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Q&A with Simone Deneau of NAC Presents

By Lee Pepper on May 6, 2014

Not only a bastion of high culture, the National Arts Centre prides itself on exposing Ottawa to the work of up-and-coming musicians of all genres.

The NAC does this through its Scene festivals, which feature the music of a given province or region of Canada, and through its NAC Presents series, now entering its fourth season. The NAC Presents series features all Canadian artists, but aims to strike a balance between established artists, who in previous years have included Rufus Wainwright, Ian Tyson, and Ron Sexsmith, and emerging musicians.

The 2014-2015 NAC Presents lineup was unveiled today, and features Gordon Lightfoot, Sarah McLaughlan, Timber Timbre, Owen Pallett, Jenn Grant, hip-hop artist and CBC host Buck 65, and Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, among many others. You can see the full lineup here. The NAC Presents series is supported in part by a $500,000 donation that the NAC received in 2012 from the Slaight Family Foundation in support of the NAC’s mandate to help emerging Canadian artists gain exposure.

Singer-songwriter David Myles, who played the NAC Fourth Stage this February, commented:
“The NAC rules. They have totally helped me develop an audience in Ottawa. I’m really grateful. It’s one of those places that allows you to put on your ideal show, thanks to their great staff, the excellent stages and wicked crowds. It’s a great feeling.”

Apartment 613 sat down with NAC Presents Producer Simone Deneau to talk about the NAC’s role in Canadian music, and how the music business has changed over the past decade (with the exception of Ottawa’s abiding love of Gordon Lightfoot).

Gordon Lightfoot.

Gordon Lightfoot.

Apt613: What was the impetus for the NAC Presents series?

Simone Deneau: Our key inspiration is to recognize the incredible breadth and amazingness of the Canadian music scene!

Fifteen years ago, I’m not saying there couldn’t have been an NAC Presents, but it couldn’t have been what it is. There’s just so much out there, and the variety is amazing. The quality and the breadth of what’s been coming out over the past ten years and how Canadians are embracing and listening to it is a whole new thing.

So we wanted to capture that, and bring Canadian artists to what we call “our national stage” here at the NAC. We want the NAC to be a home for Canadian artists of all kinds, and to bring artists in from all across the country. It’s an iconic stage in many ways, and so to be able to create an opportunity for all Canadian artists to come in and perform here is amazing.

Ottawa also has a shortage of mid-size venues that book live music, so it’s great that the NAC  has smaller stages that provide that space.

Exactly, it creates a different audience and artist experience to have performers on the Fourth Stage, and in the Studio Theatre.

It also allows artists to move up. To have that progression is great: when you get to know an artist at an emerging stage in their career and you can end up having them perform in Southam Hall, that’s amazing. Watching our emerging artists evolve and grow, and having someone come early on in their career and then come back is a big plus for us, and I think it’s great for the artists too. They have something to aspire to when they come back to play a bigger room. [NAC Presents] is only three years old, so we’re working our way towards that, but it’s going to happen!

Tanya Tagaq.

Tanya Tagaq.

And how has this emerging artists mandate helped Canadian artists advance in their careers?

It’s a great experience for an emerging artist to come perform at the NAC: they get the full-blown marketing experience, they get somebody who is looking out for them, their performance, and their PR. Artists get to see how a performance is put together in a place like this, in terms of production values: we have a technical director and experienced sound and light engineers, and we create really cool visuals. Which is not to be condescending, because young artists nowadays are incredibly savvy!

The NAC Presents series is all Canadian artists; can you talk about why it’s important to the NAC to feature Canadian artists?

As we touched on earlier, the NAC is Canada’s national stage. To have a performing arts centre with very high standards artistically, and high production values, makes it a goal or destination for artists all across the country. I can’t even stress how amazing it is that we can have artists from BC, Québec, the East Coast, Manitoba…

Also, we have a Scenes festival, so one of the inspirations that’s given the NAC Presents series its raison d’être, is to keep revisiting these artists at different stages in their career.

Buck 65 is a great example, because he performed at the Atlantic Scene [and will be performing as part of NAC Presents this season.]

Buck 65.

Buck 65.

So the Scene festivals are a great way for the NAC to scout new talent for this series. What are some other ways that the NAC finds out about interesting new emerging artists?

Well, it’s a very lively and hooked-in industry. Artists have managers and agents, and if they don’t, they’re very active in self-promoting. Obviously, the internet is huge, and fifteen years ago it wouldn’t have played such a big role, but now when you hear music that you love, and you want to hear more, there are so many different ways. And, conversely, it allows artists to find out about us.

So the Scenes festivals are one way to get artists into the building, but there’s also networking, the showcase conferences that artists attend, and generally keeping an ear to the ground, there are a lot of ways.

I gather that you’ve been with the NAC for some time–

I don’t want to say how long, I started here as an usher!

What are some of the changes that you’ve seen in the type of programming the NAC has offered, over the time you’ve been here?

Well, I’ve seen a lot! 35 years ago, when I started here, the performing arts world was a different beast. In the seventies, you would see great artists like Gordon Lightfoot perform for five nights in Southam Hall, and that wasn’t unusual. With the rise of arena concerts, there aren’t many five-night shows: nobody has time, and people are touring a lot more.

In the Canadian music area, there was a dark time in terms of live performance, but now there’s been a huge renaissance, to the point where I think now live performances are the most important thing artists do.

Five years ago, you wouldn’t see emerging artists at the National Arts Centre, but [NAC President and CEO] Peter Herrndorf has been incredibly encouraging to all our different areas in terms of adding programming like the Scene festivals.

The difference was, things were simpler and there was less of it, but now there’s great music and people are coming out to see it!

What are some of your favourite past shows or memories from some of the past NAC Presents shows?

So many! We have big shows, little shows, in terms of major artists, we had Diana Krall, having Rufus Wainwright in the building is always amazing, Justin Rutledge, Lee Harvey Osmond last fall was amazing. Oh my god, so many. Last fall was an amazing indie/folk/pop kind of mix, and the whole fall had a really rich feeling to it.

Alejandra Ribera.

Alejandra Ribera.

Is there anything from this coming season you’re especially excited for?

I’m excited about everything! We’ll have the iconic Gordon Lightfoot, who was one of the first performers to play here when the building opened. As Peter Herrndorf says, anytime Gordon Lightfoot is in the building is a great day.
And our other headliner, Sarah McLaughlan is cool, we had her here two years ago, and she has a new album coming out that I think is going to be exciting.

Some little gems that I’m personally excited about are Timber Timbre, Doug Paisley, and the up-and-coming Alejandra Ribera. We’re going to have an amazing Christmas run, we have four very different shows. Some will be a little darker, more serious, then the Good Lovelies will just make everyone happy.

I’m just going through them all now, they’re all really great!