He fancies following in the footsteps of John Hartford, making goofy, old-time fiddle tunes
Coming from small-town Fort Saskatchewan, AB, Braden Gates found himself writing songs and taking in music at an early age. From classic rock anthems from the likes of Thin Lizzy as he laced up his skates as a hockey-playing youngster to the instrumental music passed down from his father, storytelling and songwriting has always been paramount in Gates’s life.
His new album, Pictures of Us, has two-time winner of the Alberta fiddle championship digging deep into the inner echelon of folk music sensibility with nuanced lyricism far beyond his age, 26, and a greasier fiddle style he’s learned through years of dedication paying homage to Canadian greats such as Calvin Vollrath and Don Messer.
Pictures of Us is rooted in the everyday trials and tribulations of city life, and the keen observations of a writer deep in thought, set to folk-guitar twang.
“For whatever reason, I was drawn to the songwriting aspect,” Gates says. “Being able to tell a story, turning a phrase, pairing that music with that intuition. My performance is not all fiddle or all guitar, it’s a mix of a bunch of stuff and the stories I want to tell.”
The place you’re in and where you’re from are important to Gates’s lyricism and songwriting style. As he listens to and writes music, he likes to look at finding those places from the writer’s or a literary perspective.
“I’ve always thought it was important to write about where you are in life. I don’t write songs about things I haven’t experienced or places I’ve never been… Those songs are good, too, but I find writing about what I’ve experienced personally makes the song more interesting,” Gates says.
Roots music has always been ingrained in Gates’s life. From an early age, his parents encouraged him to pick up the fiddle. But it was the chance meeting with James Blunt on the cover of an Acoustic Guitar magazine when he was 14 that really got the ball rolling and Gates began thinking of taking music seriously.
“I was about 14 and I found an Acoustic Guitar magazine, and James Blunt was on the cover with a beautiful Gibson; I was intrigued by that picture,” Gates says. “He was just a guy from the U.K., he was in the army, he played acoustic guitar. I listened to Back to Bedlam, like, so many times and I thought I could write songs like James Blunt. And it sounds like a joke because people like to make fun of James Blunt but I have a few of those weird influences that got the ball rolling—Jack Johnson’s Curious George soundtracks is another one.”
A lot of the songs on Pictures of Us showcase a full band, and while he’s proud of the album he doesn’t try to emulate the record when he’s playing live. He often likes stripped-down sets where he can banter a bit with the crowd.
All music is a form of storytelling. Since folk music is a little bit more laid back, Gates believes you might be able to present the story a little more concretely, giving the listener time to interpret and see themselves in the music.
“I’m still sort of drawn to the down-and-out feeling,” Gates says. “Everyday life, trying to find meaning in what happens to everybody. I defiantly like to find meaning in the mundane. That’s what makes it interesting, writing songs about things that don’t give you a lot. Trying to place your listener in the song is important, too. A song isn’t complete until its heard, and if someone hears themselves in a song, it can be a powerful experience.”
Gates’s poetic writing is often sentimental. A lot of his recent work has been self-reflective, and involved a lot of internalizing when he set about writing a song. Now he thinks he’s ready to play fiddle and dance, and maybe provide his listeners with a bit of joy.
“I want to make a record like John Hartford’s Mark Twang. I’d really like to get into making some weirder songs, fiddle and dance songs, zany songs, that are old timey and goofy,” Gates says. “Music that’s not informed by drama or destruction.”
Gates usually writes for himself. If he writes songs for people, he doesn’t go to them and say he’s writing a song about them. It’s a process he finds a little awkward sometimes, exposing elements of yourselves and others in art, and wondering if you’re doing it justice. Gates believes that the better you get at your craft the less of yourself or details you need to reveal. When he started out it was all instinct. As he’s kept writing and honing his craft, he’s been able to better hide himself.
“I’ve been writing this song called Bonnie’s Lounge, about the characters I see for example—and sometimes I think to myself, ‘Is it OK to be trying to put them to song? Is it OK for me to put my own spin on things? Is it a little skewed with how it is in reality or an accurate representation?’. I would never go up to a person and say, ‘I wrote this for you,’ but sometimes there is the inclination that I’m writing it for ‘you’. That’s not why I do it, so why do I do it? I don’t know…maybe it’s just to give a moment a little more meaning so I don’t go crazy.”
Writing music and creating music has really been about creating purpose in Gates’s life. He’s interested in starting a band called Bean Sneaker—it’s a strange idea in its approach to songwriting, and philosophy.
“Say someone has a jar of beans, like lima beans or jelly beans or something, that you really wanted and they were guarding it with their lives. And they don’t let you get any beans no matter how much you might want them. So one wonders how would you get beans? You’d have to, like, sneak around the person. You’ve got to be a Bean Sneaker,” Gates muses.
“The last record and production kinda just happened whereas Bean Sneaker is going to be more rhythmic, with more slide and melody. I was so caught up in lyrics and words and there was so much pressure put on it.
“At the end of the day, I guess it doesn’t really matter. Songs don’t save the world, songs are songs. I’ve been finding much more joy in fiddling and dancing. When I find someone I connect with musically, I’m actively building a team of Bean Sneakers.”