Big things happening for local musicians at Barn Bhreagh Studios

LOUISDALE: A recording studio here is giving local performers the lift they need in their musical careers.

The brainchild of musician Keith Mullins, Barn Bhreagh Studios has been hosting local musicians like fiddler and singer Morgan Toney of We’koqma’q First Nation, as well as pianist, guitarist and singer Isabella Samson of Louisdale.

“I’ve been singing since I was really, really, really young. I started piano lessons when I was three and I’ve been playing piano ever since,” Samson told The Reporter. “I come from a musical family. So music has kind of always been there. It’s what I grew up listening to.”

Samson does have a background in classical music, but during school talent shows, she started getting the urge to sing.

“I kind of moved off of the classical train, more into the traditional playing, like accompanying the fiddle and playing and singing,” she recalled. “I just decided one day I was going to search-up some chords, and learn how to write and sing at the same time. It took a little bit but I got it, and it just evolved from there.”

Now that she is evolving, Samson is dabbling in song writing and in different genres of music.

“Depending on my mood, depending on how my head is working that day, I’ll write a song or I’ll play songs that are popular with my age, or songs that I like that I really want to play,” she said.

Samson said she first met Mullins when she was 12, then saw him perform and mentor in St. Peter’s. After a CD launch in St. Peter’s where Samson was invited to play, Samson said Mullins gave her his card and asked him to perform with him at an upcoming show.

“He asked me to play at quite a few shows with him,” she recounted. “Then recently, he asked me to send in an application to get a grant to make an album, and that’s where we’re at now, we’re making the album at his studio.”

During her time playing music, Samson has performed at various local venues, at community fundraisers, on Telile: Isle Madame Community Television, at the Municipality of the County of Richmond’s “Concerts by the Sea” series, and at the “Cape Breton Women in Song” event.

Unable to perform consistently since June due to public health restrictions, Samson said she does play in church every two weeks, which helps keep her sharp.

Since she started performing with Mullins and recording at the studio, Samson said she has improved.

“My ability to talk to the crowd and be more comfortable on stage has become incredibly better since I started playing with Keith and recording in the studio,” she noted. “I’m meeting a lot of new people. It’s a really, really great experience. He’s really wonderful. He’s improved all aspects of my music.”

Keith Mullins

Mullins said Samson shows up prepared and nails her parts when she performs with him, or when recording.

“There are only a handful of people on the island that I would hire to support me in my shows and Isabelle is one of them and she’s 16,” he said. “The guy I get to mix and master is Mike Shephard at Lakewind Studio… and he’s like dumbfounded by her vocal tracks. They need very little tuning, if any at all. And she comes in and she’s a one-take wonder. She comes in, she nails the track, then we move on.”

Mullins said he played at schools across Canada and rarely encountered talent like Samson’s. The only comparison for Mullins is singer Reeny Smith.

“I’m honoured to be working with her. I foresee, if she wants, she’ll have a long career in the music industry. She’s a mega-talent, not only can she lead and co-write and write songs on her own already at 16, she just sounds so mature. She has so much time ahead of her, I wonder what she’s going to be like in four years.”

Mullins said the idea for the studio came about as a result of the global pandemic. With his own equipment, and unable to tour, his hand was forced.

“With COVID, I lost so much work,” he noted. “I lost the tour of the United Kingdom, I lost the tour across Canada, I lost corporate gigs like Sobeys that I was supposed to do, and festivals. Everything was just cancelled.”

In June, Mullins built himself a 12 foot by 16 foot barn-style studio is his backyard, insulated it, put wood on the walls for “decent sound,” then started taking on artists.

“I just don’t take on anyone, I have to see them and say, ‘yes, I can work with you,’” he noted. “I had a few people that I had been thinking about for a couple of years and one of them is Isabelle Samson… and another one is Morgan Toney.”

Morgan Toney

After he found his musicians, Mullins helped them fill out grant applications and marketing plans. He said he was accepted for five grants. As a result, he is almost finished three albums with Samson, Toney as well as Jesse Cox of Meat Cove. He says he has between eight and 10 tracks for each artists.

“What I did with the artists, is not only do I co-write the songs with them, not all the songs, but co-write the ones that I think need work,” he explained. “Then I will get them to lay down the vocal and a guitar track, or piano track, or whatever the case may be, or fiddle track. Then they go away and then I come back and send them, via email, a mixed and mastered, radio-ready song.”

Mullins also hosts workshops with local schools, via livestream.

Mullins said he was introduced to Toney by a relative of the First Nation musician, and at the time, he just started playing the fiddle and singing. Mullins said he was immediately struck the first time he heard Toney play.

“I was like, ‘wow, I want to record that,’” Mullins recalled. “I heard him play, and I was like, ‘that’s really, really fresh and it’s like two really old styles that he’s bring together himself, and I’ve never anyone do that before.”

Mullins said Toney has been embraced by his community and the local music scene, and like Samson, he sees a big career for him.

“There’s a lot of excitement gathering around Morgan for his future,” Mullins said.

Mullins said the artists were commissioned to write a song for CBC Radio’s “Story and the Song,” on the East Coast Music Hour, and they wrote a song with Colin Grant on fiddle, Darren McMullen on banjo and Marcel Aucoin on accordion.

Although he is unable to perform live as he did before COVID-19, Mullins added he is happy to work with artists – including doing publicity and performing radio tracking – and he is happy to play for other artists, in addition to performing his own work in the studio.

“I love connecting with people through music,” he added. “All of the knowledge I have gained, if I can lift them up and help the community, help people, and do what I love at the same time, it just makes sense.”