Within days, his wife headed back to Halifax to prep their north end Halifax home to be shown to prospective buyers.

It sold fast, and the family bought a home in Fredericton just as quickly.

By the time their three-week vacation was over, the only thing left to do was head home to pack — and tell the neighbours they were leaving.

"Our neighbours, longtime neighbours who we knew well, and our close friends were all shocked," Myles said, because the decision had come so suddenly.

Myles moved to Halifax in 2005 because his wife was accepted at University of King's College.

And he doesn't regret the decision.

Changing needs

"It's a great city and it was good to us," he said.

The city is also the centre of the Maritimes' music industry. There are agents, managers, publicists and lots of recording studios.

It's a place where musicians can make the connections they need to succeed.

There was also easy access to an international airport, important for a busy touring musician.

But Myles said his needs are changing.

"I don't want to tour like that in this stage of my life," he said.

"I'm not exactly racing to get back on a plane anytime soon."

He has two school-age children now and is happy to be nearer his mother, who was recently widowed.

Technology helps

And technology makes it easier to do his job, allowing him to record music at home.

"I've got a Christmas song for next year and a full album of instrumentals ready."

He's also doing a podcast talk show called Myles From Home, which he said has been a great learning experience.

And the move so far has been "excellent, 100 per cent positive."

David Myles's story isn't as unusual as you might think.

Jean Surette, the executive director of Music NB, said the past decade or so has seen an influx of New Brunswickers who went away to learn their trade in the music business and have now returned.

He said that's especially true of producers and recording engineers who have come back to set up their own recording studios.

And the internet has allowed them to do that.

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Take Jason Barry, for example, who returned to his hometown of Miramichi in 2019 and set up Barrytone Studios.

Barry left what was then Newcastle in the early 1990s for Ontario to pursue a career in music.

"At that time, that was the biggest scene," Barry said, "You had to be there to get noticed."

He got noticed playing guitar with Charlie Major's band, who dominated the Canadian country music charts in the mid-'90s.

But when he wasn't onstage, he got a gig as the in-house engineer at Cedar Tree Studios in the Kitchener and Waterloo region west of Toronto, where he would also provide guitar and background vocals.

Eventually, he started his own studio, finally settling down on a rural property in the Kitchener area.

He'd win awards for producing and for his guitar work as a member of Canadian country star Dean Brody's band.

Jason Barry
Jason Barry

But you can't take the Newcastle out of the boy. He built a cottage in Miramichi, near his mother's home, and, like David Myles, it was his wife who first suggested returning for good.

"She spent a summer there and really fell in love with the place," Barry said.

Plus, Barry was tired of the hassles of air travel out of Pearson airport.

'Less entitled ideals'

"I was going to the airport from Waterloo and you never really knew how much time to allow for. It was like three and a half hours. It's so easy to fly out of Moncton, an hour, hour and a half drive."

His children, aged 11 and 13 were also a consideration.

"It's a wonderful place to grow up," Barry said, "and it has — I don't know what the best word is — less entitled ideals."

So the cottage became the family home, and an old farmhouse on 20 acres became the new studio.

The internet has allowed the move to happen. Right now, he's working on a project with a Nashville producer on a tribute to guitarist James Burton, which includes Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and Queen guitarist Brian May.

It's all being done by sending work files back and forth over the internet.

It was time to prioritize where we were and not what we were doing John Mclaggan, Tomato/Tomato

"It's my one crack at a Grammy, maybe," Barry said with a chuckle.

But it shows what can be achieved with technology.

"I can hire the best guitarist in the world, and he can do it in his own [studio] rig," he said.

As well, being in New Brunswick with a lower cost of living means, Barry said he can charge less for studio time: $350 a day compared to $600 and up for a Toronto area studio.

Offering affordable studio time is part of John Mclaggan's business plan, too.

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The Grand Bay-Westfield musician and one half of the folk duo Tomato/Tomato with his wife, Lisa, built a studio in their home, which they bought in 2009 after returning to John's hometown.

He's hoping to offer affordable mastering of recordings, the important final step in making music sound like the artist intended. He calls it an artist-friendly niche.

The couple met at the Boston Conservatory of Music. Lisa is originally from Chicago. John went to Boston to pursue a master's degree in music and was a jazz sax player.

They then travelled around trying to secure jobs teaching at a university. It took them to Nova Scotia, Florida and Iowa.

John Mclaggan
John Mclaggan

But Mclaggan said the experience of a big U.S. city like Miami "did us in." By the time they got to Iowa, Mclaggan said they were tired of city life and thinking about starting a family.

The allowable maternity leave was six weeks, health care was expensive, and Mclaggan said they decided they "could not raise a child in this Walmart town."

"It was time to prioritize where we were and not what we were doing," Mclaggan said.

And where they wanted to be was in John's hometown.

It turned out to be a great decision, "literally the best" according to John.

Strange origin story

Lisa got a job teaching at Fundy High School in St. George and John took on music lessons.

But a strange event would lead them down the path to an unexpected successful music career.

"It was the oddest thing," Mclaggan said, laughing.

He and Lisa were hired to play at a Christmas event at Cherry Brook Zoo in Saint John.

They were supposed to play ragtime jazz, but they were also asked to lead a group of people through the zoo, singing Christmas songs.

That was impossible with their jazz instruments, so John dug out an old guitar he had rarely played.

After the gig, Mclaggan continued to fiddle around on the guitar. Soon he was writing songs and Lisa was encouraging him to sing them onstage, something he was very nervous about.

But out of that odd zoo gig, Tomato/Tomato was born and they now find themselves five albums into a career, with a handful of music awards to their name. The fifth recording is due out in November, titled It'll Come Around.

For the Mclaggans, coming home was about family, geography, the pace of living and the ability to afford a nice home.

That's pretty close to why Jason Barry came back. He loves that he's near his 88-year-old mother, his four sisters and one brother. And he's thrilled his kids are enjoying their small school.

"Does everybody know everybody here?"

"You know what it's like in a small school. Once you make friends, they're friends for life," he said, pausing, then adding through laughter, "Or enemies for life."

Barry said the COVID pandemic has "given everybody a jolt" and made people think more about "what's really important."

For David Myles, that's his deep connection to Fredericton, where he said he's now always running into family and friends.

He said it happens so often, his kids asked him, "Does everybody know everybody here?".

So would he ever consider leaving again?

"I'd be very surprised. I can't see why — I love this town."