A Conversation With ... Vanessa Thomas of the CSHF
The executive director of the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame brings a wealth of experience and boundless enthusiasm to the role. In this interview, she looks back on a fascinating career in radio and ahead to ambitious plans for the organisation.
By Bill King
“Our mandate is to honour and celebrate Canadian songwriters and those who have dedicated their lives to the legacy of music, and to educate the public about these achievements.” CSHF
We are a nation of songwriters. Or so it seems. Even your neighbour has taken a shot at writing down a few verses of inspired invention. How those ideas and words align are another matter.
Songwriting is a lonely, difficult discipline even more so when omitting songs that include throwaway lines or are plugged with convenient filler.
My most recent conversations with musicians Jim Cuddy and, briefly, Russell DeCarle, sound a familiar tone. They either agonize over the scripted word or are worn down by the process; yet, eventually, they reach a satisfactory conclusion.
No doubt these artists and many of the same persuasion will eventually reach the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. Behind them, all the way is Vanessa Thomas, executive director of the CSHF. I recently caught up with the amiable and ambitious director.
You come from a background in radio?
Yes. I did mornings in San Francisco and afternoons then moved back here in 2002 and went back on the air three years ago part-time. I missed it so much. Once you get that buzz, you’ve got to get back on that mic.
After working with Premiere Radio Networks in LA for a number of years, I got my first break in radio doing mornings at KRAK/FM in Sacramento. I also got my first experience doing a talk show at the same time, ‘hot talk with Tonya” on KHTK/AM mid-days, up against Rush Limbaugh, in his own town!
After just one year I moved to San Francisco to do mornings for four years at KSAN/FM, then afternoons and evenings at KYCY/FM and KLLC/FM for the next couple of years. But then the Gavin Report magazine came calling, and I got to work at that legendary publication for its last two years before moving back to Toronto. They had the BEST conventions the industry has ever seen
I’m currently doing swing at Boom 97.3 FM. I had to give up my regular weekend shift because I’m doing this gig which is awesome! It’s hard to fit that in when you have two small children as well.
With my long-time pal – Wayne Webster.
Wayne Webster! I’ve known Wayne for years. I used to sell Premier Radio Network products to Jean Marie Helmrath at Sound Source. So, I worked with all of the PDs years ago. In the early '90s actually. I knew J J Johnston; I knew Gary Slaight. All of the guys over at the CHUM Group. To come back and now work with them in different iterations of my career is really interesting.
You were born where?
Ottawa. I grew up there. I went to Concordia University then on to California State U-Long Beach for my masters - and stayed in California for fifteen years. I worked in the music industry all of that time and then moved back here and worked for Nielsen Entertainment for twelve years. Then I went to Songza, then RDIO. A little bit of here and there and now this gig, which is fantastic. It has been a year, December 2017.
It must have been a challenge mounting the concert at Massey Hall.
That was one reason I was excited to take the gig. The ceremony was Sept. 23rd, and we had a sold-out crowd at Massey Hall and what a perfect venue for it. There was Bruce Cockburn and about thirty performers. The show was fantastic. The kind of shows where there are magical moments through collaborations, like the Junos and Grammys. All sorts of moments that you can only capture live at that night.
The education around the Francophone music community too. The history, the artists, the content. The anglophone audience said they never knew how big Stéphane Venne was or Lisa LeBlanc – they are so good. There was all of this discovery I love about that evening.
It’s great to bring this institution back, and with that momentum, we get to take it further. There’s so much more we can do with this organisation. It’s going to be a very exciting year.
Looking back at a concert of equal significance, I’m thinking about the tribute to Joni Mitchell Luminato arranged several years ago at Massey Hall. The intricacies of staging, the artist demands and complexities, and how they receive and embrace these occasions.
We had no doubts about Neil Young showing up. He’s so passionately Canadian. And he really, really believes in his songwriting and songwriters. I think this award was so important to him.
I got a call the Monday after his show from Elliot his manager who said Neil had such an amazing evening and thank you so much; it meant the world to him. Neil wrote handwritten notes to all the artists who performed his songs that night.
There’s this precious moment. I don’t know if you’ve seen the picture when Bruce and Neil hugged each other.
The very beginning of the evening they are across the aisle from each other, and I was standing behind Neil when Bruce tipped his hat to Neil and Neil to Bruce. Then they met in the middle of the aisle and gave each other the big hug! It was just lovely.
When you look at the late 60s’ and early 70s’s and the arrival of the two as individual songwriting entities, they both have left a legacy that the Songwriters Hall of Fame can address in a unique forum much more to the heart of who they are and what they do and their legacies.
It was significant that the inductors had their stories. Buffy Ste. Marie, Randy Bachman, Julie Payette, Daniel Lavoie, they all had such connections. And what fantastic inductors to have in your evening as well.
There’s an exhibition called Showcase at the National Music Centre?
They have our Songwriters Hall of Fame exhibit that opened in December. In fact, January 21 I flew out there and Bruce Cockburn was in town to do a celebration. We had a gathering, and Bruce has his plaque put on exhibit.
“The National Music Centre (NMC) launched a new temporary exhibition at Studio Bell in Calgary, honouring 2017 Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame inductees Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn, Beau Dommage, and Stéphane Venne.
The exhibition, called Showcase, displays personal items and instruments from this year’s honorees, including one of Young’s practice guitars – a vintage 1970s Epiphone acoustic – on which he wrote “Natural Beauty,” from his 1992 Harvest Moon album. Other treasures include songbooks of lyrics for Cockburn’s 1984 political anthem “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” and 1988’s “If A Tree Falls,” along with a Linda Manzer-built acoustic guitar owned and played by him.
Visitors will also see conga drums owned and played by drummer Réal Desrosiers from Beau Dommage, and a handwritten note from Quebec songwriter/composer Stéphane Venne describing his writing process for the song “Un Jour, Un Jour,” which was chosen as the official theme song for Expo 67 in Montréal.”
With 2017 behind, there’s always follow-up and reflection on an event of this magnitude. How do you see 2018 shaping up?
I feel like it is 'phoenix rising’ with our organisation. We are back, and now we can take everything to the next level. We can carry our mandate to educate the public. Our mandate to nurture the songwriting environment through educational initiatives and reinvent how we induct songs moving forward.
On the song induction front – it’s really exciting. We now have song induction partnerships this year with various festivals and music events to induct songs across Canada. Breakout West, CCMAs, ECMAs, Mariposa Folk Festival, Festival do la Chanson de Granby, all working on spreading the word about the fantastic songwriters we have all across the country!
We are going to be inducting local songs with local artists and performing them at these events. And honouring the songwriter in person at the event with their plaque and inducting them into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. They will have that song at the National Music Centre as well.
The best thing is; we get to dig into the fabric and culture at each of these events and the regional songs that are going to be inducted across the country. We will be revealing what those songs are coming up in partnership with the ECMAs.
We are going to induct eight to ten songs next year with this new format of doing it with regional events and partnering across the country.
What about the Slaight Music Emerging Songwriter Award?
We had the inaugural Slaight Music Emerging Songwriter Award at the induction ceremony. They will hopefully be involved with our education initiative as we move forward. We honoured Jessie Reyez and Charlotte Cardin. We are also partnering with the SOCAN Foundation which will launch our education initiative this year. Details will be coming. There will be mentoring and industry education for fifteen to sixteen emerging young songwriters. It will be a week-long mentoring incubator that will take place in September.
2018 for me is about our education partnerships with the foundation and the new way of inducting 10 songs regionally across Canada. We are also gearing up for our Induction ceremony in fall 2019.
Honouring Frank Davies' vision from his 1998 birth of this organization and working closely with CMPA, SPACQ, SAC and APEM to stay faithful to our mandate to honour and celebrate Canadian Songwriters and educate the public of their achievements is critical for us. The NMC exhibit is open for a year with items from our four inductees, Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn, Beau Dommage and Stéphane Venne on display.