Tuesday September 02, 2014

Couple making music off the grid


In terms of music, its creation, and its influences, The Grid Pickers have taken a decidedly different path.

The Grid Pickers are Mike and Rachel McKerracher a musical duo from Buchanan, or more specifically a few acres of farmland near the Saskatchewan town.

That small patch of land is where the couple are putting down roots, both musically, and otherwise, after years of life on the road as individual gypsies of music.

“We are from opposite ends of the country and met because we are both travelers; we haven’t lived in one spot long enough to really say that we are ‘from’ there,” said Mike McKerracher. “I guess for us where you are born and where you are from are two different things. We don’t actually live in Buchanan, we have a bit of land south of town.  

“We came to this area by chance mostly, we’ve both lived all over the country and wanted a place where we could settle and have a family and Saskatchewan fit the bill. Starting from scratch is a benefit in a way, you can make your life pretty much anywhere with some hard work.”

The couple settled south of Buchanan a few years ago, bought a little chunk of land and started to homestead.

“We have been all over the place but this area of the planet is so rich with heritage and community that we knew right away where we would like to call home,” said Rachel.

It was a change for the couple, Mike having grown up in Edmonton and surrounding communities and Rachel in southern Ontario.

The move to the Buchanan area provided the couple with new freedoms.

“For us we like to have as much control over our own existence as we can,” said Rachel. “We know we can depend on each other to bring in the things that we need ourselves with little reliance on the grid system. If we’re cold, we cut wood.  If we’re thirsty, we get water. Our power comes from a small solar setup and a small wind generator. We grow our own food, raise our own meat and preserve everything right here on the farm. It is the most rewarding way of living we can imagine as well as health conscious for us and our children.

“There is a lot of challenges to living ‘off the grid’, and you really have to decide what is important to you and what you can live without. The winters here are very harsh so simple things like plugging in your car is not an option. You have to be more inventive and persistent to make this life work.”

As for music, the pair does have a long resume.

“We have toured coast-to-coast both separately and as a band, Mike alone as “Haybale” and together with another member as “Thick as Thieves”,” said Rachel.

Their music was what led them to meet in the first place, explained Rachel.

“I lived in Guelph at the time in a house with 17 people not including house guests, and to pay rent we would have shows in the basement,” she said. “Mike was on tour as a solo act and was booked to play our house. We connected musically and emotionally right away and kept in close touch as Mike finished the tour.

“Needless to say he came back and we started playing tunes together. We toured and travelled together with our two dogs for a few years before heading out to Saskatchewan.”

Once a couple The Grid Pickers emerged as a natural collaboration.

“Both of us have similar musical tastes, with some differences that gives us a pretty unique sound,” he said. “We look to bluegrass and old-time music for inspiration, as well as ragtime and east coast ballads, all with our own twist of course,” citing the likes of Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, Jimmy Rodgers, Woody Guthrie, and Jelly Roll Morton as performers who have left their mark on The Grid Pickers music in some way.

Rachel said working together on music came easily.

“We both played folk music and old tyme music for our whole lives really,” she said. “Mike grew up in a large extended rural family on the prairies so there was a lot of country and gospel music in his upbringing, and I grew up in a Scottish/Irish immigrant family so I was raised up on old jigs and reels. And that is why there are all the different flavours in our music.”

The new CD is already garnering some buzz.

“Some of our highlights include the Grande Prairie Festival, interview and performance on CBC Radio, featured in Sask Music’s e-release for the single “29 Days”, a feature interview in the magazine ‘The Country Grind’, and later on this summer we will be playing the mainstage at the Northern Lights Bluegrass Festival.  

“Hopefully next year another tour is in the cards to promote our new album.”

Taking to the patch of land near Buchanan the McKerrachers have tried to stay off the modern grid in many ways, power being one.

That has impacted how they now interact with the music world.

“The music industry has been harder to navigate since it required a connectivity that we couldn’t possibly maintain, it’s more of a challenge for us to book shows and promote our own music but it’s not impossible,” he said. “As we are a D.I.Y band (do-it-yourself) we take care of all the band business ourselves, from our home. And if our home happens to be off-the-grid, then that’s what we have to work with.”

Of course when it came time to record the new album at home, off-the-grid created some additional challenges to that process as well.

“We recorded the album using a basic mixer, a laptop, and all of our own gear, and not enough power to run it all,” said Mike. “We have a very small solar and wind setup, so we had to use a gas generator and an extension cord to run the equipment.

“It was a challenge to create a recording where the sound of the generator’s engine didn’t come through, but in the end we were glad we recorded and edited all the music ourselves. It is more of a relaxed project when it is in your control.  

“We also have two small children, so we had small windows of time when the kids were napping to get a track done, something that would have been a challenge in a traditional studio.”

Of course recording is different than playing on a stage at any time.

“Playing music live and recording an album are two completely different things for us,” said Mike. “We usually record track-by-track which means we don’t play together, rather to each other’s music.  

“We found this easier when one of us has to watch the kids or push the buttons on the laptop. It’s more of a rigourous process that way, but it also gives us as much time as we need to get it right.  

The music for the new CD has been collecting for more than half a decade.

“This album has been years in the making, just because our lives got incredibly busy with children and setting up our farm - it has been six-years in the making,” said Rachel. “We like to think the songs matured and seasoned in that time into something we are really proud of.  

“Mike is the main lyric writer in our band, and we both come up with the music and harmonies together by just jamming out an idea until it sounds right. Because we live together and are a family, this is a pretty informal and relaxed process; we fit it in whenever there’s a spare moment.  

“Throughout both our musical careers, our music has been an act of storytelling for us so any change or event in our lives is documented in story form.”

In terms of farming it has become a musical driver of sorts for the duo.

“Mike’s Grandpa was an active homesteader and brought a lot of his knowledge to the table,” said Rachel. “He was a master gardener who hunted, trapped, fished, and brought his own fire wood to the property.”

The McKerracher farm is a place they learn new things from daily.

“We have a small background in rural living but mostly we are not scared to dive in over our heads and learn from our mistakes. Having the guts to try something that you know little about is an art form,” said Rachel.

“Our music has always been kind of diary of our lives. When we were traveling and hitchhiking,  that’s what we sung about. Now that we have settled down and started a family the gears have shifted,  but we still sing about what we experience on a daily basis. It’s just that the adventure has changed. All it takes is one time getting your boots stuck in the mud to have a song about getting your boots stuck in the mud.”

Of course the farm is a small one.

“We have some sheep for meat, goats for milk and cheese, chickens for eggs and rabbits for stew,” said Rachel.

“We have a large garden where we grow our food for the year and a root cellar where we keep it all for the winter.

“Really this stuff has been done for hundreds of years around here so learning the tricks of the trade often involves visiting the neighbours and talking to them about how their parents and grandparents dealt with the things that we deal with. The knowledge of how to survive in the woods is becoming lost in the shuffle and if nobody learns this stuff,  who is going to teach it to the next generation?”

The finished disk is something the McKerrachers see as worth the years of writing, and added challenges of home-recording, off-the-grid.

“We are very happy with the finished product,” said Mike. “Whenever we have made recordings in the past they felt more rushed and we let a lot of mistakes slide because of time constraints, but this time there was no pressure or timeline so we could really polish up and make it right.  

As for a favoured cut the couple agree.

“I think we both really like the song ‘29 Days’,” offered Mike.

“It is a catchy, upbeat, kinda dark ragtime song about how the poor stay poor, and the rich keep getting richer.

“It is a really fun song to play and consists of Mike on the guitar and kazoo, then me on the banjo,” said Rachel. “It is always well received when we play it live. We have been told that “29 Days” is the hit single on the new album.”

“We have had some radio play already, and we have released the album in hard copy and digitally to the public as of March 25.  

“As we do all our own promotion and management, it’s up to us now to get it out there.”

That effort included having a CD release party on April 26 at the Community Centre in Buchanan to promote the album.

Check out the duo, and their music at thegridpickers.com



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