By Ollie McGhie, Acoustic Magazine
To some this might sound like the start of a musical joke. Will the singer-songwriter be crooning under the piano while R&B recitative weaves in and out of syncopated jazz melodies? It’s either going to work or fail abysmally. Port Cities is one band from Halifax, Nova Scotia, who do this very well, though not in the manner described above. The band comprises Carleton Stone, 32, a veritable singer-songwriter; Breagh Mackinnon, 27, a vocalist who majored in jazz piano performance, and Dylan Guthro, 27, a hip-hop and R&B collaborator, guitarist-cum-producer. At the 2017 Nova Scotia Music Week they walked away with no fewer than five awards, including Recording of the Year for their debut self-titled album Port Cities.
“What ties us all together is an appreciation for good songwriting,” says Breagh Mackinnon, nominated spokesperson for the band. In fact, it is through a love of songwriting that they all met. In 2011 they attended the Gordie Sampson Song Camp in Nova Scotia.
“The band came together very naturally. We developed a system of co-writing and collaborating even before Port Cities became official. We were on a songwriters’ circle tour a few years ago. Every night we’d play gigs where we’d each play our own song in a round. At the end of the tour we were singing so much on each
others’ songs, had so many three-part harmonies entwined into them and so many songs we’d written together that we thought we’d combine forces and make it official. We’ve been writing songs together
for about five years now.”
Their debut album came out in Canada last year but was only released this side of the pond in March this year. At times the album has a distinct Nashville sound, but just before you get there it’s pulled back to a more popular, contemporary style. They don’t quite take it in turns to sing, but the fact that they mix it up keeps the listener and the album invigorated.
“Sometimes its very obvious that it’s either a Carleton or Dylan song.” Mackinnon says. “But other times we might be writing and Dylan will say, ‘Hey, Breagh, you give this a try.’ We’re all open to trying
new things and whatever gets the message of the song across the best.”
It’s a sound that’s carving its own niche, always fresh and underpinned by some almost pristine three-way harmonies.
The single ‘Back to the Bottom’ is the first track on the album. It’s a powerful opening number about the antagonistic nature of relationships. It starts with an almost whispery voice (Dylan), which is then joined by Breagh before crescendoing to the chorus when Carleton adds extra harmony. “The song was actually a finished piece in Dylan’s solo show before we started Port Cities,” says Mackinnon.
“He started writing it with Gordie Sampson at the camp where we all met, before he brought it to the band. We’re very glad we all got to work on it and put the Port Cities spin on it. It turned into a duet between Dylan and I but there are a lot of three-way harmonies. It made us all realise how fun it is to sing together as a group and how we can focus on that vocal blend. It’s still one of our favourite songs to play; even after three years we still love it.”
The song ‘Sound of Your Voice’, a classic love song, has undertones of a fledgling Mumford & Sons band, as if the fingerstyle acoustic guitar playing could turn into a banjo at any moment. “This track was started late one night. I think we had the verse first and we weren’t sure how to tie together the meaning of the song so we brought it to Gordie. He said, ‘The sound of your voice cuts through the noise.’ We knew that was the perfect line that tied everything together from the verse. It really drives the point home that love can be really simple, and there’s beauty in that simplicity.
‘On The Nights You Stay Home’, brings to mind a young Don Henley, hats off to Carleton. “The song is an idea that Carleton had. He overheard a friend’s mum talking to her son at a Christmas party,” Mackinnon says. ‘She was trying to convince him to come over. She said, ‘Scott, you’ll never remember the nights you stay home.’ Carleton wrote it down on his phone as a future idea for a song. A few months later he brought it along to one of our collaborators, Donovan Woods, an inspirational Toronto-based songwriter. We finished the song with him – its definitely a favourite of ours.”
Port Cities compose their songs in a fluid and flexible way. “Usually one of us will have an idea and bring it to the other members of the band, and we’ll all follow that thread and see where it wants to go lyrically or production wise. On this album we’ve worked with other writers. It changes every time. We love collaborating with writers and other artists.”
The album finishes on an ethereal note with Mackinnon’s smokey tones wishing you back to when you were a child and the flighty ambitions you might have once had. Accompanied by drone-like guitar parts it makes an atmospheric ending to an album that caters to the many.
Prior to Port Cities each musician led busy independent musical lives. “Port Cities is our main focus now,” Mackinnon says. “We haven’t had much time to pursue other projects but we all have separate interests: Dylan is getting really good at production – he’ll be working with rap and hip-hop artists producing beats and tracks for them; if we have a weekend off I’ll do a jazz piano gig; when Carleton has time he’ll head down to Nashville and work with country artists. We all have separate interests but the
record has kept us busy this last year!”
The producer, Gordie Sampson, lives in Nashville, where most of the album was recorded. ‘Gordie knows us really well as individuals. He’s done a great job of combining our three musical styles and making that combination work. We travel back and forth from Nashville and up to Cape Breton. We rehearse at Carleton’s parents house as often as we can, otherwise we rehearse at Dylan’s recording studio.”
This month they embark on a UK tour. Their live sound is usually more whittled down than the fuller sound on the album. “We try to have more of an intimate sound on stage. Sometimes we get to add bass and drums to get the big band sound, but for this tour it’s going to be more stripped down.”
Port Cities will tour Germany during June, before returning to Canada. “We’re really looking forward to playing the Mariposa Folk Festival in Ontario and we’re especially excited for a show in our home city of Halifax next fall with the Nova Scotia Symphony Orchestra!”
Port Cities’ self-titled album is out now.