“I had never played with a band. I’d been onstage solo at the Montreal House, and opening up for people like the Weber Brothers introduced me to the world of the Peterborough music scene. But when I actually got to play in a band it was like, game over. I want to do this full time. And that was eleven years ago!”
Melissa Payne sits in the front row of Peterborough’s Market Hall, having just stepped off stage after a performance of her song “September Skies.” Like every performer in the Meet the Musicians series she has special connection to the venue, but Payne’s story has a fascinating symmetry. “This is where I played my first show, and it’s where I played my last show two years ago in the pandemic, before things started.”
Her collaborator, bassist Rob Foreman, sits beside her. “The first show that I saw Melissa play was here at Market Hall,” he adds. “It’s a downtown staple. It’s an institution and a landmark for Peterborough.”
Payne has toured extensively since, but whenever she comes home connections and coincidences like this abound. She grew up in Ennismore, a small community twenty minutes outside Peterborough. She moved into town at age 25 and bought a house, which quickly became a hotspot for local musicians seeking a jam. Her early training had focused on old-time fiddle and Celtic music, but other players in the scene broadened her musical palette by introducing her to rockabilly, alt-country, and Canadian rock legends The Sadies.
You can hear some of that the history in the easy, casual chemistry Payne and Foreman have on stage. Payne has an impressive command over dynamics, expertly varying her delivery verse by verse to build the song; Foreman follows her on standup bass with an in-the-pocket groove that injects an energy impossible to get from a single performer.
“There’s always someone to collaborate with, there’s always a show to go see, an installation to view,” Foreman says of the Peterborough scene. “The people seem to get art. On tour I’ve told people I live in Peterborough, and they’ve heard of it.”
Both musicians are counting on a return to form after two years of laying low. Payne is particularly looking forward to fulfilling ambitions of touring her album, Darker Than Your Dark, after the first attempt was squashed by unlucky timing. “2020, March 6, right before things really hit the fan I had a CD release in this room, and [‘September Skies’] was the single I put out at the time. It felt good. I was like, ‘okay we’re gonna go on tour, and then we’re gonna do this, and then—” Payne shrugs. “I was really grateful that I got to sneak in that last show. It was a good memory—I think it was a lot of people’s last show at a theatre in Peterborough.”
Payne is justifiably proud of the album. Produced by Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo, James McKenty of The Spades, and Maia Davies of Ladies of the Canyon, the level of polish and craft on Darker Than Your Dark is impressive. Payne says the opportunity to work with experienced producers was more liberating than intimidating, however. “We just decided to let go of the reins and see what the musicians would come up with, and it was exciting. Every day there were new things happening in the studio for that record. And performing it live I was like, ‘how am I going to perform this live?’ and it was so much fun to perform live, so I can’t wait to perform that album live in the near future again!”
For anyone who’s felt the lack of live music over the last two years, Payne and Foreman’s performance of “September Skies” make a powerful argument for returning to the stage. As Payne describes it, the song was inspired by a relationship that didn’t work out, but focuses on the feeling of passing through the countryside during a particular time in her life. “I can just remember driving up and down that River Road on my way to Lakefield and there’s so much beauty there. I’m never going to forget those nights even though they were short-lived,” she says. “I’m really a country person. When I drive out that’s when my soul is happy, when I’m happy.”
Both musicians feel fortunately they’ve had that kind of peaceful landscape to reassure them during a tumultuous time. Despite the interruption, Payne and Foreman are confident the scene is resilient enough to bounce back. “I hope when people can come back to shows, they come and fill every night in this place,” she says. “It keeps our city vibrant and unique.”
Hear more from Melissa Payne by visiting her website
Discover more local musicians through the Meet the Musicians series, released regularly through Spring 2022