Long-time Labrador musician completing first album
© Derek Montague
After coming up with songs in his head, John Neville comes up with demo versions on his guitar. In the past month, he has created nine original songs.
John Neville has always been able to think up a good story in his head. He could picture an image, rhyme some words together, and hum a nice tune to go along with it.
For years, the 58-year-old from Happy Valley-Goose Bay has dreamt of releasing an album. But he never could find a way to transfer his stories from his head to another medium.
“I always said, there’s a time coming when I will be releasing a CD,” says Neville.
“But I don’t know how to write. I’m not ashamed to say I can’t write well.”
Since he’s unable to write down lyrics and chords on paper, Neville had a hard time thinking of how he could hash out a song during the creative process. But a few months ago, Neville discovered a way to transfer the songs out of his head so he could make his dream come true.
“I was thinking, if I had two or three tape recorders I might be able to do it,” says Neville.
Neville devised a system using three tape recorders. On one cassette, he would sing out a verse that he thought of, and on a second tape he would sing his chorus. The third record was for combining everything into a complete song.
With help from his friend Sabrina Hunter, who assists in recording the demos on a computer, Neville has been on a roll. In the past month he has recorded demos for nine of his original songs, and he is currently working on No. 10.
Neville was born into a large creative, family in Black Tickle. He recalls that his brothers were all good musicians and could play a variety of instruments.
Neville, however, never started playing instruments until he was a young adult. But now, he can play the accordion, guitar, harmonica, and keyboard quite comfortably.
Neville has become a natural musician. Over the years he has memorized exactly 216 songs, mostly Irish, old country, Newfoundland, and Labrador tunes.
“I only need to hear a song two or three times before learning it,” says Neville.
For Neville, the creative process often starts with an image, inspired by a person, place, or precious memory.
In his song The Trapper, Neville paints an image of living amongst the Labrador wilderness.
“On a cold night, the northern lights shine bright. The rabbits they are running very free. The porcupine they climb very high in the tree and the lonely wolf is howling at the door.”
In fact, through most of his songs, the unique people and places of Labrador is a constant source of inspiration.
“I love the Labrador life, culture … the hunting and fishing. I love the old rugged Labrador way of life,” says Neville.
“I’ll think about a story. I might think about my grandfather, or my grandmother and, all of a sudden, I got a song made out of that.”
Playing for seniors
Neville has gotten a lot of musical practice over the past 17 years, after he discovered a passion for playing songs at the senior’s home. To this day, Neville plays every Saturday evening at the long-term care home in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
“I loves seniors. I can spend hours and hours with seniors,” says Neville
The seniors he’s met over the years have also played a big role in shaping his new album. In The Senior’s Song, Neville pays tribute to the many old friends he met over the years, while singing songs for seniors.
Much like the Labrador classic, Trapper’s Alphabet, Neville uses the verses in the song to list off some of the most inspirational seniors he has met while doing his shows, like Pearl Baikie and Horace Goudie.
“We make them very happy, remind them of their homes, singing the old folk songs they’ve heard years ago.”
“I’ll never forget them wherever I go. I know they’re my best friends and I love them so.”
A second mother
The most touching song Neville has created is a tribute to one senior in particular. My Second Mother is an aptly named song in honour of Nora Tobin, who Neville met 20 years ago when he was performing at a senior’s dance.
“This woman, Mrs. Tobin, she would go to the dances and she loved my singing,” Neville recalls fondly.
“She loved the old songs I used to play.”
Recently, Neville visited Tobin in the hospital, and saw her praying with rosary beads. That image struck him, and a song began to form in his head.
“I can see my mother now with a rosary in her hands, praying to our saviour to keep free from all harm.”
In the chorus, Neville declares, “She’s the greatest mother you ever will see.”
Once Neville is done working out his tenth song, he will be nearly ready to record his first album. He plans to travel to Churchill Falls, where a friend has a small recording studio.
He hasn’t thought of a title yet, but he plans to have a picture of his hometown of Black Tickle on the cover.