“Where do we to want sit down for this?” I ask. We are currently in Emilyn’s kitchen as she prepares a bowl of salsa and breaks into a bag of tortilla chips. “Let’s go to the living room,” she says, “it’s cozier there.”
Cozy it is, with the furniture squeezed between the guitars, piano, accordion, and fiddle cases. The room is bright, the walls painted lime green. Bright-coloured scarves are draped across the ceiling, and in the corner there is an unlikely collage of newspaper clippings featuring the Vancouver Canucks hockey team's successes from the previous year. It’s a place made for connecting, for sharing conversation, tea, and music. It’s the place where 21-year-old Emilyn has held rehearsals with the various bands she plays with, and where she and I have pulled out our own instruments and jammed just for fun. Most importantly, it’s a place to create a community.
She is comfortable here. She pushes strands of her shoulder-length, blond hair behind her ears and stretches languidly as we sink into the squashy cushions of her couch. She holds herself with a calm assurance, that perhaps is due in part to a lack of sleep. We had both been up until quite late the night before at one of her gigs. I was nervous for this interview, but her relaxed demeanor is calming, and I feel myself getting caught up in it.
Emilyn Stam and I have known each other for a long time. We both grew up in small-town Smithers, BC; we were both mentored by Oliver Schroer, a fiddler who often came through Smithers to teach; we both played in a few musical groups together; but we never were very close. Our paths split long ago when she moved to Toronto to pursue her passion for music fulltime. She may have been a little surprised when I called asking if I could come up during reading week to interview her, but she said yes. She even asked if I would play with her at one of her gigs while I was in town. This the kind of person she is and the kind of life she leads: always going with the flow, always saying yes, and never passing up the chance to make connections happen. From the very beginning of her music lifestyle to now, it has always been about the people she’s shared her music with. For her, the music is everything, but so is the community that it creates.
How old were you when you started playing music?
I was about 5. We were housesitting for some friends in Smithers before moving to Holland. They had a piano there. I had recently watched The Sound of Music and I was often singing songs from there and I guess I sat down at the piano [. . .] That was my first real experience with a piano. I mean, I had sat beside family and friends of ours while they played, and I think my parents said that I was always really interested in watching that, but that is where I see it first starting.
When did you first start to play fiddle?
Well, I joined the Valley Youth Fiddlers (VYF) [in] 2001. In January, I went to my first rehearsal with VYF [. . .] I borrowed a fiddle from Mr. Gesch, my Grade six teacher, but it was in really rough shape and things were falling off of it, and it wouldn’t really tune properly, but I got it right away because I wanted to be like all the other cool kids with fiddles [laughs]. I didn’t get a fiddle of my own until the fall. For the whole spring of 2001, I was just playing piano in the Fiddlers.
You got your start in a small town in northern BC; do you think that this has had an impact on your music? A small-town perspective that is different from the musicians you play with in Toronto?
I think people growing up in the city, they’re going out to see good music, but there’s always a disconnect between the music and the people who are listening to it [. . .] The musicians will be in their own space and don’t interact with the audience as much. Whereas growing up in Smithers - there’s always music around - but when the really good musicians came to town [. . .] they stayed in our houses, so it didn’t seem so distant.
When I think of how I want our world to be, I think of people of all different ages partaking in different activities together and creating life. Like making food, making music, and telling stories. Those are parts of every culture when you look at it. I think in a city, people become disconnected from that [. . .] and less community oriented [. . .] whereas when you grow up in a shared learning environment - like [Smithers] - we had jams and things like that, that brought us together.
Before Toronto, you spent some time on Salt Spring Island, on the west coast. Was that a huge growing period for you?
Total growing period, yeah. Living on my own and being surrounded by the people of Salt Spring, who are more - I mean, it’s a hippy island [laughs]. Like, I started thinking about what kind of coffee I was buying, I started thinking about eating more local stuff; things that I hadn’t been as aware of growing up.
I took the ferry over to Victoria a lot, and I had my fiddle with me, and I started to realize how cool it is to travel with an instrument. You get to talk to cool people. They see your instrument and they feel comfortable talking to you because there is something to talk about. Carrying an instrument breaks down that barrier.
So that was a quieter period of your life. Then in moving to Toronto, things started picking up?
Yeah, well, moving to Toronto was, like, the first few months were so centered around Oliver Schroer, being with him in the hospital. [Oliver Schroer was in the hospital for leukemia treatment at that time. Emilyn and other students of his moved to Toronto for awhile to be with him. He died in the summer of 2008.] Like we’d play music but I wasn’t thinking I should have some bands. All my focus was just on hanging out with Oliver. And that was cool. I got to meet so many interesting people at that time and we became a community. That was one of the most attractive things because I had been living on Salt Spring where I didn’t really have a community and then I came to Toronto and this community was already here. It was Oliver’s community, but they accepted me into it and really made me feel a part of it – a part of something bigger.
Do you think that you will always be doing this, or do you see yourself moving away from music at some point?
I could see having a different lifestyle where maybe rehearsals and gigs aren’t my only focus. But I don’t think I could ever see myself stopping music. I think I will always need to have people in my life who I can play music with. Even if it’s not my main source of income, I don’t think that will matter. It always needs to happen. I just can’t picture anything else [laughs]. I don’t need to be performing though. There is some sort of validity to performing - and I hate thinking about it like that. You don’t have to feel like you’re only a good musician if you’re performing. Some of my favourite moments are in this room here when I’m with some of my favourite musicians and just playing music for ourselves. Playing music with our friends, for our friends. And I think that will always be part of my life. And I prefer that almost. Sometimes always being around people who make their music their career feels so distorted. We’re always trying to promote the next gig, or get people to buy the next CD, or book the next show. It feels like such a weird thing sometimes. Like, why can’t we just play [laughs]?
What is your favourite part about this lifestyle you have chosen?
It’s just . . . fun [laughs]! There’s just so much fun involved. Not much sleep, but so much fun [. . .] You are enriching people’s lives and they enrich your life just by being part of the experience. And you know it can never be over because there’s always something else to learn and something else to experience. Yeah, it’s just endless, the possibilities. You can be learning your whole life.