Finding an audience close to home
It ain’t easy being a homegrown roots musician in Red Deer — a city largely divided between country and rock loyalties.
Levi Cuss can’t get local radio stations to play his sometimes politically charged folk-rock tunes because they don’t fit the pop/rock or country formats.
But Cuss’s poetic songs about war and heartbreak can occasionally be heard on Alberta’s public broadcaster CKUA.
And they were deemed good enough to land him a 10-week residency last fall at The Banff Centre, where he got to cavort with such cool musical mentors as singer/songwriters Ron Sexsmith, Hawksley Workman, Danny Michel, and multi-Juno-Award-winning producer/musician Steve Dawson.
Banff was “a shockingly good experience,” recalled the Red Deer singer/songwriter, who’s known as Chad Gillies when he isn’t performing. He applied for the centre’s music residency on a whim and was floored when he was accepted.
“I got all fired up when I was in Banff!” said Cuss, who took a temporary leave from his local commercial construction job to become totally immersed in music.
Between writing new songs, interacting with other musicians and playing his own shows, the 38-year-old got to breathe, write and think music for more than three months — giving him a tantalizing taste of what it would be like to be a full-time musician.
He even developed his own little group of followers in the arty resort town. “There were about 30 people who would follow me around to different shows. ... I’ve never had that before.”
While returning to Red Deer could be compared to coming back down to earth, Cuss isn’t complaining about the local music scene, which is burgeoning of late, with more and more venues booking live entertainment.
In fact, local club owners have been fantastic supporters, said Cuss.
The singer and guitarist who released his debut album It’s War in 2013, has played regularly at The Hideout and The Velvet Olive, and also at the International Beer Haus and Stage, Fratters Speakeasy and other venues.
One of his next gigs — an afternoon fundraising house concert in Red Deer on Sunday, Feb. 23 — is particularly dear to his heart as Cuss is trying to raise money to record his second album in Nashville. It’s to be produced by Dawson, with support from some studio musicians who have backed Blackie and the Rodeo Kings.
The house concert will include a silent action. Cuss is also looking into other revenue opportunities, such as various grants applications and corporate sponsorships.
He plans to complete his new album, I Swear It’s True, by the end of May. In the meantime, he’s excited about his “great” new band, The Curse — comprised of drummer Carlos Capaban and guitarist Bradford Lawlor — as well as his new material.
Some songs that could end up on the upcoming release were inspired by happenings in the wider world, including the death of Nelson Mandela and the killing of troubled young immigrant Sammy Yakim on an otherwise empty Toronto streetcar.
The tune Sammy Y looks at the tragic police shooting of the young, knife-wielding man, who apparently suffered from mental problems. Cuss believes, “Something horrible happened there. Something broke down. (The officer) lost it for a second and police officers are only human ... but Sammy didn’t deserve what happened.”
His Mandela song examines the complexities of a man who started out as a freedom fighter and ended up a humanitarian. “When he went to jail, he took that hatred and harnessed it into love — and that’s powerful,” said Cuss.
The divorced father who’s now in a blended-family relationship also turns out regular, non-protest tunes about love and loss. In the vein of Leonard Cohen or maybe Neil Young, he considers his songs to be poetry brought to the stage, reminding us all of our collective struggles — the things that cause heartache, joy and make us humble.
It’s when his music really connects with people that is most meaningful to Cuss, who remembers being approached by a blue-collar guy in a local bar after one of his sets. The man asked him, “What was that lyric that you said?”
Turns out he was referring to “The silver and gold ain’t worth the blood on the floor” from Cuss’s war song Bring the Boys Home.
“It struck him so deeply,” recalled the singer, with a trace of wonder in his voice.
“That’s how I like to think of music — as something that might get in your ear and change you.”
For more information about Cuss’s fundraising 3 p.m. house concert in Red Deer (tickets cost $15), call 403-596-6994.
Cuss also performs on Wednesday, Feb. 19, at the International Beer Haus and Stage, and on Friday, Feb. 21, at the East 40th Pub in Red Deer. (There’s no cover charge for these two 8 p.m. performances).