“If they’re not songs that you wish you’d written, then you’re not being honest enough with yourself.” (Matt McKenna)
Four years ago, two aspiring singer/songwriters from Hamilton, Ontario, Matt McKenna and James Bloemendal, found they had something when they combined the force of their talents together. They met while furthering their studies in music at Redeemer College University in Ancaster. Both schooled in piano in their younger years, each were later drawn to the lure of the guitar. Combined with their flair for vocal harmonies, these two decided to embark on a musical journey, fuelled by their passion for songwriting, their drive to succeed, and heavily influenced by a variety of songwriting greats of the past and present, such as Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkel, Gordon Lightfoot, Jesse Cooke, John Mayer, and Sara Borelis.
It would be hundreds of songs penned in an intense writing workshop that would ultimately lead them to discover the road they would take in terms of identifying their sound, and the flavours of their subject matter. One thing was certain, that the songs they wanted to write would be about things that mattered, and become the vehicle by which they could contribute and infuse the world with some positive insight.
Their big break came in 2013 when they accompanied Justin Hines on his Vehicle Of Change tour, which saw them travel over 20,000 miles across North America. In June, 2014 they released their first full-length studio album, Let The Storm Come (Orange Records) featuring 12 songs, a handful of which were co-written with Peter Katz, Caroline Brooks, Julie Crochetière, and Rob Szabo. The album received a wealth of support and airplay by Canadian satellite stations as well as CBC. It is slated for a release date in Australia/New Zealand on Feb. 6, 2015, which will be followed by an Australian tour in March. Upon their return in April, they will head for eastern Canada.
Collaborating with other artists has enabled them to broaden their songwriting skills and brought about a real diversity in their music. They have since had opportunities to work with some creative people in Nashville and are looking forward to an upcoming trip to Montreal, where they will have a chance to work with legendary writer, producer, performer and arranger, Clarence McDonald.
On Saturday night, I had the pleasure of attending their show at a house concert, a unique venue scene which provided an intimate setting and a chance to get up close and personal with the artists.
They began with an upbeat original, “Manna For My Soul”, a song about how the smallest and simplest of life’s daily events and pleasures can fill the heart. The boys pulled off a full band sound, with their harmonious voices, acoustic guitars, and accompanying rhythms on foot-propelled tambourine and cajón instruments. The song’s uplifting message and infectious hook had an immediate impact on the audience.
James switched over to the hollow bodied Gretsch for “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)”, which demonstrated the duo’s strong Simon & Garfunkel influence, as their whispery voices wove in and out of changing harmonies in this classic piece. I loved the way they brought the song to a “fade-to-black” ending, with James manually turning the main volume down slowly, while Matt brought his vocals and guitar down to a bare minimum.
Matt took a break to introduce their next song, “Endless Pursuit Of Cool”, as they each shared childhood stories of battling awkwardness and not quite fitting in. Another up-tempoed tune, James plucked out the melody line on his acoustic, while Matt kept up a fast strumming pace on his. I loved the song’s optimistic message, which conveyed that even though some of us must endure this rite of passage in our youth, we should never feel pressured to change who we are as an individual. “We are – who we are – who we are, is all we’ll ever be”, rang out in long vocal sustains for several bars in a vocal purge of declaration and celebration.
“You Need More Than Love”, was a brilliantly soft-spoken piece, which travelled through varying paces in rhythm changes. I loved the vocal climbs into the higher reaching choruses, the sustains that led to the next turn in the song, and the harmonies that magically wove together the entire way through. This song was co-written with Julie Crochetière, who recorded her version on her album, Counting Dreams (2014), which is nominated for this year’s Juno award, “Vocal Jazz Album Of The Year”.
Later, Matt donned the mandolin for, “If You Stay”, which was dedicated to those in the audience that had successfully maintained their long-term relationships with their spouses. Through thick and thin, the song spoke of marital imperfections, finding the right person, riding out the storm, and being a better person for it.
There were a couple more creatively arranged covers, “Dancing In The Dark”, “Tainted Love”, as well as Joni Mitchell’s “River”, which exhibited plenty of impressive strong/soft textures vocally and instrumentally.
Another beautiful songwriting effort came with “Let The Storm Come”, where the audience was asked to join in on the chorus. The song commenced with more of those whisper soft voices and brilliant harmonies, which later intensified into passionate swells of heavier strummed guitars and voices fully let out to shine.
Highlights in the second part of the show included James’ personal reflections of his Dutch heritage and large, tightly knit family. A song written in ode to his grandparents, “Grandmother’s Face”, tells an endearing tale of lessons learned through his grandparents’ living examples, and the character-building assets he has gained from them.
“Heaven Is A Ghost Town” was another lively, tongue-in-cheek piece, written in playful response to all the explanations of what the after-life may or may not be like.
The evening ended with an encore song written in profession of their love, “You Carry Me.” Here they stepped out in front of their monitors to sing in tribute to their wives. Starting softly, James alone played guitar, picking the chords of the first verses gently while Matt softly sang. The song picked up when James switched to strumming his guitar and added his voice, as the two began to bring the song into hugeness. I loved its simple, minor chords, gorgeous melody, the beautiful shift into the bridge, and the way in which the vocals travelled through layers, textures, and volume swells. It brought the evening to a dynamic and emotional close.
The name Ash & Bloom was built around their unique differences and interpretations of life and death expressed through their music. Together, they deliver the wonderfully nostalgic essence of some of the greatest classic folk/pop songwriters of our time, accented with modern and playful twists, catchy and changing rhythms, masterful harmonies, and varying instrumental and vocal textures abound. Their songs cover the gamut of insightful topics that are truly identifiable, truthful, and soul-searching…as if to reassure us that we are all in this life together.