This is the time of year when many Canadians fly to sunnier climates, hoping to return rested and with little more than a good tan. But for singer-songwriter Kate Boothman, who headed off to Mexico last week, it will be more of a working vacation, as she plans to return with three or four new songs.
“I’m feeling I need a change of scene,” she says by phone from Toronto on the afternoon before her departure. With her country-rock band named Sunbear, and its first album called Sun Streaming In, it is perhaps inevitable that the sun is part of Boothman’s plans when it comes to making music. Since the release of her band’s second album, Moonbath, last September, she has been busy touring and writing songs for a third album. And that album is almost finished, she says, she just needs three more songs.
Since she taught herself to play the acoustic guitar six years ago, the 29-year-old Boothman has written quite a few songs. “When I first started playing guitar, I was spending a lot of time alone. I took to it quickly. The first song I learned was ‘I Want You Around’ by The Ramones. I figured the best way to learn guitar was to write my own songs too. There was no choice to it, no moral decision – it was just what I started to do. It became very natural.”
She soon found she was not really alone, as the many musicians she counted amongst her friends actively supported her efforts. “The music world is such a small scene,” she notes. “It just so happens that these talented musicians are much loved friends of mine. They’re a part of my circle. I’m just lucky I have such talented friends.”
Born in Toronto, Boothman was four-years old when she moved with her parents to Kendal. She attended Ontario Street Public School and The Pines Sr. Public School, moving on to high school at Clarke and then Bowmanville High. “I quit school pretty early,” she says, citing her poor attendance at both high schools. By age 17 she had left school and, with her love of horses, started working full-time at the Kendal Hills Stud Farm. It was a job she would keep for seven years, helping to raise and train Standardbred horses.
At 24, she decided to move to Toronto to concentrate on a career in music. It wasn’t long after learning to play that Boothman took to the stage, forming the Real Priscillas – an all-female five-piece outfit – with some of her friends. “We all sang. There were lots of harmonies,” she says. “But we were a flash in the pan. We formed for fun, made a record and then broke up before it came out.” Before their demise, however, the Real Priscillas turned a few heads in the Toronto music scene, and grabbed a prized spot opening for veteran alternative-country rockers Wilco at Massey Hall.
Corralling a few more of her musician friends, Boothman made another recording under the name Horse. “That wasn’t really an active project,” she says, explaining that all of the other musicians were already committed to full-time bands. “It was a record I made with my friends, with songs I had written, a compilation of all my dreamy songs. We played one show and that was it.”
Finally, she formed Sunbear, with bassist Ian Russell (who also plays in indie-country band One Hundred Dollars) and country award-winning drummer Michelle Josef. “Ian and Michelle and I are the core of Sunbear, and then there are a lot of rotating members,” she says.
Boothman wrote most of the songs alone, but when it was time to take her songs into the studio, she once more found she wasn’t really alone. First with Sun Streaming In, and then again with Moonbath, her friends rallied around her. An impressive list of Canadian indie music stars, including Ian Blurton (C’mon, Change of Heart), Kathleen Edwards, Travis Good (The Sadies), Dale Murray (Cuff the Duke), Erik Arneson (Great Lake Swimmers), Sean Dean (The Sadies), and Greg Keelor (Blue Rodeo), came forward to help Boothman, and her rhythm section of Russell and Josef, realize one or the other of the albums.
“People seem to dig it,” says Boothman of the band’s studio efforts, with both independently produced albums receiving positive reviews. “We’ve had a lot of great opportunities as a result.” Those opportunities have included a cross-Canada tour for Sunbear, and the chance for Boothman to open for such acts as Robyn Hitchcock, Hope Sandoval (Mazzy Star), and Joe Pernice (Pernice Brothers). What’s more, Ron Sexsmith has been covering one of Boothman’s songs, the compelling “Behind the Scenes.” “That’s pretty mind-blowing,” she says. “He’s performing it live, and he’s sent me demos, so hopefully he’ll be putting it on a record down the line.”
Although she has been living in Toronto for nearly five years now, Boothman still regularly spends part of her week in Kendal, where she keeps three horses on her parents’ farm. When she’s not touring she still manages to ride her horses regularly, and she continues to help out at the yearling auctions. “I definitely feel torn between being in Toronto and being in Kendal,” she says, of her love of the country. “I like playing music, absolutely. I seem to have found a pretty good balance between horses and music.”
Her grey warmblood horse Neil has become emblematic of Boothman’s efforts to keep that balance. With a sire called Gold Rush, it wasn’t much of a stretch for Boothman to name the horse after her “hands down” biggest musical influence, Neil Young. But the equine Neil’s musical forays go further than namesakes. He has been featured in Sunbear’s music video for the song “City Escape” and has joined the band members in publicity photos. He also figured prominently in the feature story on Boothman in January’s edition of Trot, the harness racing magazine. That article included a couple of striking photographs of the two together, taken outdoors on the family farm in Kendal. “Neil doesn’t have a bad angle,” says Boothman with a laugh, selling short her own photogenic qualities.
As her worlds collide, they also offer evidence that her alt-country mix of “folk-country-psych-rock” music has made inroads into mainstream country. Just last month, she sang the national anthem at the O’Brien Awards celebrations for Standardbred racing. And in 2010, it was the highlight of her year, says Boothman, to have Steve Earle and The Band’s Levon Helm in attendance as she performed with Maia Davies as the opening act for Ana Egge in Manhattan.
About to fly to Mexico, temporarily leaving the duality of Toronto and Kendal behind, Boothman wonders what effect all that sunshine will have on her music. “Maybe I’ll pick up the mandolin while I’m there,” she says, laughing as she continues, “maybe I’ll come back a flamenco wizard.”
Kate Boothman will be performing live with Sunbear at The Spill, 414 George Street North, in Peterborough on Friday, March 4th, 2011.