By Angela Hawn
Ask university student Emma Bowen to list a few favourite things and both music and her hometown of Madoc will likely vy for space at the top. No wonder the 21-year-old president of Dear Wanderer Entertainment Productions and artistic director for the Fly Away Home music festival feels passionate about bringing the two together.
Flash back a few years when an even younger Bowen wondered about the scarcity of live music available locally. Confident the lovely part of Ontario she calls home brims with musical talent and eager to see performers from across the country, she wondered aloud at the lack of opportunities to enjoy quality concerts in small towns. Was it really asking too much to want to see first-rate performers on a Madoc stage? Unwilling to let things lie and encouraged by her father, Emma decided to take matters into her own hands.
“My dad just said, why don't you go ahead and do it,” Emma recalls, laughing a little at the innocent bravado and lofty ambitions of her then 16-year-old self. “In Canada and Ontario, there is just so much great music and so many great bands, but I think a lot of people forget about it or just don't know about it.”
And just like that, Bowen's career as music promoter began. She sent out a slew of emails to various artists and to her surprise, several quickly wrote back. One of the first to get in touch? Manager to one of Emma's own personal favourite musicians: Toronto singer/songwriter Peter Katz. Hailing from a small town himself, the musician's manager readily sympathized with Bowen's desire to bring live events to a rural crowd.
To Emma's delight, Katz soon signed on as the first performer for the Music in Madoc concerts, a series of live musical evenings which ran regularly from 2011 to 2012. Other featured guests included The Heartbroken and singer Emma-Lee. Along the way, one of Bowen's music contacts urged her to get in touch with Paquin booking agency and Emma's doorway into the world of arts and entertainment opened a little bit wider. The musicians just kept coming and the number of concerts grew. Among the artists hired to perform that first season: well-known Canadian favourites Danny Michel and Royal Wood.
Of course, Emma admits she benefited from a little inside knowledge as far as great music venues go. A few years earlier her dad, Chris Magwood, helped create and build Madoc's impressive Arts Centre Hastings (see sidebar.) Insulated with straw-bales and designed as a model for modern sustainable living, this unique performance space has hosted everything from free summer movie nights to theatre productions. Making it home to a regular concert series just seemed like a natural next step.
“I don't sing at all or play anything, but I've loved music my whole life,” exclaims Emma, crediting her family with nourishing her early appreciation for the arts. “Growing up, there was always music playing in the house.”
Though assuming the role of music promoter at such a young age must have presented a few challenges, Bowen brushes off any suggestions the job proved difficult. Clearly a dreamer who dreams big, this young woman remains modest about her accomplishments. Feet planted firmly on the ground, she comes across as someone with high goals for herself who doesn't mind putting nose to grindstone to get where she needs to go.
“I basically just went ahead and did it,” she laughs, recalling her first forays into the Canadian music industry. “I studied music management at college in Oshawa for a year and I think that helped.”
Pushing herself to overcome some shyness and a genuine dislike for speaking on a public stage, Emma persevered and began to learn how to navigate the music promoters' network. More comfortable with work behind the scenes than life in the spotlight, she still opts to keep a low profile whenever possible.
“Interacting with all of these musicians you really admire was hard at first,” she remembers. “The first time I met Peter Katz, I was shaking.”
But getting over it and getting on with things seems central to Emma's method of operation. Not one to avoid a challenge, she put this same philosophy into play while organizing her latest project, Madoc's Fly Away Home music festival. From contacting the municipality to inquire about rules and regulations to obtaining approval from the committee responsible for operating the venue, Emma just tackles each task as it comes. Slated to wow audiences in mid-September 2015, this particular festival embodied the very essence of everything Emma has loved about music from childhood.
“I wanted it to be an authentic festival experience, like the festivals my parents took me to when I was a kid,” she explains, her voice bubbling with enthusiasm. “There will be music, food vendors, artists and artisans, representatives from community groups and a focus on the environment – the whole package.”
Not surprisingly, one of the festival's big features was to include a short set by some surprise guests. As a young, up and coming music promoter on the lookout for young, up and coming musical acts, Bowen has a special interest in local youth.
“We've gotten a lot of submissions for the youth showcase, so it will be hard to narrow it down to just one,” said Emma shortly before the festival, noting all applicants were asked to include at least one original song and describe the genre of their music as much as possible, even when it embraces more than one category.
That way of thinking seems to define the type of music audiences can expect from any concert series Emma organizes. Not just catering to one genre, Fly Away Home promised a range of performers, appealing to music tastes far and wide. Though a huge fan of folk and Canadian roots music herself, Emma wanted to create an atmosphere where anything played well can be appreciated. The festival's concert schedule included a wide variety, from R&B to indie-rock to country, with a little bit of everything in between.
“We have eight fantastic bands, including Blue Sky Miners,” said Bowen. “There's even a group who sings a capella.”
So what's Emma's secret in bringing so many great bands to ‘Comfort Country’? After a few years acting as a music promoter, she knows how quickly news spreads by word of mouth among the artists.
“Hospitality, finding a place for them to stay,” Emma readily ticks off a comprehensive list of positives she aims to provide visiting musicians. “Just knowing for sure you're going to get paid at the end of a gig helps, too.”
With that in mind, Emma would love to see great musical acts continue to entertain the hometown crowd. Her growing reputation in the field certainly makes the future look bright. Who knows what talented artist might grace a Madoc stage next?
“I'd love to book someone like the folk singer Leif Vollebekk someday,” laughs Emma,” but for now, I think he's a little out of my budget.”
While Emma confirms she has lots of big plans, for now she's staying quiet about them. And, as far as concerts go, making sure the September festival made a wonderful debut pretty much took up all of her energies. All funds raised roll right back into the not-for-profit Dear Wanderer Entertainment Productions, with an eye to booking future performers.
Where to after that? This determined and independent-minded young woman wants to take a year off university to explore her options. What started as a 16-year-old's dream keeps her pretty busy. She'd love to pursue a career involving the music business in Ontario or maybe Halifax, where the industry is already well-established. At some point down the road, this ambitious go-getter dreams of building and operating her own music venue, with perhaps a recording studio to go with it. And what kind of construction might she be considering?
“A straw-bale building, of course,” Emma laughs. “They have the best acoustics.”