This year marks the 20th anniversary since The Secret Mountain published its first children’s title. Over the past 20 years, our catalogue has grown to include more than 75 critically acclaimed picture-books and albums that blend storytelling, music, oral traditions and visual arts. Each project has brought together an array of talented authors, from Ana Gerhard to Gilles Vigneault, and musicians like Martha Wainwright, Patrick Watson and Karen Young, to collaborate alongside renowned artists such as Marie-Louise Gay and Élise Gravel. So it’s no surprise that the question founder and publisher Roland Stringer most often gets asked is: What comes first? The story or the song?
The short answer is that there is no formula. “After 20 years what’s clear is that the genesis of every project varies from on to the other,” says Stringer. If one were to trace it back to the very beginning, it started with a scratched up vinyl by Quebecois folk singer Gilles Vigneault found at a garage sale. “I took it home and played for the kids and they loved it.” But while tunes like “Un Chanson Pomme” and “Barati, Baratin” were a hit, Stringer realized the production could use an update. So he assembled a team of musicians and recruited Governor General’s Literary Award winner Stéphane Jorisch to bring the songs to life in Un trésor dans mon jardin.
The first English title, A Duck in New York City, was also based on existing musical material by Connie Kaldor, as was its follow-up, A Poodle in Paris. Ironically, The Fabulous Song was the first project to start with the story. When Stringer discovered the book written by Don Gillmor and illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay in an Ottawa bookstore, he felt it was missing one thing: Music. After securing a license to create a book-CD, he asked songwriters Michelle Campagne and Davy Gallant to tease out tunes from the story.
“It’s a lot of fun to see how artists develop certain elements of the story and build off them,” says Stringer. One song, “Crazy for the Dinosaur,” was inspired by a single line in the story where Frederic, the main character, chooses to play with his dinosaurs rather than play an instrument. Another song is dedicated to his clarinet teacher’s goldfish. “Don and Mary-Louise found it fascinating. It’s really magical for the person who has written the story.”
Some projects, like Tomorrow is a Chance to Start Over, which was written, performed, and imagined by Hilary Grist, arrive nearly fully formed. Others, like Down at the Sea Hotel, are years in the making. The premise of the collection is based on the realization that every songwriter has likely written one lullaby in their lifetime. Stringer started collecting a list of musicians and their lullabies, which included Billy Joel, Neil Young, Carole King, and Gord Downie, but couldn’t find a way to connect them. When his friend and former colleague Bob Feldman, founder of Red House Records, passed away, he brought the label’s musicians together to record them as a tribute. Canadian illustrator Mireille Levert culled a dreamlike narrative and visuals out of the title track by Greg Brown.
Sing Out! flipped the process upside down. “With Sing Out! we actually approached the illustrator first,” explains Stringer. “We really wanted a fresh take on traditional songs.” As Montreal-based illustrator Sophie Casson worked on the art, Stringer sent her samples of the songs as they were being recorded. This allowed instrumental details to make their way into the collection’s visuals, like a weasel playing a banjo because she could hear it in “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain.”
“Every project is a little but different,” says Stringer, looking back over the catalogue. “The quick answer is there’s no one way. The long answer is that often it’s about giving each idea the time to come together and develop.” For a sneak peek of what’s in store for next year, click here.
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