Arts & Culture(Archives)
Local Talent - A Feature on Dan Tulk, Shantelle Davidson and Dan Gillies
I set out to do this feature story on Danny Tulk, Shantelle Davidson and Daniel Gillies in a way that was different. Rather than lobbing a standard set of questions via an email or a conversation over coffee, I invited each of these musicians to Birdsong Studio to hang out, talk and play. I put my iPhone down on the workbench and recorded what happened. They talked and played; I painted. Each session lasted about an hour and resulted in authentic dialogue about music, family, and being an artist in Fort McMurray.
The moment that Danny unpacked his guitar and played his first riff in Birdsong Studio, I knew that I was in for something special. The acoustics in this small workshop are apparently quite extraordinary - this was the first time I had heard live music in the space. Dan settled into a bar stool and shared a remarkable tale of finding music at a very young age, and despite trying to “grow up and get a real job”, how he accepted that music is always going to be a part of his life.
“A local boy, back in Newfoundland, got his first electric guitar,” recalled Danny. “He called me over to his house - I was 10 or 11 at the time - and I sat down and he played. I was hooked. That one power chord was all it took.”
Danny’s journey through life followed a rather typical path of playing in various high school bands, graduating, going off to college to get a degree, and working various jobs to pay for it. At one point, he was working full-time during the day and teaching guitar in the evenings. It was probably the precursor to the career that he has built for himself in Fort McMurray as a teacher, administrator, and gigging musician.
“I’ve always been passionate about teaching,” he said. “When I went to sit down at the car dealership I’d spend more time contemplating my lesson plans and students than thinking about my full-time job.”
Fort McMurray has been extremely kind to Dan Tulk. What began as a focus on his teaching and education administration career quickly evolved to a symbiotic relationship with a thriving music career. He didn’t intend to fall back into a busy evening and weekend music life, but dropping into a small pub in Dickinsfield offering to play for free - just to keep himself fresh - turned into one offer after another to play live.
“I can’t imagine a city where I would be busier as a musician as I am here,” he said.
He is effusive about Fort McMurray as being an unexpected hotbed for the arts and opportunities and is deeply grateful.
“If you want to be an artist here, it is probably the best place to be,” he shared. “Without an audience, without people to listen, without people to support it, we don’t exist. We’re nothing without people to appreciate it.”
In 2015, Dan released his first CD titled “Uncovered”, a collection of original songs that reflect his life and his roles as a son, husband and father. Travelling to Nashville to record the album, being apart from his wife and daughter for the first time, he wrote a song called “Thank You”, trying to express what he would say to them if he only had one chance to do so. “Abby’s Eyes” captures the moment he saw his baby girl for the first time.
“I fell in love right away,” he said. “I know it’s cliche, but I think to myself that if there’s one thing I did right, it’s you.”
Over 800 copies of Uncovered have sold and the project has passed the breakeven mark. Its success begs the obvious question.
“Do you think you’ll ever make it to the big time?” many often ask.
“I think I have made it, because I’m content. After a long night of playing, I get to come home to my wife and daughter. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Shantelle came to Birdsong Studio at the end of a long week of work at CNRL. Up and out the door at the crack of dawn, she was ready to kick back, play some music and share her story.
She came to Fort McMurray in 2005, from the small community of Rainy River in northwestern Ontario. She attended Westwood Community High School and graduated the following year. We actually worked together on a mammoth production of Beauty and the Beast with Keyano Theatre Company in early 2006. The friendships forged during that show, helped connect her in a meaningful way to the Fort McMurray arts scene.
Like many young people, she was inspired by music teacher Mike Eddy. He helped nudge her in the direction of her post-secondary choice, which really marked the beginning of taking her music career seriously.
“Mr. Eddy was a huge influence,” she said. “On a whim, we went to Calgary to audition for the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. I remember putting my heart and soul into that audition and from that point on I felt that this is what I am meant to do.”
Fast forward a few years and Shantelle found herself with the opportunity to be a part of Hometown...The Musical! It was a tough decision to embrace that project at the time, but it proved to put her in exactly the place she needed to be.
“I definitely needed to have a push from my band and the people around me to do Hometown,” she recalled. “I remember feeling overwhelmed at the time. The band was so busy and I had so much going on with my life. To be honest, I didn’t want to do it. But, I was very grateful for the band and Susan Lexa, who encouraged me. I remember performing every night and that was when I was happy again. It helped me cope with that low point in my life.”
The self-titled album that Shantelle released in 2015 was her second recording effort. Technology played a key role in the development of this project. Working with Clayton Bellamy, Shantelle chose songs that felt like they came from her heart. Songs were pitched by the producers and sent as MP3 demos by email. She also participated in Skype-writing, where she worked with other songwriters to develop songs for the project over the Internet.
The studio sessions happened at MCC Studios in Calgary, the music was recorded first, with Shantelle singing along to get some practice in. Then she recorded the vocals separately.
“It was such an amazing experience to be in the studio with these musicians,” she said.
Shantelle received great response to her performance in the opening ceremonies of the Western Canada Summer Games, and has had her music featured on country music radio stations from coast to coast. In my view, she looked like an absolute star up there in front of thousands of athletes, parents and community members. However, she is still working on breaking into the mainstream, knowing full well that it is a tough road.
She is fiercely independent, taking care of the business side of things completely on her own. In the process, she has become stronger, more connected, and determined.
“I am a working musician,” she said. “I have my own album. I’ve released a single to radio. I’m learning so much and making these connections. I feel that so many doors have opened.”
Davidson would love to be able to tour in the future, but has no desire to be famous. She loves the music, and she loves being able to share it with an audience.
My final guest in the studio was Dan Gillies, a self-employed music teacher and performer. He sat in the hot seat strumming his acoustic guitar and reflecting on this life in music that he and his wife Emily have developed and grown in Fort McMurray. As he played and looked back, there was a pervasive sense of gratitude about his unlikely, yet extraordinary journey of being a working artist in an industrial town.
He grew up around music and enjoyed listening to his mom sing and play. But it was when he first heard the electric guitar that he got hooked and signed up for lessons at Campbell’s Music, back when it was at the corner of Manning and Main. By the end of that year, he was spending four or five hours a day practicing, and was playing with his church’s worship team twice a week.
“As soon as I started with the guitar, it took over,” he shared. “I haven’t looked back since.”
Dan meandered through memories of those early years of playing string bass in the Westwood Band, doing the high school rock group thing, going off to college and finding the love of his life. Gratitude for so many people popped up as he strummed and talked: Jimmy Sheane, Mike Eddy, John Fleming, Bill Prouten, and Scott Mellor to name but a few.
“I wish I could write to them all in a big letter just thanking them for the things they did for me,” he said.
Finished their post-secondary education, married at 21 and expecting their first child, Dan and Emily made the decision to return to Fort McMurray. He knew he wanted to do music for a living, but was also conflicted by the need to put food on the table. To that end, he did what grown up responsible people do in Fort McMurray: he went out to find a “real” job.
“I don’t want to tell you some of the places I put my resume,” he remembered. “I was under the mindset that to work in an industry town, I had to put all the training and passion aside and focus on providing for a young family.”
It was at Campbell’s Music that Scott Mellor offered him a job, and the rest is history, so to speak.
“That job led to most if not all the music gigs I’ve had since,” he said.
Dan has derived the bulk of his family income from music since 2008, and entirely so in the past four years. Last year, he released a solo instrumental CD containing a wide variety of styles and genres.
“I almost wanted to call my record ‘All of the Above’,” he shared with a chuckle. “When I was growing up, I’d always be asked by my mom: ‘Do you want a piece of apple pie, cherry pie or pumpkin pie?’ I’d always say ‘All of the above’. I wanted a slice of everything.”
That sense of wanting a little bit of everything is reflected in his musical life.
“I wanted to get married young and I wanted to be in music school. I wanted to teach and I wanted to play and make an income for my family. It’s like that Eric Clapton song, ‘Running on Faith’; it’s reckless, but in a beautiful way.”
Dan and his wife have built a viable career in music in this community. By the time this article is published, they will be settled into their own home - for years they been able to make ends meet thanks to accommodations through Wood Buffalo Housing. They have done exceptionally well by any standard.
“We are not wealthy by any means,” he said, “but we are definitely wealthy in so many other ways.”
As devout Christian, Dan and Emily see a higher power at play in the life they’ve been given.
“I can look back and find so many memories, so many people, so many platforms - I can see the continuity, the fabric. I can completely see Christ’s hand over the whole thing.”