Conny Nowe and Rachel Melas
Today we’re sitting down with Conny and Rachel, two legends of the Toronto music scene. They’ve been performing around the city for decades and have such tremendous insight and passion. This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for length and reading clarity.
Rashid: “So we’re here to talk about music and life, and I figured I’d start with.. When did you learn to play music?”
Rachel: “I started when I was very young, a kid. I played in the school orchestra for a couple years in grade school, I played the cello and then my life became very chaotic. I started to live on the street and I hitchhiked to Western Canada, ending up in Vancouver. I hung out with blues musicians and I mentioned to them that I used to play the cello as a little kid and they said you should play bass. I eventually made it back to New York and I was living with my grandparents, and my grandfather bought me an electric bass in 1975. We went to the Ossining Music Centre and he bought me this bass for $65 - a Danelectro short scale bass for any of those music enthusiasts out there. I had two Mel Bay for bass books, so I like to say I’m a graduate of the Mel Bay school of bass which is pretty accessible to everyone. Over the years I went back to Vancouver and I played in post-punk bands, more art rock, creative funkier stuff, more political. I also played in bar bands. I lived in Vancouver for ten years, I played in quite a lot of bands there and at some point I decided that I didn't want to live in Vancouver any more because I think for me, I just attracted too much attention, I was kinda weird. Back in that time it was a lot harder to be queer and Jewish. I stuck out. With my music it was harder for me to integrate and get gigs. That’s kinda what I like to do right, just play regular old gigs, so I moved here, well, we moved here (motions at Conny)
Conny: We moved here together
Rachel: Yes, that’s true. So I’ll let you speak about what happened to you. What happened to you?!? You used to be a nice person!
Conny: As far as how I learned to play music, I probably had the opposite background to Rachel, I had a completely stable home life in suburban Vancouver where I took piano lessons as a kid. As a bored kid after church on Sundays I’d go up to the bedroom of the teenaged kids of my parents’ friends and pick up the guitar that was left behind. I learned how to play guitar from a book called 101 pop tunes but the book was written for right handed people and I was left handed. So I flipped the guitar over and tried to make sense of these chord diagrams and these crazy songs your grandparents would sing like Silver Threads among the gold or something. None of it made sense, but I realized at a very early age that I was very interested in playing the guitar and music in general. It was a great escape and a great way to spend time by myself and delve into something that I knew very little about and was very interested in and could spend hours by myself keeping busy with music…
Rachel: Like today!
Conny: Well, not yet.
Rachel: You still spend hours keeping busy playing music!
Conny: You’re right yeah. So when I was in my twenties I lived on one of the gulf islands for years and moved back to Vancouver and lived in a communal house with a bunch of hippy punk type people and there was a drumset in the basement that actually belonged to people from the Young Canadians. When nobody was home I’d go down there and put on some music and play along so I ended up teaching myself drums at that time and then got involved with Rachel in a band called The Moral Lepers. Rachel played bass and I played drums and we had a good time there in the 80s playing lots of clubs and hanging out in the scene and actually came to Toronto for several gigs
Rachel: We played the Cameron in 1982, the Rivoli.
Conny: We were invited to Toronto by Clive Robertson who put on an event for women's music, bands, feminists. He was part of the Parallel Gallery YYZ and FUSE magazine. So we came to Toronto, we played a couple of gigs, we kind of ventured into the Cameron house at the time, which was really happening in the 80s and they were really open and they were like if you ever want to play you can play here…
Rachel: we also went to New York
Conny: Yes, we drove to New York and we played at a club called 8BC and another one called the Pyramid Club. It was a very interesting time in New York because it was really rough, there were tons of street people, this club 8BC was actually on 8th between B and C and there was nothing down there, really nothing. To get into the club they had this big iron door and to open up there was a little window and they'd be like oh you look okay and then let you in. Our friend came to our show, and she took a taxi but the cab wouldn’t even drive down there. That was really interesting.
Rachel: I went back a few times to New York and played with the Animal Sleeves, which is a band I played in for years.
Rashid: So you’re from New York
Rachel: I am from New York! But distantly at this point, I've lived in Canada most of my life.
Rashid: What brought you to Canada?
Rachel: A series of random circumstances, namely that my stepfather was a translator and got a job in Detroit in 1970 and he didn’t want to live in Detroit, so we moved to Windsor! I guess you could just say excuse me I’m not an ax-murderer, could I live in Canada with my entire family and they were like ok, here’s your social insurance number mister, and here’s for your children. I was the only one that stayed, and the rest went back to the states.
Rashid: Kinda serendipitous that way
Rachel: Yeah! Very much so. (insert animal sleeves song here - 9:14)
Rashid: You started with the electric bass, did you find there was something about the sound it made that jumped out at you?
Rachel: Good question! I guess I played the cello first, so it seemed accessible, it seemed like something I could do. I played electric bass for about 25 years, and then I kinda got fired from a band because I didn't play upright.
Rachel: Yeah, it was typical bass player energy, I was like angry, I could do that, so I got an upright and learned to play it
Rashid: So the band was like, if you can’t do this you're out?
Rachel: Yeah, in 25 words or less. People have a right to their preferences, and so that was what they wanted. I’d played electric bass in Swamperella for years. Swamparella is a cajun band, Conny plays in there too, and then the leader was like I really want an upright bass, I want something more acoustic. So for a few years, I played triangle instead! And I learned how to play upright, then the bass player split, and he moved to Germany, so I got my gig back. I begged, cried a little.
Conny: Yeah, that was an interesting time. Swamparella’s a great band, we still play, we’ve been playing together for over 20 years, we’ve played here at Drom. Well I got the guitar spot in that band by default as well, a friend of ours kept trying to get me and the leader of the band - Suzie Schlanger - to meet and I finally met Suzie and she was like yeah I’m doing this gig with someone from out of town and I need a guitar player to play one set because the guitar player I have only has time for the other set, and I said, yeah I play guitar, I’ll have some time to do that so we got together, I got the music, studied the music and played the set, and here I am 25 years later, still the rhythm guitar player of Swamparella.
Rashid: That’s really cool
Conny: Yeah I really love that music. I first encountered it by accident in a cassette tape my landlady was selling at a garage sale. It was either Beausoleil or the Balfa Brothers and I pulled it out and listened to it, and it struck this incredible chord of yes, I want this. I really delved into Cajun music for many years, playing it, learning it, reading about it, going to Louisiana, meeting people, going to jam sessions and it became a real passion. It's still a passion, I miss it now with this whole covid thing, not being able to get together with the band and play. So you spend a lot more time sitting around the house practicing, waiting for freedom.
Rashid: Is there something about cajun music that really speaks to you?
Conny: It's extremely heartfelt, it's like reggae, it's very heartfelt music, the topics can be sad - about loss and homelessness and prison or political oppression or poverty, and yet there's such joy. The way the music is expressed by the players, by the singers, it just really speaks to me. I love playing it. I love reggae too for that matter. I spent quite a few years playing drums in a world beat band and we played reggae and African music and it was a fantastic time
Rashid: Do you find different styles of music have a different way of expressing themselves to you? And do you find you’re a different player when you’re playing different styles?
Rachel: Good question.
Conny: I’m a musician that likes to be behind the scenes, I’m not comfortable being the front person, or speaking or addressing the audience. I like being in the rhythm section, I like being in the foundation, having some drive underneath it all, being supportive and trying to listen to the essence of the music, and thinking well how can i make this happen, what’s my part in this, and that’s how I relate to myself as a musician and I dunno…
Rachel: There's your problem! Just kidding. No, that's totally reasonable.
Rashid: It’s like a philosophy you have, it's how you hold yourself in the world and find yourself expressing yourself musically because it inhabits your soul, and you want to be setting a foundation so others can express themselves.
Conny: Yeah, it feels good to me. I feel in a way it's perhaps a bit underrated, people look at the rhythm guitar players, and rhythm section as perhaps underrated and it's the soloists who get all the acclaim, but I’m comfortable doing that and I like it and I enjoy it. (15:55 - insert Swamparella)
Rashid: You play a lot of instruments, and you play a lot of instruments in general, are there specific instruments that you really really gravitate towards? Has that changed over the years?
Rachel: You know, for me I played pretty well just bass for the longest time. Like forever man. If you consider I’ve been playing music since 1975 and i juuuuust played bass til maybe 2010 or something. I started playing accordion, I started playing fiddle and i started playing guitar, kind of in that period of time
Rashid: What pushed you to try other instruments?
Rachel: I was playing in a Klezmer band, and the band ended and I still wanted to play Klezmer music! But I can't just stand here on my own playing the bass, you know, so I decided I'd teach myself accordion, which is extremely difficult and not recommended. Do not teach yourself to play accordion, get someone to show you how. It's better to not reinvent the wheel. As far as guitar, guitar is the ultimate instrument. It’s the one I’m most interested in now, actually, because I love Django, I love the Hot Club of France, that style of music, and I also play old time fiddle! Because Conny got into old time music and just by proximity I’m really into it
Conny: I wanted to play an instrument that I could take camping or travel with or sit in a kitchen, and that didn’t include a drum set. I was visiting a friend out west and he handed me a mandolin and I started working on playing that. When I was here I bumped into a bunch of people at the Tranzac who were involved in playing old time Appalachian music and I really liked it so I started learning how to play that. Because Rachel and I are life partners as well as music partners, we can go anywhere from being supportive to being competitive and I wanted to play something that Rachel wasn’t playing. Rachel was playing in a band called Mood Swing, and there was a fiddler in the band who was selling this fiddle and he kept pestering Rachel to buy this fiddle and sending her emails so I said I’ll buy the damn fiddle so I bought it, and went I can’t play this and handed it back to Rachel and said you play this. So that's how Rachel got involved in old time music and we both spend a lot of time doing that. It's great fun, there's a wonderful community here in Toronto as well as in the US where it comes from, and it's great.
Rashid: You do raise something interesting, which a couple of people have touched on, its this tension between tradition and experimentation in music, how has your journey through tradition and experimentation gone? Like you have to learn some things in theory but then you have your own way of expressing as well, right?
Conny: I’m a traditionalist, and I'm not a strong improviser. I love traditional music, folk music, klezmer music, whatever.
Rachel: What about your days in the punk scene man?? Drumming in tin twist and the work party, how did you quantify your self-expression in that realm?
Conny: Yeah, I guess so. I identify improvisation and experimentation with jazz, and I'm not a jazz player. I think as far as my own personal experience goes, it's been my limitations or lack of limitations with my unconventional approach being left-handed and playing right handed instruments, and just inspiration… you hear something and you respond. It becomes a dialogue with other musicians, you create a dialogue. It’s a little more difficult to do on your own. I like the band format, having a conversation with musicians.
Rachel: let me bring to your mind the fact you played in a West African drum and dance ensemble for 12 years! And you brought a lot of that information to the drum set when you played world music with Mother Tongue. Did you forget about that Conny??
Conny: Talk about tradition, it's like the sum of its parts. Being an ensemble of ten or fifteen people each playing a part that made an incredible sum. But it's true, I’ve had a lot of different influences
Rachel: You know (points at interviewer), you should really listen to the Moral Lepers, the drumming in that is spectacular! From the early early 80s, it's really creative, it's very expressive.
Conny: Aw thank you Rachel, thanks for saying so.
Rachel: Ohhh, it's really really, I don't want to say ahead of its time, but it was really creative and didn’t really have boundaries, it was just creative, really nice. (22:02 - moral lepers??)
Rashid: (to Rachel) what kind of styles do you like to play?
Rachel: I like jazz, I like playing jazz, but I like melodic jazz, the kind of older school popular music of the teens. I also like to play bossa nova, I like the jazz manouche style a lot, and I do like the American Songbook, so to speak. I love playing Klezmer music and I like playing old time up to a point. I’m more of a social old time player. We play a lot of farmers markets, we get there and we just sit there for hours and hours, and you know what, if there’s an obnoxious person, or a big crowd you wanna move out of the way, you just start playing Klezmer music and everyone just runs. And some people really appreciate it. You know, bass is what I'm best at, but it takes a lot of energy and a lot of strength to play the bass, and sometimes, I dunno how much more I can put out to be honest with you. And when you look back historically, you look at what people have been able to do, like the older jazz players, trad jazz players, you just think oh my god, these guys were unamplified and they’re wailing away for hours and hours. That's tough and you think how can I live up to that but I do love it, I love trad jazz actually. Conny and I went to Denmark with a band, and Conny played the washboard, Conny was the washboard star of Denmark! You wouldn’t believe it.
Conny: That was a lot of fun, I don’t know how I got that gig.
Rachel: I got you that gig!
Conny: I just wanted to say, back on the subject of traditional music, I think when you really delve into a traditional form, and absorb as much as you can it's a bit like being a sponge and eventually the sponge is saturated and then it starts to drip. That’s one thing that I have really enjoyed from traditional music, because you can really express yourself from that form.
Rachel: I wanna add something to your subject of traditional music though, and absorbing it like a sponge and finally, you’re saturated and it comes out eventually, i think that’s a really good metaphor. I think some people can play traditional music for a long time and after a while you being to actually be able to take that and tell a story with it, it's not really quantifiable, that process, really taking a tune and making it personal and telling a story, instead of just i’m playing this tune now. It has a narrative flow somehow, it builts, it's hard to say exactly why that happens, but it’s very interesting.
Conny: I think part of it is putting your own personality on a piece of music, and you can hear musicians play, or be in a situation playing with someone in a jam and they’re executing their part perfectly but somehow it just puts you on edge or something, and you’re not comfortable with it. Maybe it's the way the drummer is playing the drums and it's just like “oh yeah, their time is great, but there’s something wrong with the feel” and we talk about “feel” in music, and what is that? It's just maybe a way of someone expressing themselves. It's not really something you can identify, I dunno. What is it? What’s feel?
Rachel: Hard to say… it's hard to say. I actually wanna just make a point, it's that my creative expression and my creativity have greatly changed from my younger days to my more mature days here. When I was a younger musician, in my teens, twenties and thirties it was more purely creative. It wasn't driven as much by peer influences so much, or other influences from outside other kinds of music, literally when we were in Vancouver when we played in bands there, it was really created in isolation, it was very interesting actually.
Conny: Are you talking about the post-punk stuff?
Rachel: Yeah, it was really creative almost in vacuum, it was very interesting, but when we moved here it became more about what other people were doing, and learning from other people.
Rashid: What influenced your decision to move to Toronto?
Rachel: We basically just wanted to get into a bigger peer group, bigger musician environment. There was more happening here.
Rashid: Yeah and you’re from BC, what made you want to come here?
Conny: We came here together, Vancouver at the time, it was hard to find work, Toronto just had a lot more opportunities, I worked as a sound tech for many years, and it was really hard to find work in Vancouver, but as soon as I moved to Toronto I found instant work and worked every day for years it seems like, in the 90s…
Rachel: and the millennium and well after that, don’t forget it's 2022 now!
Rashid: What was Toronto's music scene like when you moved here? Where was your first gig? How did you guys get yourselves into the scene?
Rachel: You know, we played with Lillian Allen, the dub poet. She had a special group of people - women - that played at women's festivals in the US so we were the rhythm section.
Conny: The scene in Toronto in the 80s was very centered around this neighbourhood, Queen West and the Cameron House, the Rivoli, the Bamboo, the Horseshoe, you didn’t have to go any farther than that.
Rachel: In fact, past Bathurst it was a wasteland, people would beat you up
Rashid: have you guys played across the country?
Rachel: Many, many, many times, but not for a long time.
Conny: We played in a band, a world beat band called Mother Tongue in the 90s. We played a lot of folk festivals.
Rashid: Before you moved to Toronto, you played a couple gigs here, were there things about playing here that had really grabbed you?
Conny: When we visited the Cameron House here in the 80s. Herb Tewkley, who was one of the owners at the Cameron House at the time, said to us anything that you guys wanna do while you’re here, come to the Cameron House. You can do anything you want here. They were so welcoming, it was a lot like this place (Drom Taberna), incredibly community minded and welcoming. Which is not always what you encounter in a bar, or a nightclub. Sometimes it's just about the bottom line, but for the Cameron house especially, and Drom here, it's more about community building, so that’s really important and it makes musicians feel really welcome and not like oh you’re going to sell 2.2 beers per person, and the last time you were here you only sold 1.8 beers per person so no you’re not coming back.
Conny: Oh yeah, there was actually a club in Toronto, when I spoke to the guy on the phone, that’s how he put it when I said “can we do another gig” and then he got out his book and his calculator and said no, you’re not coming back.
Rashid: That is a really weird way of looking at live music and culture.
Rachel: Are you really surprised Rashid, or are you just pretending?
Rashid: I'm not surprised, but I'm still disheartened, I guess. Cuz you know, you walk into a venue and you’re hit with something, you feel something, something different. Its sad when you hear people can’t quite understand that. Was Toronto more open for musicians in the 80s and 90s? Were there more opportunities?
Rashid: Were there more venues?
Rachel: There were a lot more venues! I think things have really… just the bureaucracy and the economic times, all of the competition for other stuff has really made a dent in live music venues, like not even to speak of covid, that was a whole other thing, even before that it was a struggle for people, just because of the gentrification, the stakes are very very high now. It's tough out there man.
Rashid: Well, you guys have been playing music in this city for decades actually, like successfully, so in a sense, is it harder to be a musician today than it was decades ago?
Rachel: I'm not sure, I don't know. I don’t know what people’s aspirations are, like as a younger person playing music, like people go to music school and they come out and they're really really good players and then you can get work doing whatever, teaching, musical theater, transcription, soundtracks, whatever. But if you’re a folk musician or pop musician and you're just trying to get over somehow and make money while being a huge star of some sort, I don't know. It's a mystery to me. I just go along from day to day man.
Rashid: How would you define success as a musician, both for yourself and I guess in general as well.
Rachel: I'm just very very happy when I get to play at places like Drom or anywhere else and they treat you okay and both my friends come!
Conny: Success, well, you know, when you talk about success as a musician, music is never ending, it's limitless there’s no end to how much you can learn, you can improve, there’s no limit to where you can go with music. For me, as long as I’m improving and I feel like I’m making gains and I’m able to express myself more and then that’s success, I’m being successful in my own eyes, I’m not really looking too much for approval from the outside world.
Rashid: that's very poetic
Conny: Well, what’s success for you?
Rachel: Well it's interesting when you factor in the performance aspect, it's very difficult to pull off a performance that's completely satisfying, where everything went well, there’s people there, the sound went well, there’s so many factors. Just to have a decent gig, that’s successful for me, that's really amazing. And it's so true what you said, Conny, about music being an open ended subject, for me, I’ll never ever get to the end of it. Even if I was more disciplined and I practiced a lot more, I still don‘t think I'd be able to achieve what I really want.
Rashid: That’s exciting though, isn’t it
Rachel: It's almost too exciting!
Rashid: Man, like hearing you guys speak, you’re still thrilled and excited by something that you discovered when you were teenagers, it's so cool, and really inspiring. Like honestly very inspiring.
Rachel: There's a lot of psychic burdens that come with it as well, it's funny you know. You end up thinking shouldn’t I have succeeded at this by now, shouldn’t I be better than I am? I go through that a lot
Rashid: But as you were saying, you're definition of success is a gig, and I think we all have notions in our heads of well I could be something but you've managed to tie that into no, just a gig that goes well, and a couple friends show up, you’re happy and you’re like just gimme the music, any music and I am a sponge that wants to learn and I will continually learn, it's exciting.
Conny: You know, there's a lot of satisfaction to be gained from pleasing the audience, and I'm more comfortable in a venue performing where there's a dialogue with the audience, the soft seaters kind of make me uncomfortable, when there’s nothing, you don’t hear anything, you can’t see because of the lighting, you feel like you’re under a microscope and in a nightclub or a bar where there's people clinking glasses and talking and enjoying themselves you enjoy it more because you’re getting something back and you can see the smile on someone's face, that's really great, it's more of a level playing field, you don't feel as much like I'm on stage and you’re down there.
Both: yeah, symbiosis