Regional Music Spotlight: Yukon

February 20, 2015

Music Yukon logo_840px

Music Association Name: Music Yukon

Location: Whitehorse

What are some of the territory’s musical highlights from the past year? 

The Yukon is known for its unique music festivals, especially during the summer months when we have 18 to 20 hours or more of daylight. There is a burst of energy in the Yukon during those longer days, and people like to put away their parkas, sing, dance, and listen to great music. There are actually too many festivals to name, but below are some of them.

This summer, Music Yukon put on its flagship music and visual arts festival, called Arts in the Park. It’s probably the only festival/concert series in Canada that runs daily right throughout the summer months, and is free to the public. Business owners, government workers, youth, pre-school children, as well as the disadvantaged from the downtown core all make-up the audience. Arts in the Park is a perfect example of how art and music can cross boundaries and build bridges in the community. It takes place in LePage Park, a downtown park where we have our Music Yukon office. This will be our 18th year doing Arts in the Park. The Arts in the Park idea is catching on in the smaller communities in the Yukon with a similar concert series starting up in Watson Lake last year.

As a Music Industry Association (MIA), programming a music festival is not something that MIAs usually do. We believe in it because it’s a great opportunity for emerging artists to get up and play in front of an audience, and we get all sorts of configurations of established artists that will create a band just to do something new. The Yukon is famous for mixing and matching musicians from our diverse music scene and putting together one-off bands.

New this year, Geneviève Doyon is replacing Steve Slade as the producer of Arts in the Park. Steve, who is an institution in the Yukon music scene, helped get the festival on its feet in 1997, and produced it for 18 years.

Art Johns & Nola Lamken
Art Johns & Nola Lamken performing at Arts in the Park. Credit: Alistair Maitland Photography.

There’s a festival that happens in Atlin, BC, which is more or less a Yukon town that just happens to be in British Columbia by an accident of geography. Last year’s Atlin Arts and Music Festival was extremely successful, and sold out a month in advance. All weekend long there was a caravan of Yukon vehicles travelling down the sometimes paved, but often dirt and gravel road to Atlin. The festival is making a name for itself nationally and across the U.S. border with many Alaskan attendees.

Another well-attended Yukon festival is the Dawson City Music Festival, which is older than Atlin, and sort of has a reputation of always finding bands before they become really big. Barenaked Ladies played there before they became a megaband. Even as far back as the Parachute Club, many major Canadian artists have played Dawson City Music Festival, and would sometimes play for free at The Pit, the famous and sometimes infamous bar at the Westminster Hotel. Recently, Dan Mangan came back to the Yukon for the first time in five years since playing the festival when he was an emerging artist.

The Sunstroke Music Festival features many youth and up-and-coming bands. It’s usually held at Shipyards Park in Whitehorse around the longest day of the year, and features great new music played under the midnight sun. The proceeds from Sunstroke go to support Kona’s Coalition for animals in need.

This year, the Kluane Mountain Bluegrass Festival is returning to its roots in the town of Haines Junction, which is located at the foot of the Saint Elias Mountain Range. The festival brings some of the best bluegrass artists in North America to perform alongside talented Yukon musicians.

The Blue Feather Music Festival takes place in the fall in Whitehorse. Producer Gary Baillie puts together a wide range of acts, and in 2014 those artists ranged from Buffy Sainte-Marie to the Killer Dwarfs.

Finally, for those who want to indulge both their taste buds and their ears, there’s the Frog Food Festivalwhich pairs great food with great music. It’s a celebration of locally grown food, Yukon recipes and delicacies paired with the sounds of country, folk and bluegrass music by some of the Yukon’s finest musicians.

What are some of the recent accomplishments made by Music Yukon specifically?

During the final two weekends of January 2015, Music Yukon hosted two music industry-training events under the banner of Music Survival Camp 2.0. The events—Coalition Music’s “Artist Entrepreneur Boot Camp” and Dan Mangan’s “Artist’s Journey”—were a continuation of the successful 2014 Music Yukon Survival Camp.

The first event, running from January 23-25, 2015, brought Coalition Music from Toronto to Whitehorse to present their “Artist Entrepreneur Boot Camp.” It was an opportunity for Music Yukon members to dig deeper into what it takes to thrive in today’s music industry.

The event kicked off with a Friday night showcase where 14 artists and bands performed 15-minute sets that gave Coalition Music a sense of the range of artists who would be participating in the boot camp. The classroom portion of the boot camp continued on Saturday and Sunday. Every artist came away with something useful to run a successful business and forge a career in the music industry. Emerging singer-songwriter Calla Palenczny won an opportunity to participate in Coalition Music’s 10-week Artist Entrepreneurship Program in Toronto.

The following weekend, two-time Juno Award-winner Dan Mangan came to Whitehorse and gave Music Yukon members insight into his personal journey as an artist—from his days in a teenage basement band, to busking in front of London Drugs, all the way to performing for sold-out crowds throughout North America and Europe.

Both Music Survival Camp 2.0 events were well attended and received positive reviews. Music Yukon plans to build on the momentum of these successful workshops with continued opportunities for education and professional development.

Calla Paleczny performing “The King and I.”

Who are some of the Yukon acts that should be on Canada’s radar?

I think Sarah MacDougall is about to break big. She was a 2012 Western Canadian Music Award winner in the solo roots category. She has a new album that will be out on February 24, 2015, called Grand Canyon. She’s originally from Sweden and has been in the Yukon for about five years. She came to the Yukon via BC via Sweden, and so she tours quite regularly throughout Europe. She also had a really interesting gig in the Seychelles Islands, so she’s one of the few Yukon musicians walking around with a suntan at this time of year.

Sarah MacDougall’s “I Want to See the Light” off her latest 2015 album Grand Canyon

Matthew Lien is extraordinarily popular in Taiwan, and spends a lot of time there. He’s become so popular, I believe he’s become a Special Canadian Envoy to Taiwan. Mathew recently released a CD, called Headwaters–Music of the Peel River Watershed.

Presently in the Yukon there is some controversy with respect to protecting a pristine wilderness area, called the Peel River Watershed. It’s one of the last places in the world that is virtually untouched. There’s a strong environmental movement to protect the area that the current government wants to open for mining and resource development. The issue went to the Yukon Supreme Court to decide whether the government could actually go through with its plan to develop it. The government lost the case, but is appealing it. Matthew took a canoe trip through the area and captured some of its natural sounds and merged them with his music. It’s an album that could be classified as ambient, world music with an environmental/political voice. Matthew has been appointed a cultural ambassador to Taiwan by the Canadian government.

There’s also Brandon Isaak, a local bluesman, who won a 2014 Maple Blues Award for Acoustic Act of the Year, and performed at BreakOut West and during the Western Canadian Music Awards Gala. Brandon is also producing a Johnny Cash Tribute Night, featuring local artists covering songs by the man in black, at the Yukon Convention Centre on February 27.

Brandon Isaak performing “Gamble on Love” live on CFUR. 

Diyet van Lieshout, who who performs as Diyet, is a First Nations artist who merges traditional music with modern influences. She really walks in both worlds, and is as comfortable ice fishing in the Yukon wilderness with her mother and grandmother as she is performing in Amsterdam and other capital cities in Europe. She tours internationally, and is currently showcasing at Folk Alliance in Kansas City.

Another artist who is on the road a lot is Gord Tentrees, who has been compared a lot to Fred Eaglesmith. He does very raw, roostsy Americana, and he’s touring through Australia right now, and is about to release a CD.

Kim Beggs is an artist to look for. She is currently doing a residency at the Banff Centre, and will then be going on a Canadian tour.

Fawn Fritzen is a versatile singer/songwriter/pianist who effortlessly covers jazz, pop and even performed in Mandarin recently as part of Chinese New Year celebrations.

Two Piano Tornado with Grant Simpson and Annie Avery are piano masters with collectively 75 years of performing (FYI: They started playing young), and have been touring in support of their self-titled album.

Speed Control is an interesting group, who play fast, high-energy rock, but also two of the members have teaching degrees so they do a lot of work with young people; it’s a real life, real world version of the School of Rock movie, which they like to call “School of Rawk.” They were recently in Iqaluit during suicide prevention week, and they do a lot of workshops with youth.

“Because I Can” by Speed Control. 

The Midnight Sons just put out a CD, called Traction. They are a real up-and-coming roots-rock band. They’re well-known in the Yukon, and planning to tour throughout Canada, so watch for them this spring and summer.

Another cutting-edge young band is Ukes of Hazard, a ukulele, saxophone funk band. They are relatively new to the Yukon scene with a fun, energetic live show. But when it comes to energy, it’s hard to rival the band Fishhead Stew, whose dynamic, kinetic frontman Rick Sward has been entertaining Yukoners for almost two decades.

Emerging artist Claire Ness recently released a live CD, titled Jackfish Girl. In addition to being a talented musician, Claire is also a circus performer who walks on stilts, swings from a trapeze, and is an accomplished clown.

Another new talent on the scene is Big Mama Lele (aka Amelia Merhar). Her music is funny, smart, uses clever wordplay and has a feminist perspective. She also did a really unique tour this year. She called it “The Singles Tour,” so she not only performed right across Canada, but also found an online date in all of the places where she stopped. I think she used websites like Plenty of Fish and Tinder, and through online dating she met people across the country. She’s a female musician who tours ‘solo’ with a truck, a dog, a ukulele, and a smart phone—clearly a typical Yukoner.

They say there is a colourful five percent in the Yukon, who don’t quite fit in the usual boxes, and while we have a lot of old-timers who are in the five percent, we do also have a lot of young people who are very unique and interesting. The Yukon is a great place for people like that. There’s just more freedom of expression than you might get in other places.

Nicole Edwards is also doing an interesting project with puppets, which she crowd-funded. I would describe it as Sesame Street meets jazz/roots-pop. She’s another colourful artist doing unique and colourful projects.

From Dawson City, there are also The Naysayers, who are just releasing a CD. They are a band that’s about to break as well.

Another really great youth band is called Zip-Line, who were the Sourdough Rendezvous Superstar champions last year. They do everything from Jimi Hendrix covers to original hard rock.

And this just in! Selina Heyligers-Hare was named the 2015 Sourdough Rendezvous Superstar champion over the weekend.

What are some of the challenges for Yukon artists?

Just getting out of the Yukon and getting to your first gig is an expensive proposition. We do have some programs in place with the Film and Sound Commission, which is part of our government’s Department of Economic Development, as well as with the Arts Branch through the Department of Tourism and Culture, so we do have some supports in place for touring. But it’s daunting at the best of times. That said, we have a lot of artists who are on the road and touring. We also have a really good live local scene.

What else can you tell me about the Yukon music scene? Where would you tell a visitor to go if they were to come to town?

There are so many venues that have live music. We have one artist named Roxx Hunter, who is a versatile guitar slinger and can play almost any style or genre. He was keeping tabs on his “Don’t Care About Nothin’ Tour,” and he did over 200 shows in one year, and nearly all of them were in the Yukon.

In terms of venues, we have a really great open mic scene where everybody can go and play. There’s a siger/songwriter who has been doing it for close to 20 years.Her name is Peggy Hannifan, and she has been called “Peggy Having Fun,” because of the exuberance she brings to her jam sessions. Her open mics have taken place at various Yukon venues over the years. Currently her open mic night is at Epic Pizza, which is an all-ages venue. Peggy’s Whitewater Jam Nights have a history of two decades, and have helped nurture the emerging music scene.

There’s another one that goes on at the Gold Rush Inn. Multi instrumentalist Scott Maynard does a Thursday open mic at the Gold Rush Inn, Gold Pan Saloon, and it’s great because we have some of the established artists coming out and jamming with emerging artists. In terms of live venues, there are at least a dozen places that have live music throughout the week: Paddy’s Place, the Sternwheeler Saloon, the Dirty Northern Public House, the Jarvis Street Saloon, and The Wheelhouse Restaurant, to name a few of the venues.

A great downtown venue called The Old Fire Hall (Yes, it was the old fire hall from way back when) recently opened, and it has become the hub of a very lively jazz scene. Jazz Yukon also hosts a regular concert series there, and Music Yukon has a series for local jazz players, as well as national and international jazz groups.

In addition to The Old Fire Hall, the Yukon Arts Centre is a major concert venue, hosting over 100 events annually across all genres with a balance of local shows and touring acts from Canada and beyond.

Any other Yukon music community news? 

Ed and Donna Isaak, parents of Brandon Isaak, were selected as Mr. and Mrs. Yukon at the 2015 Sourdough Rendezvous Winter Festival. Every year, the festival honours a couple who have contributed to the quality of life in the Yukon. Ed Isaak is a member of a legendary band beloved by Yukoners, called the Canucks. Before Yukon artists really started touring abroad, the Canucks were on the forefront of the bar band scene. They weren’t just playing the Top 40 hits, they were playing all kinds of music. They, along with country band Yukon Jack, Order of Canada recipient Al Oster, and country singer Hank Karr, were trailblazers of original music in the Yukon.

The Canucks
The Canucks performing at Arts in the Park. Credit: Alistair Maitland Photography.

It hasn’t been finalized, but there has been a move of foot to honour Al Oster, who created a whole catalog of Yukon historical music, including songs about the gold rush. His songs became popularized by Hank Karr. Both of those two gentleman are getting on in years, so we’d like to honour their contributions to Yukon music.

Al Oster’s 1960 song “Yukon Cheechako.” 

What are you looking forward to in 2015? 

We’ll be doing a number of training initiatives, including songwriting workshops, and we’ll be starting an informal get-together for members with specific topics, like Increasing Your Social Media Profile or How to Maximize Artist Royalties. These will be growing out of workshops that we’ve already done. They will be more informal networking events/workshops.

Our mandate is not only focused on training, but also finding ways for our artists to perform, and like other music associations, we’re looking for ways to support our export musicians. As you can gather, there are a lot of our artists who are getting out there and exploring the world with their music, and the world is discovering them. We’ve got a unique scene. There are lots of places where you can build your chops locally. On any given weekend, you could probably go to at least 20-30 live events. For a town of 26,000, we have a really vibrant live scene.

We’re also looking at ways to bring more activities, like Arts in the Park, into the smaller communities. Watson Lake, for example, is already doing a similar thing. In Haines Junction, they have what’s called Jam Junction Art and Music, and so they’ve built a very nice centre and music programs. There are about 14 smaller communities outside of Whitehorse, and we’re looking at hopefully doing more music events in all of the communities.


—Compiled via interview with Michael Brooks, Executive Director at Music Yukon

For all of the latest updates from Music Yukon, go to or follow them on Twitter @musicyukon.

About the Author

Julijana Capone

Originally from Winnipeg, Julijana is NMC’s senior publicist and the managing editor of Amplify. In addition to her role at NMC, she is the founder of Light of Day Publicity, a company she formed to promote the work of emerging Canadian artists.

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