By Nick Patch
TORONTO — When Sam Roberts takes to the road to tour Canada, nothing beats straying from the beaten path.
The six-time Juno winner prides himself on venturing into each nook and cranny of his vast homeland. For instance? His summer tour includes a Canada Day date in Ottawa on Friday and other big-city gigs in Calgary, Edmonton and Montreal, but will also see the rock howler trek to such smaller Ontario enclaves as Amherstburg, cottage-country getaway Bala and Kirkland Lake (population: 9,000).
“We’re so pleasantly surprised by ... this whole process of travelling through Canada and the surprises you find around every corner,” Roberts said during a recent interview on a sunny Toronto patio.
“You have to dig for them. And you can’t sort of stay on the beaten path all the time.”
“It’s why we go to all these out of the way communities.”
Canadian musicians often lament the difficulty of touring their home country — the vast distances between destinations, the seemingly endless struggle to amass respectable followings across the nation’s many divided regions, and, of course, the harsh winter weather, constantly threatening to send gear-packed vans (not to mention morale) careening into a roadside ditch.
But the upside? This is a country that’s certainly not short on scenery, and few people develop as intimate a relationship with our endlessly diverse terrain as the musicians who spend months traipsing from coast to coast.
As a result, it’s not surprising that those well-travelled souls struggle to come up with a favourite city or place to spend time in Canada.
“My favourite part of Canada? Hmm,” pondered Pierre Bouvier, frontman for the Montreal pop-punk outfit Simple Plan. “I like Montreal and Vancouver and Toronto. I like all of it.
“What I like about Canada is that we have all these different cities and we can go from Halifax to Quebec and people speak French and you think you’re in Europe, and then drive across and go to Calgary and all the girls are hot, and go to Vancouver and enjoy the most beautiful sights you can see.”
Grammy-nominated Latin-pop artist Alex Cuba has likewise been all over Canada since moving here in 1999 from his native Cuba.
On Friday, he will join Blue Rodeo and Karkwa with a performance in London’s Trafalgar Square, billed as the largest Canada Day celebration outside our borders. He calls the opportunity to represent his adopted homeland a “complete honour.”
He still remembers his first Canada Day in ’99, when he wandered the streets of Victoria and curiously took in the revelry — “You feel the spirit, you know, even though at that point I didn’t know really what it was all about.”
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that his home province still holds a special place in his heart.
“I like natural beauty, you know, and there is a lot of that happening in B.C.,” he said in a recent telephone interview.
“My favourite place in Canada is B.C., for sure.”
Many other artists agreed.
“My personal favourite is anywhere in British Columbia,” said Canadian Tenors crooner Clifton Murray, a native of Port McNeill, B.C.
“You know, they’ve got the Coast Range Mountains, they’ve got the ocean, there’s nature trails that go on for days and days up there. So many beautiful parts of British Columbia. And then you get into the Kootenays, Kelowna area, where it’s kind of like you’re in Arizona, you’ve got palm trees and desert and lakes and you’ve got wake boarding.
“B.C., itself, is just the most beautiful place on earth and if you can find some time in the summer months or fall or spring to get over there you’ve got to check it out. And of course, the skiing, snowboarding, Mount Washington, Whistler....”
Colin Linden zeroed in on a more specific part of the province.
“Burrowing Owl (Estate) Winery in the Okanagan Valley,” said the Toronto-born two-time Juno winner.
“They make really good wine. It’s a beautiful, beautiful place. I love the Okanagan. That’s my favourite place in Canada.”
Others, meanwhile, prefer the comforts of home.
“Where I live in Halifax now — that’s where my wife and my daughter are, so that’s pretty much my favourite place in Canada,” said Vancouver-born Blackie and the Rodeo Kings singer Stephen Fearing.
His bandmate, former Junkhouse frontman Tom Wilson, then spoke up for his own hometown, Hamilton.
“Ivor Wynne Stadium, Cannon Street, usually on the Labour Day Classic,” he said, referring to the annual CFL showdown between the Tiger-Cats and the rival Toronto Argonauts.
“Best place in Canada.”
Others, however, were less decisive.
Dallas Green — the tattooed troubadour who divides his time between the screeching post-hardcore of Alexisonfire and contemplative sway of his solo project, City and Colour — simply refused to pick only one place.
“I love Halifax, I think it’s a wonderful city,” said the St. Catharines, Ont., native.
“I love Vancouver. I love Alberta. Alberta’s always been so kind to Alexis and me — Edmonton and Calgary, they’re like the first shows to sell out on the tours.”
“I love it everywhere in Canada. It’s a beautiful country to live in.”
And how about Roberts’ own answer, you might wonder?
Well, the 36-year-old quickly reels off a bevy of ideas for the most beautiful corner of Canada — Wapusk National Park in northern Manitoba, where polar bears and wolves survey a striking landscape; the unspoiled nature of Lac La Biche, Alta.; the scenic mountains of Lillooet, B.C., which he calls “spectacular” — but, like Green, he initially struggles to hone in on one specific destination.
“Damn, that’s a really hard one — it really is,” he says, shaking his head.
Then he remembers his hometown.
“Sometimes, standing atop of Mont-Royal in Montreal and looking out over the river — you know, it’s hard to imagine a better spot than that, or a spot closer to home than that.”