Selkirk College music instructor Jill McKenna. Photo: Submitted

Selkirk College music instructor Jill McKenna. Photo: Submitted

COLUMN: From Tiny Desk to Nelson, meet bassist Jill McKenna

Sydney Black writes about the Selkirk College instructor

by Sydney Black

Hello arts lovers!

When I was first asked to write this article, I wanted to make sure that it provided an opportunity for artists to learn from each other. Over the next few months I will interview local professional artists who are making their living in their respective disciplines so that we can all see how they’ve made it happen.

First off is Selkirk College’s new bass instructor Jill McKenna:

Tell me your story.

It’s a classic tale – I was handed the bass simply because nobody else wanted to play it. It was Grade 7 and I was extremely lucky a couple of years later when my high school had an upright bass I got to try. I immediately fell in love and never looked back.

I started my post-secondary education at Mohawk College in Hamilton and after two years, I was granted a scholarship to attend The New School for Jazz and Contemporary music in Manhattan. I lived in New York for three years and it was the best and most challenging thing I have ever done.

How did you end up in Nelson?

I moved to Nelson for one season (four years ago) because I needed a break from music. After leaving New York, I had moved back home and was engrossed in the Hamilton-Toronto jazz scene. I love jazz but it wasn’t the only music I wanted to be playing and I felt stuck. I had attended a six-week residency program at the Banff Centre and decided I wanted mountains over skyscrapers.

When I moved to Nelson, I brought all of my instruments but left them in the corner of my room for six months and told no one I was a musician. It was the longest I had gone without playing in eight years and it was terrifying. I skied and shovelled snow and read books at the library, until I started picking up my instruments – a ukulele a lot of the time– and writing music for the first time that felt incredibly honest and would soon lead to the album I just released. It’s called “None of this is Mine” under the artist name Marivon. It’s an eclectic record that unapologetically traverses genres with 13 of my favourite musicians, including Nelson’s own David Restivo on a track.

You were on National Public Radio’s Tiny Desk Concert. How did you make that happen?

It was a truly millennial experience; I scored one of the biggest gigs of my life on Instagram. I am a huge Dodie fan, and she posted a story looking for “local” musicians for a gig in December in Washington D.C. I told her I wasn’t too far (perhaps a bit of a stretch) and sent a video playing along to one of her songs.

The next morning, I woke up to an email from her manager saying that Dodie dug my playing, the show is actually a Tiny Desk and wondered if I could make it happen. Three weeks later I was in D.C. for 48 hours, hanging out with one of my all-time favourite artists and her band at one of my all-time favourite venues and it was the coolest experience of my life.

Any advice for people who want to live rurally but perform nationally?

I’m all for it. My partner and I will often joke about people moving to big cities to try and “make it,” but how the real “making it” happens when you can do it from anywhere you want. The toughest part about living remotely, is making those national connections. If you’re going to start your career from a remote place, you should prioritize going to places and events where you can meet the people you want to connect with. For me, those places have been at school, on tour, and music residencies, often at the Banff Centre.

But Nelson is a pretty special place for its balance of being both a close year-round, rural community, with a lot of transient people. There are lots of great artists who live here and lots who are constantly passing through. Think about what you are able to offer the community you want to be a part of – can you host shows, can you link people together, do you have an extra room for a touring band to crash? I made a lot of my connections before moving to Nelson, but when I moved here, I worked with the Nelson and District Arts Council and still work with Tiny Lights Festival as an assistant producer and I have made so many beautiful connections through those roles.

Sydney Black is executive director of the Nelson and District Arts Council.