Hear the inspiring, soulful and foot-stomping songs that got these 5 musicians through 2020

·11 min read

It's no secret that 2020 was a tough year, but like many people, these five Atlantic Canadian musicians turned to music to help them through the uncertainty, stress and loneliness caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here are the songs they had on repeat this year to get through the tough times.


Charlottetown, P.E.I.'s Kinley Dowling — also known as just Kinley — had planned to release her sophomore album in 2020 while spending much of the year shopping the record for film and television productions.

"I was kind of ready to be settled, but I didn't realize the whole world was going to be settled too, and that film and TV was probably going to be taking a break for a little while," she said.

Instead, it turned out to be a busy year for Dowling, who recorded violin and viola parts for other musicians in her home studio, taught violin lessons online and performed some virtual concerts.

She was even part of a drive-in show for this year's Cavendish Beach Music Festival.

"Instead of claps, there were honks, which was a little strange to get used to at first, but now I live for the honks," she said.

With all that, along with moving house three times and filming two music videos — within public health guidelines — Dowling's had some upbeat tunes to move her through the year.

Ferris Wheel – Sylvan Esso

Dowling said this song from American electronic pop duo Sylvan Esso is a great pick-me-up.

"It's this super hot jam, perfect for the summer," she said.

"I read an interview that the duo said the song is about discovering your power and awkwardly figuring out how to wield it."

Seven – Taylor Swift

"I'm a Swiftie, for sure," Dowling said of her fandom of Taylor Swift. She said Swift's surprise summer album Folklore was a perfect counterpoint to a difficult year.

"The Folklore album is so perfect and I feel it's what everyone needed right now. It's really calm," said Dowling.

"I wake up with it in my head every morning, it's so beautiful."

I Still See You At Parties – Port Cities

While the pandemic doesn't allow for house parties, Dowling said this song by Nova Scotia group Port Cities is another "hot jam."

"I can't stop listening to this song and I think it rings true for a lot of people right now," she said.

"It's a breakup song and COVID really fast-forwarded a lot of relationships, so a lot of people are finding themselves single right now — I know parties aren't happening right now, so that's kind of great, you don't even have to see your ex at a party, but there's something to look forward to in the future."

Deantha Edmunds

Ted Dillon/CBC
Ted Dillon/CBC

Inuk soprano Deantha Edmunds had performances booked everywhere from Nova Scotia to British Columbia to New Zealand, but the pandemic changed all that.

Edmunds had planned to bring her family along, with her and her husband home-schooling their daughter as they travelled. She says the loss of that opportunity was something she grieved.

"It was very difficult and I'm always mindful of what I have to be grateful for living here in St. John's, being close to my family," she said.

"But, you know what, I don't think there's anything wrong with saying it was hard."

Oqiton – Jeremy Dutcher

In difficult times, Edmonds said she turns to music like Oqiton from Jeremy Dutcher's Polaris Prize-winning album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa for inspiration and comfort.

"This piece always moves me. He's in conversation with, in dialogue with the ancestors," she said. "We hear the elder singing on the recording from like 1907 and Jeremy Dutcher wrote it into completely new music … it really transports me to another place."

Qaumajuapik – Riit

Edmunds said the music of Inuk artist Riit, which combines throat singing and electro-pop, helps to liven up her mornings, especially the song Qaumajuapik, which means "you are shining."

"I read that it's a sort of love song about the intensity of first connecting with someone, how your heart races and it feels like the clock stops," she said.

"I just really love to listen to it in the morning so I can get energized and uplifted."

Wanting Memories – composed by Ysaye M. Barnwell, as performed by Shallaway Youth Choir's Exsultate Ensemble

Another inspiration for Edmunds is this virtual performance from St. John's choir Shalloway, released in May.

"Around that time, we were dealing with the fact that life was changing so much and moving through that difficult period of coming to terms with it," she said. "[The song] just really helped me breathe easier and to feel hope. Just to hear their hopeful, positive, strong, confident young voices, it's something really good.

"It's good medicine."

Owen "O'Sound" Lee

Robert Short for CBC
Robert Short for CBC

For Halifax's Owen Lee, 2020 has been a busy year, but perhaps not in the way he expected.

Along with working as a producer and musician, Lee is the program co-ordinator for the African Nova Scotian Music Association and the musical director for a number of church groups.

But this year, Lee's spent more time at home with his two sons and triplet daughters, while finding ways to play music online and performing at virtual church services.

"Being able to sing and play and still broadcast to others and knowing that others need this as a way to help them get through this pandemic, knowing that they can't meet in person, but at least there's still some type of way to get the message, some type of way to get that feeling, that emotion, that connection," he said.

"It's mainly the reason why I can still smile in the midst of a global pandemic."

Survive – Reeny Smith

Lee said Nova Scotia singer Reeny Smith's Survive is an uplifting song that's helped him through the pandemic.

"This is just a beautiful song to me, the chorus is so powerful, 'I'll survive, I'm not giving up on faith, all my life I've been waiting for this day,'" he said.

"It is such a powerful song, every time I listen to this chorus, I just feel encouraged, feel motivated to continue to strive, no matter what — I will survive, I will get through this."

Made A Way – Travis Greene

Growing up singing in church, Lee said his faith has also been helpful in difficult times, a feeling captured in the song Made A Way.

"My faith is something that I hold very dear to me, and faith is something that I've definitely held onto very close during this pandemic," he said.

"Made A Way, the lyricism, the melody, the musicianship, it's almost the perfect amalgamation to describe what we've been feeling during this pandemic. Listening to the verses saying, 'not knowing how I'll get through this test, but holding onto faith,' it's very moving. It makes me very emotional at times."

Good News – Classified feat. Breagh Isabel

Lee also works closely with Halifax rapper Classified, and the pair teamed up with singer-songwriter Breagh Isabel to record a song with a message that he said people need in 2020.

"It was actually recorded at the end of 2019, but once again, you couldn't plan better timing. When he released the song was when the pandemic hit," he said.

"Listening to this song just gives you that good feeling that we long for in this timeframe."

Matt Andersen

Vivian Rashotte/CBC
Vivian Rashotte/CBC

Like many other musicians, Matt Andersen already had a full calendar before 2020 even started.

The New Brunswick blues singer-guitarist was on the road for more than 200 shows last year and had plenty of Canadian and international shows and cruise ship gigs planned for this year.

All of it was scratched when the pandemic hit.

"It was going to be another year of running around quite steady and it turned into the longest time I've spent in one time zone in probably 15 years," he said.

Set This Heart on Fire – Catherine MacLellan

Andersen said P.E.I singer-songwriter Catherine MacLellan's song Set This Heart on Fire is helpful if he's frustrated or angry.

"It's a happy, good vibes song. Lots of times, that's all you need to turn you around," he said. "That tune I've used lots of times in angry situations. When I'm driving and if the traffic's just driving me nuts, that tune just helps me chill out. I'll put it on repeat and just leave it alone."

People Get Ready – Aretha Franklin

When he's looking for inspiration, Andersen said he puts on some Aretha Franklin, a singer whose voice "reaches right through the speakers."

"There are very few voices that do for me what Aretha's does. I can't feel anything but happy when I listen to that," he said.

"It's just inspiration as far as singing and melody and all that kind of stuff, and just an inspirational song anyway, and she delivers it."

Homecoming – Tom T. Hall

While Andersen has spent much time at home in 2020, he also knows the feeling of homesickness, a feeling he said Tom T. Hall perfectly captures in the song Homecoming.

"He just nails the whole vibe of being away, especially as a musician," he said. "I think it's just a perfect song, every line he's painting a picture … and of course, it makes me miss home every time he sings it."

Joanna Barker

Rebecca Hartery
Rebecca Hartery

Almost from the beginning, this year has been completely different than Joanna Barker expected. She thought she'd be teaching music and performing with her group Eastern Owl.

But in January, Barker ruptured her Achilles tendon while playing in a community volleyball tournament, bringing her home with her parents in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L., instead of teaching in the Labrador community of Natuashish, and keeping her off her feet until April.

"By the time I was cleared to go back to work, COVID had really hit Canada, and I was not returning to Natuashish to teach and was housebound for even more time," she said.

Strange Girl – Laura Marling

Barker turned to music while healing from her injury and said Laura Marling always seems to have the right song at just the right moment in her life. She said Strange Girl came to her as she was fearful of beginning to walk again — and possibly being restricted again.

"Every part of this song in particular, Strange Girl it's called, is so relatable for me, and I needed it at the time," she said.

"This album was released in April, it was a few days before my boot came off — I was in this walking boot, and I was really nervous about letting go of it … when I heard this song, I was dancing in my seat as much as I could and I felt this overwhelming joy."

Barker said she sent the song to a friend as soon as she heard it, who in turn, was about to share it with her.

"Not only was this song really good for me in terms of helping me through such a difficult time, but it made me feel closer to someone that I was not able to be physically close to."

Reliever – William Prince

Barker said she also listened to a lot of William Prince's music while recovering, songs that she said are brilliantly written and that she now has a close connection with.

"He just says things in such a way that I feel as if that's all that needs to be said. He said it, we're good," she said.

"I spent most of my time in bed, just listening to this record, but it wasn't until the summer, when I was reunited with my partner, that I really fell in love with the song."

Lovely Day – Bill Withers

Now back in the classroom in Natuashish, Barker said she's glad to be back.

"It's been just a really joyous return and just being able to walk to all my favourite places here has been so core to my progressive healing, both emotionally and physically."

She said a Bill Withers song reminds her of the bond she's made with her students and her family this year.

"Lovely Day, for me, was a reminder to focus on who gets you through. In this case, it was my parents, my partner Kyle. My sister had a baby in April, in the middle of the crisis, so little baby Evelyn was a joy that saw a lot of us through," she said.

"When I sing this song, I think of all those faces — and my students, I was thinking about them and when I see their faces and 'when I look at you, I know it's going to be a lovely day.'"