Nadia Elkharadly: Revisiting The Cameron House

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Big things are happening at a little place called The Cameron House.  One of Toronto’s most well-known live music venues, the Cameron House helped to begin the careers of many Canadian stars.  The next generation of the Cameron House team decided two years ago to take that legacy and build on it; and thus Cameron House Records was born.  With nine bands and artists under its banner, the fledging indie label is building its roster, its reputation and its strength with each passing day.  And now that the label has a newly cemented distribution partnership with Warner Music Canada, the sky is the limit.  In celebration of this new milestone with Cameron House Records, I decided to revisit an interview that I did with Cameron House managers and Cameron House Records founders Cosmo Ferraro and Mike McKeown two years ago.

Cameron 3

Nadia E:  How did you guys get involved in the Cameron House?

Cosmo:  My Mum and Uncle (Anne Marie and Paul Sanella) started it 30 years ago.  There was a manager taking care of the bar for the past ten or fifteen years, and she decided to retire.  The timing just kind of worked out where I took over the management of it.  And Mike and I have been friends for a long time, since high school.  When he found out I was taking it over he liked the idea and saw the potential here.  He quit his job, and we took over in May of last year.

Mike:  Yup, May 2010.

Cosmo:  It was probably about six or seven months after running the bar that we got the idea for the record label and it’s been a bit of a slow process.  Started as a really rough idea but the more we talked to people, and saw it was possible and there was a need for it, we could make something of it, so slowly but surely we got to the point we’re at now.

Cameron 4NE:  How many artists do you have signed?

Mike:  we started with 3.  We don’t have any records yet.  Two of them are in the process; they’re done in the studio, so we’re just waiting for final mixes and get mastering done, and get them produced.

NE:  Have all the artists on the label played at the Cameron?

Cosmo:  All of them play here.

NE:  And who are they?

Mike:  Tarantuela, Kayla Howran, who plays here every Friday night, and the third one is Devin Cuddy. [ETA:  the label now has Al Tuck, Whitney Rose, Rattlesnake Choir, Nichol Robertson, Handsome Ned, and David Baxter on its roster]

TLME:  Jim Cuddy’s son?

Mike:  Jim Cuddy’s son, yes.  Those are the three and like I said they all don’t have an album to their name, we’ll be releasing all their first records.  It’s a good fit because they’re all so fresh and they’re just starting out, and so are we at the label.

NE:  Are you guys born and raised in Toronto?

Cosmo/Mike:  Yup.

NE:  The Cameron house is a Toronto live music institution.  What do you think makes it so special? And as the new generation now running the Cameron, what direction do you want to take it in?

Cosmo:  What makes it really unique is the aspect of the residency and how it takes a band that is just starting and doesn’t have a following yet, and let them play week after week for a long time until they get a bit of a buzz going.  It’s where a lot of bands have made a name of themselves to the point where they were too big to play here.  There’s a lot of good Toronto venues where famous people have played but this is a unique spot where it’s fostered [bands] and built them, given them a chance to play in front of an audience.

NE:  Who would you say are some of the artists that the Cameron House has given their start?

Cameron 2Mike:  Blue Rodeo played here, way before they had a record label.  Bare Naked Ladies, Molly Johnson.  More recently Royal Wood and Justin Rutledge.  Both have come out and said that their residency at the Cameron as the reason why they’ve found success, building up that audience and playing for other musicians.  One of the things you asked was what direction we see [the Cameron] going in and why do we think it’s special.  The idea is that we don’t want to change anything.  What is special about it is the fact that it’s always been that place where you can go hear great music, no cover, you walk in, it’s very relaxed, and you’re playing for other musicians for the most part.  It’s sort of a community for artists, and not just for music too, there’s theatre, and the art that’s on the walls.  It’s for people who appreciate and respect good art and not the commercial shit that’s out there.

NE:  Is that the direction you’re trying to take the label in as well, the growth and fostering of new artists?

Mike:  It’s sort of like a home grown organic thing as opposed to shoving it down people’s throats.  It’s the idea that these people should be heard because they’re so talented.  And hopefully we can help them out with that.  They will gain a bigger audience, but it’s not going to happen overnight. But if we can have some artists that we’re associated with, making really great music, people will start coming, going to the website, listening to them.  That’s the idea, we can help them along.  People need [more good music].

NE:  Who are some of the most memorable artists that you’ve seen play at the Cameron?  You can just

Cosmo:  Doug Paisley, Jack Marx,

NE:  It must be awesome to live here, and just wander downstairs to hear awesome music.

Mike:  My room is right above the stage.  There’s a hole in the floor, and I can hear the music coming through.  It’s a small room so I can sit anywhere and hear it come through.  Sometimes if I don’t want to go downstairs I just listen to the band from there.  Sometimes if it’s really good I’m like “whoa, I gotta go down there and see this”.

NE:  The outside of the bar stayed a blank white canvas for so long, Bob and I would wonder how, considering the location, it remained so untouched.  Is that just part of the Cameron’s mystique, or did you guys just secretly paint it white every morning?

Cosmo:  I’d like to think that people respect it, but I don’t know if that’s true or not.

Mike:  We thought for sure someone would paint on it.

Cosmo:  But it is a bar and there are people there until 3 or 4 of the morning and it’s right on Queen Street.  Maybe people were too timid to do something out in the open.

Cameron 1Mike:  Well generally the people that are doing graffiti are artists they probably respect the place as an art place, and they don’t see a need to do that.  And they know art is going to go up there anyway.

Cosmo:  Some people have joked that it seems like a set-up, that it’s just too perfect.

NE:  So tell me about the anniversary week, what do you have planned?

Cosmo:  it’s a weeklong party.  There were so many artists that we wanted to have play and they were interested in playing.  To make it one day was too much.  So it’s spread out over the whole week, Monday to Monday.  A lot of the great artists that have played and moved on are coming back, and a lot of the current people, the ones that we’re starting our record label with and that play weekly residencies, they’re all going to be a part of it.  There are a lot of big names, some of which we’re not allowed to mention. Jim Cuddy, Greg Keelor and Travis Good (The Sadies), Runs with Kittens, who had a long residency here, and many more.

NE:  What does it feel like to have that kind of support, with you guys starting out, and getting support from the pillars of this institution?

Mike:  It’s humbling I guess.  They’re doing us a huge favour.

Cosmo:  I’m really grateful for how many people said yes.  We sent out these invitations to everyone thinking “hey maybe one of these people would say yes, wouldn’t it be great?”  And almost all of them did.  That was really flattering.  And in thanking the people, they were thankful to be asked.  It’s a great relationship between the venue and the artist.

Mike: I’m sure the people aren’t necessarily doing it for us, but for the people they associate the Cameron with when they were here, [Cosmo’s] mom and his uncle.  They’re a big part of it, and the way they treated the artists.  It’s not so much for us as it is for the Cameron.

NE:  Who are you most excited to see?

Mike:  I like everyone [laughs]

Cosmo:  Devin Cuddy, who’s on our label, doesn’t usually play with a full band, he plays solo piano.  He has a really great band to play with, and I’ve never seen them.

Mike:  And Tarantuela as well, they’ll be playing to packed house on that Saturday night.

Cosmo:  They’re from Peterborough and don’t have the biggest draw up here.  And they’re a rock and roll band, they really get into it, it’s going to be a lot of fun.

NE:  Cosmo, what was it like growing up here?

Cosmo:  I spent a lot of time here as a kid.  It was fun at times but also I remember, you could still smoke in the bars then, and my clothes would always smell.  There was a period there where I didn’t really like being around here, but I came around, started liking the bands again.  When I was really little my mom would have me in a car seat on the bar.  Everyone always played with me.  My mom came back to work Saturday afternoons, some of the old friends still come around, and she likes it.

NE: would you ever change the look of the bar at all, the ceiling and the art on the walls?

Cosmo:  Well the ceilings were put in for the Cameron house. The idea to put art on the wall, it’s everywhere now, but it was a very original idea here.  My uncle hated beer advertisements, companies would want to come in and put up their neon signs.  And even pint glasses [with logos], we don’t have any.  So we had to fill the walls somehow.  That was the idea, to have different artists every month [put their work on the walls].

Mike:  There’s no real change planned.  We like the living room vibe.

NE:  It’s a great relaxed vibe, you can come in and hangout and make new friends.  It attracts a good crowd.

Mike:   That’s the thing, even with us, you go downstairs and there are four or five friends there at any given time.  That’s kinda nice.

NE:  Anything else you want to mention?

Cameron 5Mike: Come out this week, come and have a beer!

Cosmo:    Not just this week, but all the time.  Come have a beer and enjoy the bands.

The Cameron House and Cameron House Records; two Toronto institutions,  and building blocks of the Canadian Music scene.  Congratulations to Cosmo and Mike, and I can’t wait to see what else is in store!


Nadia’s column appears every Tuesday

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DBAWIS ButtonNadia Elkharadly is a Toronto based writer with a serious addiction to music. Corporate drone by day, renegade rocker by night, writing is her creative outlet.  Nadia writes for the Examiner (.com) on live music in Toronto and Indie Music in Canada.  She has never been in a band but plays an awesome air guitar and also the tambourine.  Check in every Tuesday for musings about music, love, life and whatever else that comes to mind.

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