With a new album that prompts listeners to reflect on home and its significance in their lives, is it any wonder that indie-folk band Ptarmigan returned home to Peterborough to showcase their newest recorded work?
According to band member Peter McMurtry, the band’s October 9th performance at the Silver Bean Café in Millennium Park — Ptarmigan’s first live show since the pandemic descended in March 2020 — “just sort of made sense.”
“The Peterborough community has always welcomed us so warmly,” McMurtry says. “We’re from there, we started the band there, and our base of support is from there. We also wanted to test the new songs on an audience that’s familiar with us.”
Ptarmigan’s third album Cocoon features the combined talents of McMurtry (vocals, banjo, guitar, percussion) and his longtime friends and bandmates Aaron Hoffman (harmony vocals, mandolin, synthesizer, keyboards, and percussion), and Sam Gleason (harmoney vocals, guitar, bass, keyboard). Produced by Gleason, the album also features contributions from Isa Burke (Lula Wiles), Robert Alan Mackie (The Aerialists, The Bombadils), Evan Cartright (The Weather Station, Tasseomancy), and Steven Foster (Omhouse, Doldrums).
While McMurtry says it wasn’t his intention to “sum up what people were feeling during the pandemic,” he acknowledges the new album’s exploration of the concept of home, and how people build their homes both literally and figuratively, has meshed with the times we’re living in.
“It’s about home but it also about the different experiences we have of home,” he explains. “The pandemic provided people the time to reflect on past experiences, or their family members or family history, so there’s also that component to the album as well.”
VIDEO: “Once I Knew” – Ptarmigan
“One song, Markinch, is about my grandfather who grew up on the Prairies during the Great Depression. It’s about him being away from home for the first time and having to go home on weekends to look after his mother. It expresses the tension of the loss of home as he grew older and how you deal with that. For me, it’s an exploration of where I come from.”
Ptarmigan formed in 2009 when McMurtry shared a few songs with Hoffman and Gleason while he was visiting home from university. After more than two years of writing and arranging, the band released their first album Eliak And The Dream in 2013, with a follow-up self-titled album released in 2016 standing as a testament to the evolution of the band’s sound.
Eliak And The Dream, says McMurtry, “has this more intense rock component but it also has a more whimsical, spacey sound.” But with “more extended instrumentals, more complicated arrangements,” the follow-up album “went full on into the prog-rock or prog-folk end of things.”
“Cocoon brings us back a little bit to those earlier songs. It’s more emotional and direct with a fantastical lens, but retains a creative storytelling component.”
Bringing Burke, Mackie, and Cartright on board resulted from a desire to make the album “a bit more grounded in folk instrumentation — in acoustic instrumentation. They added a really unique texture we haven’t had before.”
Four singles from Cocoon have been released, two of them — “Once I Knew” and “Rounders” — accompanied by videos. The former was filmed south of Rice Lake on a farm near Cold Springs. Directed by Adrienne McLaren, it features choreographed movements by dancer Oriah Weirsma, a friend from the trio’s high school days at the former Peterborough Collegiate and Vocational School (PCVS).
“Aaron and Sam have been best friends since they were very young,” says McMurtry, who got his first banjo at age 11. “I was friends with both of them later in high school. We were all in the music scene in overlapping friends’ groups and all doing different musical things and then it sort of happened. Our worlds kind of collided right at the end of high school and in the year after that.”
McMurtry remembers with fondness early gigs at The Spill (now closed) and The Gordon Best Theatre in Peterborough.
“Having venues that were accepting of high school bands was such an important thing. It’s one thing to practice in the basement or the garage, but to actually get experience performing on a real stage and having your community there was something else. That was such a critical thing in levelling up our performance.”
“We all played folk and jazz music in high school,” McMurtry recalls. “It wasn’t until I came with the first couple of songs that I had written that a light bulb went off. It brought together a lot of the worlds that we were inhabiting, having this original music that we could make our own.”
Songwriting, says McMurtry, is a process that can’t be forced.
“There are some days that I can write a whole song in one go but, for the most part, I have to be in the right head space to be able to capture those moments of inspiration because they are quite fleeting,” he says.
VIDEO: “Rounder” – Ptarmigan
“I could go months without feeling inspired to write a song and then over the course of a couple of weeks write a handful,” McMurtry says. “You need to be aware of when the moments arrive. Trusting it will happen and not being too hard on yourself if you’re not being super creative on any given day is key.”
Not lost on McMurtry, Hoffman, and Gleason is the substantial impact that their friendship has had on their creative output.
“We have such a history together, so it’s natural for us to be together and create,” says McMurtry. “We know each other’s thinking. “Despite that, there are challenges. When you’re working on something together, you don’t want the work to get between your friendship. There’s a delicate balance there.”
There’s also a delicate balance in the evolution of the band’s musical style, according to McMurtry.
“Sometimes we feel out of place in the folk world. Sometimes we feel out of place in the rock or new rock world. The flip side of that is it makes us unique and makes us stand out. We’re not really like a lot of other acts. We really try to leverage that and it’s worked to some extent. People are interested in the combination of sounds that we’re able to create.”
Ahead for Ptarmigan, if eased pandemic restrictions allow, is a planned March show in Toronto followed by a tour of Ontario cities. McMurtry is chomping at the bit to again experience “the feeling of getting lost in the music and in the moment to point where it becomes something larger than yourself.”
“I would love to do more extensive touring nationally. There a are a lot of places that haven’t heard us yet. And I would love to tour the UK and Europe. I think our sound would find a unique audience there as well.”
Expressing a desire “to take this ride as far as we can,” McMurtry says Ptarmigan has represented all that he aspired to during his at time at PCVS.
“My biggest dream was to be able to write a song and perform it for people on a stage. The fact that I’ve been able to that for this long with super creative amazing people who are my best friends is something I definitely don’t take for granted because, in a minute, it could be gone.”
“In the grand scheme of things we’re not really that successful compared to a lot of other bands, but I’m grateful we’ve able to play shows and have people appreciate the music. That’s the most important thing for me.”
To learn more about Ptarmigan and keep up to date on tour dates as they’re announced, visit www.ptarmiganband.com. You can listen to and buy Cocoon as a digital album or a CD at ptarmiganmusic.bandcamp.com.