Band on the Run: Kitschy, Classy Drake Hotel is Toronto Arts Beacon

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life.

If the merging of kitsch and class together is on the agenda for a place to stay in Toronto, The Drake Hotel is perfect. Each room is unique. The furnishings are retro and modern combined. The artwork is compelling. There’s even an antique photo booth machine that shares a room with an electric saddle ride.

But we didn’t stay there.

Honestly, it’s a bit too pricey for the musician’s salary, but it’s one of those urban hotels that are worth splurging for on a special occasion because it would be a memorable and unique night’s stay. And, well, it’s a happening place in the city and surely the entertainment within its walls would be worth absorbing. This week, for instance, it’s one of the social hotspots for the Toronto International Film Festival. Well… there’s something.

(Which film stars will be riding in that saddle, I wonder?)


I was in Toronto this weekend for a jam party and some rehearsals. I love this city. I spent nine years living here up until 2004 and I still feel like it’s my urban home. The thing that has struck me so much since I left, however, has been the rapid changes that urban landscapes undergo. One of those changes is Queen Street West and its push towards upward mobility from artist and low-income eccentricity.

Gentrification. It’s heading west in Toronto. At least the eccentricity hasn’t been completely vacuumed away. The Drake is evidence of that fact.

Places like The Drake have popped up all along this stretch. It’s not as though this hotel wasn’t here when I lived in Toronto. In fact, it was a dive that most people I knew stayed away from. It has been around since 1890 and used to house the railroad workers that came into the city. In the eighties and nineties, it was a rough punk bar and just seemed like a seedy establishment that one hurried past if walking by late at night.

The current owner bought it in 2001, gutted the place and underwent several years of renovations before opening the space as an upscale hotel, lounge, rooftop restaurant and live music venue in the basement. Since it’s opened, the traffic to this part of the city has increased, as have the number of art galleries, cafes, and loft-dwellers in nearby newly constructed urban condos. It’s remarkable how quickly neighbourhoods transform.

Their website describes The Drake as “a democratic hub and cultural pathfinder, in the midst of a re-energized indie art gallery district.”

I can’t quite swallow the democracy here, since it’s out of many people’s price range if you’re not actually looking to stay, but I do concede that it’s a hub. It’s central to new growth and feels like a beacon of change. What’s more, it does unite rather well with the diversity of the neighbourhood as though its spot “in the midst” of so much art hasn’t been lost on the designers. They hang local artwork on the walls, have commissioned canvasses and expensive sculptural displays flanked by refurbished couches and squeaky vinyl diner stools. Indie musicians file through the basement venue while a sushi bar and yoga den take up the upper levels.

It’s definitely full of contradictions that succeed at representing a neighbourhood in the throws of change, on the cusp of new identities, on the eve of new beginnings without a desire to erase the past.

When I walked into The Drake this weekend to check out the second stage of renovations – I had been told that it had transformed into a more 30’s style kitsch look in the past year and I was curious – I spoke to the smiley front desk clerk about the hotel and its story. He seemed to smile out of every pore as he showed me the flyers and flashed white teeth in response to each of my questions. He had me smiling back, to be sure, but I wondered how happy he really was.

He spread his arms outwards to sweep in the whole of the building when he told me I was free to walk around and take pictures. Another grin and he went back to work without a word. In fact, no one seemed to mind my presence in the least. I felt a bit like a fly on the wall as I strolled into rooms I hadn’t been in for several years and took pictures and looked around. I listened in on a few meetings, a lover’s spat and a heated political discussion over a late lunch.

When I returned to the lobby, the smiling host looked up from his word asked if I had any other questions about the space and if I wanted to reserve a room. He explained that I wouldn’t be able to view one because they were all booked out (there are only 19 rooms), but he brought out room brochures that showed their diversity. As I mentioned, every room at The Drake is different. It’s not themed, per se, but several top designers were hired to design the rooms and each took a different approach. Some rooms have hardwood, some have carpeting, some have exposed brick walls and minimalist decoration and others have walls filled with unique art pieces. No art in the whole hotel is repeated, actually (sigh of relief) and each room boasts different furnishings, colours, layout and overall decorating style.

I looked at the brochures with genuine interest and told him that I’d be back in touch in the future. After all, anything’s possible.

Maybe, if nothing else, I’ll come back to socialize and get my picture taken in that old black and white booth.

Right after I’ve ridden in that saddle!

Band on the Run: Folklore Bed & Breakfast on Lake Ontario

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life.

Staying at “Bed & Breakfasts” (B&Bs) is something that I have done many times with the band. Often events presenters or festival organizers choose to put up the artists in regional B&Bs because they have local connections for donated or discounted rooms. I prefer it, actually, since I’ve seen so many identical floor plans to corporate hotels.

Staying in those widely known hotel franchises takes the travel out of my reality; inside the hotels, I could be anywhere and everywhere at once. Nothing has changed from the previous night’s accommodation despite the miles under my wheels.

Perhaps corporate hotel chains offer the comfort needed for weary travellers: something consistent. For me, it’s just boring, not to mention false. If I’m going for illusion, I’d rather go for the illusion that I live somewhere else, not that I’m not somewhere else.

B&Bs offer that illusion. The most beautiful one that I have ever seen (and I’ve stayed in plenty) is perched on the edge of Lake Ontario (just south of Grafton) and has an amazing story. It’s called Folklore Bed & Breakfast.

Generally, houses that are transformed into Bed & Breakfasts are still lived in by the owners (or hosts). This gives one a glimpse of someone else’s kitchen, furniture, view, record collection, etc. It’s a bit like trying on someone else’s life for a moment, despite the fact that the owner is still present and you’re usually paying for the privilege of this residential dress-up game, (unless you’re working as musicians and you’re “being accommodated!”)

What’s more, B&Bs offer a middle zone between being just another completely faceless customer who is virtually ignored after payment has been processed and your lonely friend’s long-lost house guest, i.e. just enough privacy so that socializing is optional without it having to be awkward if you need space.

This particular B&B takes the prize as my most perfect illusion of residency yet. Located less than an hour from Kingston, Ontario and about an hour and a half from Toronto, it is traditional log home that originated in 19th century Quebec. The owner, Leslie Benson, found the house one province over and arranged to have it shipped in pieces to its current site where it has just recently opened as this 21st century Bed & Breakfast. Originally built in the 1860’s, it is a square hewn log home with a huge central hearth. Leslie has since added a board and batten addition and porch that stretches out towards the lake to better view the water. The space is now about 1800 square feet in total.

Ample Land and waterfront.
History and great view.
Privacy and tight-knit community beyond the property lines.
A fireplace.
A hammock.

(I’m drooling even typing this.)

There we were as performers at the Shelter Valley Folk Festival and this is what we were treated to as our “pretend residence” for three days. We drove up the long driveway at night (at least 1 km in length) along 35 length-wise acres of land in the traditional lake property style of the area. (When settlers took over this land, they were ceded strips along the lake to enable everyone to have at least a narrow lakefront but still enough land on which to have a sustainable farm.) The house at the end of the driveway was stunning. Lit in the front by two flood lights, it looked like history itself, the front windows two wide eyes staring back at us with the lake sparkling behind it like secrets daring to be told.

The next morning, one of those secrets turned out to be the incredible view of Lake Ontario. I could have spent hours just listening to the waves and watching the sun dance off the water. Unlike smaller lakes, all of the Great feel more like an ocean than any other body of fresh water I have ever been near. (There’s some dispute about whether or not they actually have tides, however.) I’ve also heard that it’s clean enough to swim here, though the water was way too cold for me.

It took another day before I learned it wasn’t the original house on this property. I was amazed. Leslie is an engineer and “Transportation and Design Manager” for a company in Clarington, Ontario, which explains how she was able to negotiate moving an entire house and re-assembling it in a new location. And, I have to say, with a few years of restoration of a century home under my own (tool) belt, she and her team have done a remarkable job. I would never have known that this wasn’t its original location. It looks like it belongs here.

The home came home, perhaps.

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The inside is filled with antiques and traditional furnishings. There are four bedrooms upstairs: her master suite above the addition and three other rooms equipped with big wooden wardrobes and quilts on the foot boards of the old-fashioned beds. Even the bathroom, a huge room upstairs the size of a bedroom (obviously having once been just that before the days of plumbing) had wooden furnishings and traditional washbasins on display as well as the requisite modern bath and shower.

In my estimation, we more than “stayed in style.” I felt sorry for the other musicians down the road at The Comfort Inn.

I have never encountered a B&B chain. Has anyone else? Though, nowadays with houses being constructed all over North America with the same floor plan and by the same interior designers, it’s possible that such an idea could strike an entrepreneur. I’m still hoping it never does, though. It would take the charm right out of the experience. It’s all about every space being different, after all.

B&B chain = oxymoron.

And this was different. Beautifully so.

I left a note for Leslie when we left offering to “house sit” anytime along with my personal phone number.

I meant it.

Band on the Run: Shelter Valley Folk Festival in Grafton, Ontario

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life. Enjoy!

The Shelter Valley Folk Festival is only in its fourth year and you’d never know it. It’s one of the smoothest run festivals I have performed at in years. This was our first time there, but I walked onto the site on Friday evening and felt immediately at home.

I’m not sure if it’s the shape of the land, how it lolls uphill in Northumberland County (just south of Grafton, Ontario) and overlooks the huge sparkling body of water to the south: Lake Ontario. Maybe it’s the energy of the festival, which is geared towards community, local suppliers and artists, collective decisions, family. Or, maybe it’s all of the above combined together that draws around the event like an embrace and made my shoulders loosen up and take it in.

Whatever the reasons, it was a breath of fresh country air this Labour Day weekend.

I arrived to my band mates and friends lying in a pile in front of the stage Friday night, their faces lit up by spill of the stage lights, listening to Bill Bourne‘s set (accompanied by Michelle Josef on drums and percussion.) The pile gaped open to allow me to drop myself into it and we all huddled together staring up at the stars to the melodic lilt of Bill’s dancing guitar lines. Everyone was mesmerized and the whole audience seemed to be breathing in time to his tunes.

The next day, I kept running into my fellow artists who I knew weren’t programmed to play that weekend. I had read the schedule but their names weren’t on the performer’s lists. I found out shortly that many artists combine forces and volunteer at this event. It might have something to do with the founder, Aengus Finnan, an artist himself who was the visionary for this festival. And, while it may have been his vision to start with, many artists now share that same vision and lend their energy to prove it; they were doing things like MC’ing the stages, taking tickets, clearing plates in the dining tent, stage managing. That’s testimony right there to the magic in this event. It’s very rare to see musicians volunteering to work events that don’t include their music.

That’s belief in an event’s power.

That’s powerful.

We performed a total of seven times this weekend. Usually, I’d grumble a bit at being programmed so much at a festival. There was only one full concert on Saturday night, but we were playing in several workshops that included two or three songs round-robin style. (If you’re reading this from Australia, this is the “song swap” style of performance.)

What I found instead of pure exhaustion from these additional performances (which has been the case at other festivals at different times in my festival touring career) was an injection of energy from each workshop. We were collaborating with several other artists whose work all aligned beautifully with ours, like complimentary colours of a continuous musical spectrum. We did workshops whose themes were road stories, songwriting, community and collaborations, to name a few. I looked forward to each one and they all delivered that same post-performance grin.

A distinguishing feature of this festival compared to many others is the arts and wellness areas. In the artists’ booths, there were local artists from all different media whose only stipulation for being part of the festival was to provide demonstrations of their work to festival goers. There were people glass-making, painting, carving and paper-making for all to witness and learn from. Those booths were humming all day with onlookers and questions flying. I found it fascinating.

I was peering at the paper-making demonstration when there were suddenly horns blowing, shakers shaking and drums drumming coming down the path. Everyone’s head lifted and turned to see the kids’ parade walking towards us having already walked the circumference of the site and through the backstage as well. Kids were dressed and painted and smiling. Parents were filming. The young ones held onto a rope like the kind they have for preschoolers on walking trips through the city. It created this colourful spine around which the older kids and adult supervisors danced and jumped like the legs of an enormous caterpillar as it snaked its way around the remainder of the festival site.

This plastered a smile on my face as I took in the wellness area just beyond the artists’ booths. The area included talks and demonstrations of various body work. You could attend a shiatsu seminar and follow that up with a talk about sustainable organic gardening, for example, before catching a late afternoon musical workshop and then heading to the food stalls for organic and locally grown food.

All in all, this festival is educational, entertaining and healthy. The backstage area had full recycling drop points including composting and the use of re-usable plates, cutlery and glassware. It was healthy towards all things living, most importantly the Earth which we all can’t live without.

My friend Darlene (performer and volunteer at this festival) makes hula hoops as a side project to her amazing music and she graciously gave me one as a present this weekend. I think the gift may have been inspired by my long hula hoop session with a few eight-year-old girls in the open space to the east of the main stage on Sunday afternoon. I couldn’t stop playing with those hoops and I had to be tugged away when it came time for all of the performers to take to the stage for the finale songs.

Now I have a bright red hula hoop as a memory of this event.

And hopes to return some future year.

Shelter Valley Folk Festival is worth your attendance.


Band on the Run: The SkyTrain View of Vancouver, BC

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life. Enjoy!

Last week, I had the pleasure of an extra day in Vancouver. The festival we performed at in Grand Forks, BC didn’t program events on the Sunday. As a result, we headed back to Vancouver on Sunday rather than on our flight day, which was Monday. This gave me a chance to catch up with a friend in Vancouver and take in a very Vancouver-specific experience:

The SkyTrain.

I was staying out in Surrey, an outlying suburb of Vancouver. My friend lives on the opposite side of the city and so we agreed to meet up downtown. I headed to King George SkyTrain station and felt like a tourist all over again, even though this is definitely not my first time in this city.

I love wandering cities alone, even the occasionally seedy ones.

Now, I’m not slagging Vancouver. This is a beautiful place. On my many occasions here I have walked the Sea Wall, seen Stanley Park, spent copious hours on Commercial Drive and generally loved the Vancouver vibe. I am definitely a west coast convert and probably wouldn’t turn down much opportunity to get out there because it is just that beautiful. The fact that it’s guarded by the Rocky Mountains doesn’t hurt either, as though they supervise the town with their stony majesty.

Well, hey, this summer is a fine example of that respect I feel for the west coast, not to mention the magnet I feel to get there; we have flown out there as a band three times since early July and that makes British Columbia our number one destination for summer festivals in 2007.

That’s something.

I would, however, be remiss if I didn’t also point out that Vancouver has a rough side. Seedy, rough, sketchy – call it what you will. This town has its full-spectrum attributes and I’d say that King George station reminded me of this truth.

I read here that Vancouver has been noted as having “the worst skid row in North America.” Hard to believe when you tour the beautiful neighbourhoods of North Vancouver or the hip arts district of the East End.

But, I think this reality adds to the beauty of the city, too. There is a seedy underbelly here that clashes suddenly with such intensely beautiful scenery, for sure, but, even more interesting is that this underbelly is not being hidden; it is regularly visible, sort of like a dog that is willing to roll over and show its vulnerability without losing its ability to dominate or its charm.

Yeah, Vancouver is a mix, for sure, and that’s what I love about it.

Nothing happened at that SkyTrain station to be alarmed about, of course. There was just the exchange of general acknowledgment between those hanging around the station and me, the visitor, passing through the station. I bought my ticket (from the kiosks that work on an honour system – you just buy the ticket and they occasionally check but there’s no turnstile or attendant!) and headed upstairs to the platform. The only indicator that this is the right direction is the banner above the stairway that indicates that this is “Fare Paid Zone.”

I love how trusting Vancouver is.

This is the end of the line, so the train was paused here for a few moments before heading back downtown. It gave me just the time I wanted to snap a picture of its perch, pre take-off, and of the way the tracks look, as though they’re about ready to mount the mountains themselves and then race down into a twist and turn and upside-down roller coaster run. I half expected to hear that motorized-pulley sound of roller coaster cars being tugged uphill.

The SkyTrain is a subway above ground (not unlike Line 13 in Beijing or the L in Chicago) and it offers an amazing view of such a diverse city. When I sat down in the front car, I was soon surrounded by everyday commuters and some noisy teens heading out for the evening. Everything seemed normal and urban, as though I could be anywhere, as we weaved into the city suspended on stilts across the water and skimming roof lines of various neighbourhoods. No hills and no death-defying speeds, but it was cool all the same.

I got off at Granville Station and was met with the steepest escalator I have ever seen. In fact, I actually backed away from it when I saw it with the intent to take a picture and stranger said to me, mockingly, “Ah, don’t worry. It won’t hurt cha!” while pointing upwards and smirking.

I just nodded and took my picture, feeling all the more like a tourist (and this sometimes can be equated with “geeky,”) and then I also felt an overwhelming drive to put my camera safely in my bag, out of sight. This isn’t a common feeling for me so I rode the escalator up, took a couple more photos and then safely stashed it in my bag before getting to the top. The urge to conceal anything valuable was palpable and I just listened to myself. I wouldn’t call that paranoia, just instinct.

When I got out of the station at Granville, there was a lot of street action and I was grateful for this decision. I walked through it unnoticed, but sometimes looking like a tourist even when there’s only twenty bucks in your pocket and a cheap knock off camera in your possession is just not worth the hassle. I hurried past and then called my friend and we found each other just a few blocks later. Now, hey, I’m not saying there was any actual threat on that street there; I’m just saying that I wasn’t about to invite any, either. Not in Vancouver.

And then, I had a great catch up with my friend who I haven’t seen since I was in Beijing in June. I got a lift home from Dave’s sister, Liz, but I would have happily taken The SkyTrain again. I’ll have to do that sometime when night has fallen so that I can watch the lights of the city bounce off the water and the tall buildings. I’m sure it just adds to the beauty.

Until then, stay safe and open minded in the great wild, Wild West.

I miss that coast already.

Band on the Run: Naked Harvesting in Eastern Ontario

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life. Enjoy!

I’m sitting in my kitchen on a brief sojourn from the road and I am completely exhausted. The cause of my exhaustion is, for once, not road travel or air travel or too many gigs stacked up next to each other; this time, the cause is simply:


My apple tree did a serious shake down this past week while I was away in Hawaii and BC and dropped nearly all of its fruit in giant piles in the grass. I think there’s exhibitionism going on in my yard because the tree is standing almost entirely naked and fairly happy, right next to the now naked and smug blackberry patch that surely cajoled the tree into joining the illicit streak show.

So what do musicians do when they’re not on the road? They harvest. At least this one does. Although, I must admit that I felt a bit like a voyeur today at the all-natural peep show.

Worshipping at the foot of a bare fruit tree, I was on my hands and knees for two and a half hours gathering apples for both the compost and the kitchen pots (those rotted and those salvageable, respectively). I rose from the task feeling purged of all things artificial like recycled airplane air, fluorescent lights, and electromagnetic rays.

Now, another three hours later, the pots are bubbling and I am typing with fingers smarting from the natural acid in the fruit. Is this the poison often mentioned in historic religious literature? If so, may it steer my fingers to type naughtier words than normal because I’m currently feeling far too domestic, too housewife-like, too traditional for my own good.

It’s contrary to my modern self-perception.

I guess this is the inherent push-pull of good and evil. The one that sits beneath all choices as though there is a cleave or a divide inside each of us. It has been etched into ours heads via years of Christian indoctrination – the kind that simply happens to all those who live in the West, regardless of religious affiliation. It’s everywhere, of course. There will forever be something so wholesome about a beautiful ripe apple and something so simultaneously devilish about the desire to bite into it.

Am I having an “Eve” moment, or what?

Some people wonder what musicians do when they’re not on the road. At this time of year, besides some writing and correspondence, I don’t do much else besides harvest. Then, as the old folks around here call it, I “put up” the food in glass jars, preserving apple sauce, tomato sauce, pickles, relishes, salsa, (maybe even some pickled beets this year), all of which become perfect holiday presents . . . from a musician who doesn’t earn much in the winter climate when there’s lots of snow and hardly any driving tours.

And, I must admit that this is also a calculated survival technique, really. I always know that I won’t go hungry, as do my friends who often help with this process. In fact, tonight, my neighbours arrived spontaneously and before the conversation truly began, I had two extra knives and cutting boards on the table while laughingly saying, “Hey, nice to see you! C’mon in – here’s a knife!” They laughed too, but still sat down with love and compassion, especially when they looked at the piles of apples gathered and knew I was alone here in this quest to cook them down before leaving for another road trip tomorrow.

[Headline: Crazy Lady Gathers Too Many Apples, Needs Neighbours to Get to the Core of the Problem!]

Because, for me, it is always a race against time with this gardening and harvesting mission. If we’re off the road for a few days, I have to actually choose something to “deal with” before heading out again. For instance, if there are too many tomatoes, they have to be blanched and frozen, at the very least. If there’s time, there’s always the possibility of a simmering pot of pasta sauce on the stove all day made with fresh basil, oregano, peppers and onion – all from the garden as well, of course.

On this brief break, on this particular week, I had no choice but to focus on apples.

It makes my life seem rather simple sometimes when really it is everything but. It all simmers down to one task and that task was apples. And the simple truth behind that singular vision is this: when you grow food, you have to either eat it or preserve it. Otherwise, it’s a waste. And, to me, wasted food (especially organic and home grown) is just a crying shame.

Crazy, really.


So, when the apples are ripe (or, in this case, already shed and threatening to decompose) they simply have to be gathered, washed, cored and cooked down. There is nothing else to be done that is more important.

They mon-apple-ize your time, let’s just say.

(C’mon, that was funny!)

My friends who visit or my neighbours who stop by have always just been rolled into these food projects and they walk away with the fruits of their labour, literally! Tonight, my amazing neighbours (Dale & Louise) took a whole box of apples home with them (and I mean, a big box!). I was relieved. There’s not enough stove space tonight and there was writing to do and laundry and packing for the next weekend festival, as well as the general clean-up that harvesting warrants, not to mention my personal need to bathe.

(Which I’m sure the audiences will appreciate.)

And really, when you find the plants, bushes and trees in your yard itching to shed their edibles, should we not celebrate such blatant acts of liberation? Otherwise, it’s just me here in my yard in the remote countryside, dressed in my garden get-up, getting grass stains on the knees of my jeans and feeling anything but sexy.

Maybe I should join in the party and harvest naked next year?

Now there’s temptation.