Young songwriter inspired by small-town life

Jake Vanhaverbeke. Photo by Sarah Felgs.

Jake Vanhaverbeke has really been making a name for himself lately. Following the independent release of his three-song CD of original songs, Weeks of Sleep, in December, Vanhaverbeke was named New Artist of the Year in January by the Songwriters Music Festival.

The young musician – who just turned 16-years old this month – was also recognized with a letter of congratulations from Mayor Adrian Foster last week, as a result of his award. The letter was presented during an assembly at St. Stephen’s Secondary School in Bowmanville, where he is a grade 10 student.

And while most youths his age are busy with school and exams, the extra responsibility of album release parties, auditions, award shows and recognition at a school assembly has done nothing to slow this Newcastle teen down.

If Vanhaverbeke’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably due to his regular appearance at The Snug restaurant, which holds an “open mic” night every Thursday.  “I was at the first open mic ever at The Snug, and I don’t think I’ve missed one since,” he says, laughing, when reached by phone last week. “John Walsh, the owner, calls me his musical child. The Snug is where I started with my originals. Tom Hughes runs the open mic. He’s a mentor and a buddy of mine.”

His age notwithstanding, Vanhaverbeke has also graced the stage at Wild Wing in Newcastle, The Village Inn in Bowmanville, Murphy’s Pub and The Bombshell in Oshawa, The Spill in Peterborough, and Graffiti’s Bar & Grill and the Hard Rock Café in Toronto.

Describing his music as “singer-songwriter folk rock,” he says he has always expressed himself with music.

“I’ve been playing music for pretty much my whole life,” he allows, relating how he got his first guitar at the age of four, and lessons by the time he was five. He is simply following in the footsteps of his father, Jeff Vanhaverbeke, and his uncle, Chris Vanhaverbeke, who have both played Irish folk songs in bands for many years, he notes.

Growing up, he listened to Blue Rodeo, John Denver, and Neil Young, along with East Coast and Irish music. Now he also enjoys listening to Great Lake Swimmers and Joel Plaskett, as well as local artists he has befriended on the club circuit.

“Lately, I’ve been playing with people who are kind of my heroes: Trish Robb, The Stone Sparrows, and Tyler Smith,” he says, noting his show with Robb at The Snug last month was “one of the best I’ve sounded.”

Winning the Songwriters’ New Artist award has helped encourage Vanhaverbeke to write more songs. “It’s really just fuelled my creative stuff,” he says. “I was shocked when I won it. I’m so happy about it.” And yet the award – which was open to 15- to 30-year olds – was not the first time he has competed with musicians much older than himself.

He first took to the stage at talent shows and country fairs, he says, and he unwittingly took on some rather tough competition at one of his earliest performances. When he was about eight-years old, he was at the Kinmount Fair with his grandparents. Noticing that there was a talent show, young Jake decided that he would enter. He didn’t have his guitar with him, but he saw a man with one and boldly asked if he could borrow it. Then he went to sign up but was told that the kids’ talent show was over. Undeterred, he competed in the adult talent show, and he won. “I was thankful that guy just let me grab his guitar,” he recalls.

As one of the Songwriters’ winners, Vanhaverbeke was given the opportunity to play at the 2nd Annual Songwriters Music Festival at the Whitby Centennial Building this past Saturday. The festival is an annual showcase of singer-songwriters, which featured performers from across the province and beyond, according to organizer Ron Beer. Other winners included Kimberley Clarke of Oshawa, Songwriter of the Year; G.T. Harris of Oshawa, Performing Songwriter of the Year; and B.J. Laub from Windsor, Travelling Artist of the Year.

In order to enter the competition, a musician must be a resident of Durham Region (except for the Travelling category), and all music performed must be the artist’s original compositions. For the New Artist category, Vanhaverbeke had to audition his songs in front of the judges, but he chose not to play the three songs from his CD.

“I played three new songs for the audition,” he explains. “I was the first to audition out of everybody, so I have no clue who I was up against.” It was not difficult to find original material, he says, as he almost exclusively plays his own songs, and he’s been busy writing more of them in hopes of completing a full album in the summer.

The songwriter says he finds his inspiration from small town life. “I’m inspired by lots of personal stuff like women, but that’s kind of overdone. I’m interested in life stories and life experiences from people like my Poppa, my great grandfather – genealogy, funny stories about Ireland or the East Coast, things like family, the scenery and the small town stuff.”

Take “Matheson” for example. One of the songs Vanhaverbeke played for the audition, it’s about a small town “up near Timmons, Ontario” where his family owned a lodge for six years. “It’s a beautiful spot but not many people go there. I hung out there. It’s a good place to be when you’re feeling down,” he says.

Vanhaverbeke hopes to write 20-25 songs and then pick the best ones to record, he says. And he is very happy with his new band, which includes his uncle, Chris, on guitar, mandolin and banjo; Angel Valenciano on bass; Sarah Felgemacher on drums; and Allison Warne on backup vocals.

“Those four are my rocks, my support group” he states. “They take time out of their busy days to come out and play these songs. And Chris is also the guy who taught me how to play guitar. He’s a classically trained guitarist and a Royal Conservatory guitar teacher.”

“My support group keeps me in line,” he says, laughing. “It’s been quite the ride, but I don’t plan on stopping.”

Jake Vanhaverbeke will be playing at The Spill in Peterborough, with The Stone Sparrows and Express & Co., on Saturday, Feb. 11th; and at the Wing Pit in Bowmanville with The Bootleg Glory on Saturday, Feb. 18th. He will also be performing at the Cosmic Campout Music Festival May 18-20, and the Get Bent Summer Solstice Celebration in June.

His CD, Weeks of Sleep, is for sale at The Snug and A Gift of Art in Newcastle, Sunday’s Child in Orono, and Hands On Music and Vinyl Alibi in Bowmanville.   

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