Author: John Jurgensen
3/2/11 | Wall Street Journal | www.wsj.com | Feature
Fort McMurray is located in a remote part of Alberta, Canada, and a five hour drive north of Edmonton. The city of about 70,000 people sprang up around a single industry. "If it wasn't for the oil, there'd be nobody there," says musician Nils Edenloff, who grew up there with sprawling evergreen forests and 40-below winters. In his own small way, Edenloff has recently given Fort McMurray a new identity: muse.As the primary songwriter for folk-rock trio the Rural Alberta Advantage (or the RAA for short), Edenloff has channeled his adolescent experiences in Fort McMurray, where his family moved from Edmonton to follow his father's work as a pipefitter. Two years after the RAA's debut album, "Hometowns," the band today releases a sequel of sorts, "Departing," which uses local color to explore a universal experience: viewing the people and places of the past from a growing distance.On the song "The Breakup," Edenloff sings about an expiring romance, drawing symbolism from cracking spring ice on a river that cuts through town. "Tornado '87" measures loss in the shadow of a historic tornado that tore through the region, killing 27 people. On "Goodnight," a stripped-down acoustic track that the trio often performs live without microphones, standing out in the audience, Edenloff sings "I can see the words you're screaming in the frost." His voice veers from a nasal coo to a throaty howl, at times reminiscent of the Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan or Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum.Like many artists who mine memories of their hometowns, Edenloff didn't start writing songs about his until he left it. After graduating from college in Edmonton, he moved to Toronto, where the RAA sound gelled around drummer Paul Banwatt and vocalist Amy Cole, who also plays keyboards and percussion.As the band grew its profile in Toronto, a key turning point came when the U.S.-based digital retailer eMusic featured the RAA on its store in a slot reserved for unsigned artists. Soon afterward, in the spring of 2009, eMusic gave the RAA more exposure at its buzzy showcase concert at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas. The band got picked up by the Saddle Creek record label, best known as the home of indie stars Bright Eyes. Ensuing concert tours brought the RAA to big markets including New York City long before it ever played in Alberta.When the band finally did make it to Edenloff's home province, a fanbase was waiting. "It went to a completely different level than anything we ever did before," he says, recalling the crowd's reaction during a concert in a church in Calgary. "It felt like the audience had part ownership of the songs in a way."The singer says his songwriting will continue to be influenced by old memories of home_after all, it's built into the name of his band. For about 15 years, "the Alberta advantage" was a provincial rally cry, a reference to the industry built on rich deposits of oil and gas. (In 2009, the slogan was officially changed to "Freedom to create. Spirit to achieve.") Back when the band was just taking shape, Edenloff's brother sent him an email, joking about a weekend plan "to explore the rural Alberta advantage." Reading that twist on such a familiar phrase, Edenloff says, "I forgot all about the ugly connotations that I grew up associating with those words. I realized the beauty of home in a way. You can be so close to something and look right through it until you're far away."