The Sound Cafe
Canadian Rootless Roots Duo Mama’s Broke Announce New Album Coming May 13
By Devon Leger.
Canadian folk duo Mama’s Broke have spent the past eight years in a near-constant state of transience, pounding the transatlantic tour trail. They've brought their dark, fiery folk-without-borders sound to major festivals and DIY punk houses alike, absorbing traditions from their maritime home in Eastern Canada all the way to Ireland and Indonesia. Nowhere is the duo's art-in-motion approach more apparent than on their long-awaited sophomore record Narrow Line (coming May 13, 2022 on Free Dirt Records); it's the sound of nowhere in particular, yet woven with a rich synthesis of influences that knows no borders. The eleven songs on Narrow Line burrow deeply, with close harmony duets, commanding vocals, and poignant contemplations on cycles of life, including birth and death. Tinges of Americana stand side-by-side with the ghosts of Eastern European fiddle tunes and ancient a cappella ballad singing, melding into an unusually accessible dark-folk sound. A careful listen of Narrow Line invokes an ephemeral sense of place—whether real or imagined—inviting us to take comfort in the infinite possibilities of life, whether or not we ever choose to settle down.
For a group defined by constant touring, it’s not surprising that the two artists that make up Mama’s Broke, Lisa Maria and Amy Lou Keeler, met on the road. As Lisa remembers it, “Amy was driving her old Mercedes from Montreal to Nova Scotia and I was looking for a ride. We spent the 17 hours in the car talking almost exclusively about music. By the time we reached Halifax we started playing together, and within a week or two became a band.” Both coming out of travelling communities that are focused on music and protest, the two owe the way in which they move through the world to the integrated and self-sustaining nature of DIY culture and activism. It was a busy life that took them on a roundabout annual touring schedule running between Canada, the United States, Ireland, the UK, and Europe. In each country, they built grassroots DIY communities to support their music, or moved along the pathways of communal organizing that sustained other touring artists. In Ireland, they picked up a love of old Celtic balladry from their friends in Dublin. In Appalachia, they learned new tunes and jammed at Clifftop, the Appalachian String Band Music Festival. In Canada, they found the sea-salt folk songs of Nova Scotia’s traditions (Amy hails from the province) and snapped up old LPs of Ukrainian folk music from Lisa’s grandfather’s collection. Each step of their travels brought new music and new influences to them and a chance to connect on a direct level with communities.
The bitter irony of the COVID pandemic is that, in addition to all the mental and social damage it’s done, it forced many hard-traveling musicians to stop for a moment, to settle into their creativity and weave a shelter of music around themselves. For Mama’s Broke, this meant meeting up in remote cabins and snowy Montréal apartments, woodshedding tunes and writing new music together. “Pale Night” and “Forgetting Reel” were both composed by trying out a new fiddle tuning while staring into the flames of a fireplace in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. “Just Pick One” was written in Amy’s uninsulated cabin in rural Nova Scotia at the height of the lockdown. And with all the stress of the global pandemic, it’s no wonder that both members of Mama’s Broke turned to music for solace. “Oh Sun” was written as a hymn of acceptance for the consequences of one’s choices, and of life’s shit-storms; the subsequent search for calm. Yet for all the desire for peace in a time of hardship, neither could forget what they’d seen on the road watching national divides grow stronger and fascists getting elected. The title track, “Narrow Line,” is a song about the borders and boundaries the two encountered, touching on the terrible effects of climate destruction, violence against immigrants, wealth disparity, and trauma. “God’s Little Boy” is a blistering depiction of the real world terrorism carried out by angry young men looking to take their rage out on women.
In a world driven by fear, Mama’s Broke has come to embrace uncertainty, knowing that while fear is a terrible force, it can also drive us forward towards better times. “The fear of the unknown is the biggest thing,” Amy says. “It can be overwhelming to have so many potential paths at a given time. Taking comfort in the infinite possibilities of life is a necessary faith for the rootless person or traveller, whether they choose to settle down or not.” On Narrow Line, the duo make a compelling case for rushing into the unknown, for finding a new community in the whirlwind of travel and change.