January 16, 2018
Down on Gottingen Street, in Halifax’s gritty and vibrant North End, Dana Beeler—Executive Director of the aptly named In The Dead of Winter (IDOW) festival—sits across from me in the café section of Seven Bays Bouldering. Down the way, you’ll find two of the venues the festival will be shacking up in for the late January run of shows: The Seahorse Tavern and The Marquee, where you can see Philadelphia-based headliner Waxahatchee on Friday. Go a little farther north west and you’ll hit Good Robot Brewing Company on Robie, where the festival’s Saturday Bluegrass Brunch takes place, or head the other way, downtown to The Carleton, where you’ll be able to catch acts like Fiver or Rose Cousins (who helped found the IDOW). But it’s truly here, in the North End, where Beeler believes IDOW’s spiritual home is, regardless of the loss of The Company House—an important venue to the festival, and the spot Beeler was volunteering when festival founder Heather Gibson asked her if she wanted to help out. Like any independent festival, it’s a constant work in progress, one that Beeler has worked tirelessly on since taking the reins for last year’s 2017 edition.
“We’re trying to build something that’s real, that contributes to the community, will bring in money for people, and also has a sustainable business model,” Beeler says. “I think it’s been a nice progression over the last 13 years. It started at the Khyber with like, five people, and now we have four stages and I think 26 artists this year, which is really amazing.”
Since being founded in 2006 by Gibson, along with musicians Jenn Grant, Jill Barber, Rose Cousins, and Amelia Curran, IDOW has come a long way. As Beeler mentioned, the inaugural event was notably smaller scale than what the festival has become since, originally kicking off at the legendary Khyber Building (immortalized on Joel Plaskett’s Down At The Khyber) downtown on Barrington Street. Songwriter Jenn Grant remembers having meetings as well as shows there, and recalls the “very special time” being an important one for her and the rest of the musicians who helped start the festival, noting that she believes it’s added something important to the Halifax music scene.
“I think we thought there was something romantic about trying to get people out, similar to the Block Heater Festival in Calgary, where it goes through the week in the literal dead of winter when people are cold and trying to draw inspiration from that,” Grant says over the phone. “Sometimes they can be really meaningful events. A summer festival in a field is so beautiful and will always have its place, but as Canadians, I think we need to get our boots dirty a little bit and try to celebrate what we have, which is often huddling together in cozy corners of clubs listening to beautiful music.”
Wooden Sky. Photo credit: Jeffrey MacEachern.
Rowan Walker. Photo credit: Jeffrey MacEachern.
Nick Everett. Photo credit: Jeffrey MacEachern.
Grant, who embarks on a tour of Western Canada at the end of the month and just released a video for her song “Lion With Me,” says that she, along with everyone who was there at the beginning, have lasting relationships with the festival, and is looking forward to checking out her labelmates The Weather Station at The Marquee. “It’s definitely important to have this festival continue. There are bands I don’t know that I can go and see perform, and get back into what’s cool with the kids,” Grant says with a laugh.
Keeping an independent festival like IDOW going and relevant for over a decade, though, isn’t without its challenges. There are, of course, budget issues: the festival doesn’t get a ton of funding, and Beeler works, in some capacity, 365 days of the year on it, without pay. That’s fine for now, she says, but she wants to pay her team what they deserve. She says working with the city on liquor laws and licenses is difficult as well. There’s a learning curve to things like this, too, and it’s clear she’s learned from the 2017 IDOW experience when I ask about the most important consideration regarding the festival’s lineup.
“Definitely diversity,” she says. “Making sure we’re not just booking a bunch of white dudes all the time, which has definitely been an issue in the past, and something I recognize from last year and felt really ashamed of. It made me take a step back and think about how I was booking and how I was choosing people to perform. I’ve definitely tried to step out of my own village circle and ask, ‘What do you like? What do you want to listen to?’”
For this year’s festival lineup, all five headliners are women or bands fronted by women (in fact, you don’t hit any dudes on the poster until the third line down). Witch Prophet, the project of Toronto-based Ethiopian/Eritrean singer-songwriter Ayo Leilani, will be one of the festival’s first hip-hop/R&B acts. And African-Canadian artists Reeny Smith (who belts out big pop tunes) and Kaia Kater, who plays banjo-fuelled old-time Americana, will grace stages at The Seahorse and The Carleton, respectively, on Saturday. “I’m really excited for everybody,” Beeler says. “Which is really cliché and corny to say, but I really am.”
After this upcoming weekend, Beeler will be looking toward another 365 (or so) days of planning for the next IDOW. And she’s already looking toward the future in hopes of being able to continue to grow the festival (without growing it too much). She’s more interested in keeping the smaller, community-based focus of the festival, and expanding its means within that.
“It’s definitely about keeping the intimacy of the festival, making sure people feel comfortable and like they want to come back,” Beeler says. “For some artists, it’s their first time in Halifax, and just knowing that this is their first time here, I want them to want to come back. If they get to come back and perform at a bigger festival, that’s amazing, and I love seeing that. I just want to make sure people like it here, because I like it here.”
After the loss of a few venues the festival has previously used—the aforementioned Company House, and art galleries like Parentheses and Eyelevel—there’s also the hope that not only will some new, mid-sized venues pop up, but also that there’s more space for teenagers to have access to IDOW. The lack, or brief lifespans of all-ages venues is a problem in many music scenes—one of the most significant issues to deal with if those scenes are to last.
“I think it’s really important because if kids don’t know how to go to shows or don’t want to go to shows, then people with music careers are not gonna have music careers,” Beeler says. “Because once we’re all too old to care, it’s just not gonna be a thing anymore. So being able to curate that, at least in Halifax, would be nice. The dream, I guess.”
For now, though, the 2018 festival weekend is the task at hand. Once the first day is taken care of, Beeler hopes she’ll be able to bounce around to shows she’s excited about, and of course, get a chance to see a year’s hard work come to fruition.
“I’ve listened to all the music so much, and I either know the artists personally really well or we’ve talked on the Internet or I’ve helped them do something at some point, so I just feel very proud of all of that,” Beeler says. “And I hope the crowds serve them well and the festival serves them well.”
In The Dead of Winter runs from the Wednesday, January 17 opening party at Good Robot Brewing, through to Saturday night shows on January 20. Get your tickets here.