By Tanya Alexander
Natasha Hartery Blackwood has a lot of irons in the fire… or brass, as it were. Natasha is a saxophone player from Stephenville. She is now living in the island’s capital city of St. John’s and is involved in a multitude of musical projects and groups, some included in the list of this year’s MusicNL Awards nominees.
She played with the Long Distance Runners for the past year and is in their video for Pulling it Together, which was nominated for 2016 Video of the Year, and she played baritone sax on Peter Willie Youngtree’s album, which won 2016 Country Recording of the Year.
Natasha, 32, has already had an eclectic and varied career in music, with noteworthy experiences near and far. When she graduated in 2008 from Jazz Performance at St. Francis Xavier (StFX), she embarked on a European/Canadian tour with The Burning Hell, for the album Flux Capacitor, for which she played all the bass lines on baritone sax.
“It was an amazing experience,” says Natasha. “We played shows in Poland, Germany, Finland, Latvia, and Lithuania, to name a few. When we toured Canada, we had the pleasure to perform at the Vancouver Folk Festival, where I got to jam on stage with some of our country’s greats, including Joel Plaskett and Danny Michel.”
Natasha grew up in a very musical family – her dad plays drums, guitar, mandolin and bass. Her mom sings country and is in the church choir. Her oldest sister Melissa plays clarinet and is a choir conductor in Halifax, and her sister Amy plays flute and is a singer/songwriter living in Deer Lake.
She says the music inspiration wasn’t just at home.
“We all got into school band with Howard Larade at Stephenville High School; he’s retired now but he’s an amazing teacher who inspired so many young people from our area,” Natasha says.
“He actually invited me to play on one of his projects, The Dirty Big Band when I was a teen. It was my first show! The band’s guitarist Nelson White was also my music teacher in primary school. It was exciting to feel on par with my teachers, to be accepted into their group and treated with respect.”
She says it speaks to the incredible music teachers on the west coast and why so many professional musicians come out of there.
“There are just so many opportunities for young people, especially for a small town. I feel very lucky to have grown up there and have the teachers I had.”
She graduated from the now-named Sound Recording and Production program at College of the North Atlantic (CNA) in 2005 and went on to study Jazz Performance at St. Francis Xavier, graduating in 2008 with honours. Add a Music Education degree from MUN, and you have one highly educated musician. But her learning wasn’t concentrated just in the classroom. Natasha says it was the sideline experiences that added so much to her growth as a musician.
“I always ended up performing with my teachers. It was really empowering for me,” Natasha shares. “It has also shaped the way I teach – it gave me the mindset that if I treat my students like peers, or like someone who will someday be a professional, then they will be empowered to feel like that as well.”
To see her play the baritone sax (the largest among the common types of saxophones) is a treat – this 5’2” fireball commands the “devil’s horn” like an angel – light as a feather, sweet to the soul.
While Natasha studied sound production at CNA (yet another facet to this talented artist), she had the opportunity to perform at the bi-annual concerts and other events put off by the music program at CNA; she attributes her time at the college for kicking off her performance career.
“If it wasn’t for my time at CNA I don’t think I would have even had the confidence to study performance,” she says, speaking of her studies at StFX. “I also acted as the in-house sound technician for the music program the whole time I was at StFX, which allowed me to meet and work with some jazz legends, and become really immersed in the school community. I’m really grateful for the skills I learned at CNA. It really set me up for a meaningful experience at StFX.”
Wade Pinhorn, Instructor for the Music: Performance, Business & Technology program at CNA, was one of her teachers while studying at the college.
“One of the greatest thrills as a teacher is when we get to hit the stage with our students… seeing them reach that point of development and confidence,” says Pinhorn.
“Natasha was one of the first students that I actually did that with, at a jazz show we staged at the Arts and Culture Centre. She played saxophones and it was a wonderful experience. She was certainly very professional and played great!”
As a musician, Natasha goes where her heart leads her; one of those places is to her Aboriginal roots and to Eastern Owl, a First Nations drum band. The group solicited Natasha’s help with vocal harmonies (she is also a singer) which led to her staying with the group. They are recording their first album and her husband Aaron, an engineer and musician (drummer) in his own right, is producing it with Natasha in their home studio. The album, Not Quite Like You, is allowing Natasha to expand upon her other skills.
“It’s different because I’m contributing to the writing, to the decision making and booking. It’s my first time not being on the sidelines, and it’s very exciting!
“I love being involved in creative projects, but I am most comfortable on the sidelines… the silent partner,” she laughs. “This is pushing me out of my comfort zone a little.”
Eastern Owl performs at festivals with an Aboriginal focus, but they aren’t confined by it. They love to perform at mainstream venues and played a set at two Lawnya Vawnya shows this year and appeared on Vish Khanna’s (CBC) talk show. She feels there is a movement away from segregating the music from other popular song. Indeed, she sees a great culture of eclectic music and inclusion happening in her home of in St. John’s.
For example, the Spirit Song Festival. This is Natasha’s fourth year as Technical Director.
“It started out small, and has been growing every year. This year it is a two-day event, with a gala at the Geo Centre, and an Urban Mawiomi at the Bruno Centre. The theme this year is ‘Reconciliation Through Collaboration,’ and is going to feature indigenous and non-indigenous artists, with unique collaborations between the two,” she says.
“It is produced by, and a fundraiser for, the St. John’s Native Friendship Centre (SJNFC). Highlights include Eastern Eagle, Wonderbolt Circus, The Blake Sisters, and The Navigators. We’re all very excited. Eastern Owl has participated in the event every year. SJNFC has been a huge supporter of us since the beginning, and we are happy to give back to them any way we can.”
The social advocate side of Natasha has led her to work with the Refugee and Immigrant Advisory Council (RIAC) as Youth and Community Coordinator. The council is a not-for-profit, charitable organization that supports refugees and immigrants in making Newfoundland and Labrador their home; it also seeks to raise awareness of refugee and immigrant issues, and helps create a sense of community for the new residents.
With Natasha’s guidance, the association promotes multiculturalism through music and art with such events as the Summer Cultural Festival held last summer, the Less Violence, More Violins concert, and the cultural dinner show We Are Newfoundlanders, which showcases the richly diverse food and music culture in St. John’s.
“These events are great for our community. The performers get to showcase their culture in a safe, appreciative setting, and the funds raised go toward free community program at the RIAC, such as free English classes and advice programs,” she says.
“And for the audiences, they get to take in some of the cultural performance that they wouldn’t normally see on a night out. The cultural music scene is the best kept secret in St. John’s right now!”
She was also moved to volunteer her time, and a piece of her heart, to launch a free music program for teens at the Buckmaster Circle Boys and Girls Club this past year.
“It’s a part of a beautiful partnership between the Refugee and Immigrant Advisory Council Inc. and a free homework-help program called Roger’s Raising the Grade. Some of the students are from Buckmaster Circle, but a lot of the youth are also international students from all over the city who need some extra help. The youth are incredible, hilarious, hard-working and sweet. The staff are so dedicated, and the facilities are great!”
They have just been awarded a grant to buy new/quality instruments for the kids, which means more students, more opportunities, and more music-making. This means a need for more teachers. They are on the hunt for people to help out or to tutor.
“You don’t need a degree and you don’t need to read music. This is a pop/rock music program based on jamming out and loving life,” she says.
Music is obviously interwoven in Natasha’s life and it’s therefore a natural part of her own young family. Just a few months ago, she, her husband, and their two girls decided to take part in the RPM Challenge – an online challenge to create a 10-song album in 28 days. They did it over some weekends during their family time. This collection of adorable, fun songs written and performed by the children, Lucy and Nina, with help from Mom and Dad, created a huge buzz on the Internet and resulted in a purchasable children’s album called Family Day (you can find it on the Fred’s Records website). And of course they needed a band name – The Hashbrowns seemed like the perfect choice.
“Our daughters named the songs, the band, and the album. It was a riot working on this project with them and letting them make the decisions,” Natasha says. “Children are great to get creative with, because they have no inhibitions. They just go for it!”
As for the future, Natasha says she likes making things happen, learning new instruments and new styles and taking on new projects and challenges.
“I have no idea what I’ll be working on in five years. I guess what means the most to me is that I’m involved in the community, and there to support whatever is happening at the time. Music in St. John’s is constantly changing, constantly pumping out new, interesting, innovative works, shows, and festivals. I just feel really lucky that I get to be a small part of it.”
It seems Natasha Hartery Blackwood is already a big part of it, and will be for a long time to come.