Niagara-on-the-Lake can boast about so many things — and now there are two more reasons to be proud. Our own Danny Lamb and Laurel Minnes have both won Niagara Music Awards.
“It’s nice to get the public recognition for my work,” says 29-year-old Minnes, who in her youth thought the summit of her success would be being a back-up singer in a Motown band, sporting a big beehive hairdo.
Minnes’ musical family groomed her voice starting from a young age. “My mom — a trained singer — made my sister and I sing harmonies along with the radio. If we didn’t, she’d turn the music off.”
The diminutive and powerful multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter was nominated for Female Vocalist and Best Original Song, and won the Songwriter of the Year award for her new project, Minuscule. This is a unique group made up of Minnes as the lead singer, with a back-up band of keyboard, drums and choir. “I have all these melodies in my head and not enough instruments — so I used voices.”
Minuscule started a year ago, when Minnes applied to perform at In the Soil — a grassroots arts festival in St. Catharines. “I was approved, and then thought, ‘Okay, now I have to pull together a choir really quickly.’” She recruited friends and family, and prepared each of their parts by first recording 13 versions of her own voice singing the songs. Then she transcribed them and sent the appropriate part to each singer. She continues to use this method. “It’s time-consuming with all 14 parts plus keys and drums. But I love it,” she says.
Minnes, who also fronts rock band Majora, says, “The idea of Minuscule was that I wanted to feel control over the content and issues. I want my message to be meaningful. In a band I always have to compromise my message — you can’t have a group of guys playing songs about feminism,” she says.
The choir now consists of about 14 women — family, friends, and friends of friends. “I choose to write and sing about things that are really uniquely female, so I keep it just women,” she says. Minnes makes exceptions for her partner Taylor Hulley on drums, and her father, Blair Minnes, on the keyboard. Membership in the choir ebbs and flows: “ It needs to be fun, empowering, not stressful at all,” she says.
The women practices every Tuesday at Minnes’ home. “It’s community — ladies’ bonding time, which is another aspect of the project. We drink wine and eat cheese and sing and talk.” In fact the band gets paid for gigs, but all the money goes back into wine and cheese, as well as gas and drinks at shows. It’s a non-profit endeavour. “I never want to think of this project in terms of money — which is kind of freeing in a way. It’s literally a passion project,” she says.
The name comes from a play on her own name — Minnes-cule — and is humorous because of the sheer size of the group. “It also refers to the fact that women have been meant to feel small for so long,” says the ever-courageous and plain-speaking Minnes.
The future holds many new highs. Minuscule will be performing a house concert at Applewood Hollow in NOTL on November 17. Minnes plans to record a full album of her original songs with the band and choir. And she has a concept album in the works. “The focus of whole album is consent. I want people to listen and say, ‘Oh my god that’s exactly what I wanted to say and how I would have liked to have said it,” she says.
According to Minnes, she has already found the pinnacle, though. “I love it. It’s the ultimate expression of who I am as a musician. I have come to the peak of my mountain. Everything I have done before has brought me to this point.”
Minnes and Lamb have a similar ethos. “Conversations that we need to have can be started through art. It’s my responsibility to share that. What is the point in learning if you don’t share it,” says Minnes.
Lamb echoes the insight. “I use music to create a space for unheard stories and bigger conversations than I know what to do with. The microphone is a pretty great superpower to have,” he says.
His anthemic song Champion won the award for Original Song at the NMAs. “The song was rooted at a conference around access and inclusiveness in sport. I started to form concept of what defines a champion and what that looks like,” says Lamb.
The NOTL native is an ardent activist on a number of levels. He is the Young Ambassador of the Spina Bifida/Hydrocephalus Association of Ontario, and spent two years travelling the world as a speaker and facilitator for ME to WE — a social enterprise based on empowering youth and creating social change on a global scale — with which he remains on contract.
Lamb also teaches ESL online to children all over China, and teaches music, singing and performing, and songwriting in person and online. “I figured I was getting students in Niagara just based on name recognition, but when someone in San Francisco found me and then asked to set up a series of lessons after our first one, I thought, ‘Hey, maybe I am pretty good at this,’” he says, laughing. The 30-year-old singer-songwriter now has students all over the world.
Champion is an exciting departure for Lamb, in that it marks a new path with new partnerships. He has been collaborating with established producer and songwriter Andre Kaden Black (Fefe Dobson, Alecia Keys, One Republic) after meeting him through local drummer Andy MacKay. He has also started working with engineer Tal Vaisman (The Next Step). “I brought a song to them and they said, ‘This is your song. What do you want it to be? What role do you want to have in this,’” he says. “They also reminded me that it’s about the song so it can be heard and the story can be told. They said, ‘Let’s create a great song,’” he remembers.
When it came to making Champion a “great song,” Lamb knew he needed to hand over part of it to powerful spoken-word artists Chris Tse, based in B.C. “He’s an exceptional human being full of integrity and spirit. A mentor, says Lamb. “I learned so much about the privilege I live in from him. I see him as a champion.”
“We secured a date in a studio after wrangling calendars and he came in and spit these words out and I think I cried a little about it,” Lamb says. “It wasn’t about him or about me, it was about any kid in the world who is trying to be heard. This is so much bigger than us.”
Having the song win at the NMAs touches Lamb. “I’ve achieved a personal goal through the challenge of honing my craft. Being recognized locally is meaningful,” he says sincerely.
Champion is attributed to Danny Lamb and the Association. “It’s called the Association because it’s fluid, like Broken Social Scene. People come and go,” he says. Members include writers, producers, and musicians such as Matt Anthony, Chris Borboros, Kayd, Jason Golden, Nick Cooper, Matt Taylor and Ferguson Lundy. “I mostly just jump around on the stage and get them amped up,” says Lamb.
His latest project is acting as a manager for a young singer-songwriter named Em Jordan. “We connected through the SBHAO — she has spina bifida and other physical challenges,” Lamb explains. “We started with her just singing, then moved into songwriting. We recorded a song with Andre and Tal, and made a lyric video, which has over a thousand views on YouTube.”
Now Lamb is looking for the big vision: “How does it all connect? How does it best move forward,” he wonders.
Perhaps we’ll find out how it moves forward for both of these local talents at next year’s Niagara Music Awards.