Rose Cousins ‑ getting by with a little help from her friends

We Have Made a Spark longlisted for Polaris Music Prize

- June 19, 2012

Rose Cousins (Danny Abriel photo)
Rose Cousins (Danny Abriel photo)

This article can also be found in the latest issue of Dalhousie magazine.

When Rose Cousins (BScK’99) writes a song, it’s a solitary process: alone, with her guitar, pulling chords and phrases out of the ether to communicate an idea from the heart.

To make it truly sing, though, takes a community.

The lush, inviting sound of the Halifax singer-songwriter’s third album, We Have Made a Spark – emphasis on “we” – was built in Boston, in collaboration with a group of musicians and singers that first welcomed Ms. Cousins into their circle eight years ago. But the record is also a collaboration with her friends and fans, who donated more than $25,000 via the fundraising website Kickstarter to support the production of the album and its accompanying documentary, If I Should Fall Behind.

“Every record I’ve done has been at least partially fan-funded,” says Ms. Cousins, whose do-it-yourself ethos reflects a modern music industry quite removed from the clichéd rock fantasy of signing a big-money label deal. “I helped fund the first couple of albums through PayPal, having forms at shows and sending out emails. But in the last couple of years, there’s been these new online tools that allow you to organize that process a bit more.”

Through the Kickstarter site, Ms. Cousins offered rewards for different levels of support: advance downloads, signed CDs, mentions in the liner notes and even homemade cookies. As the pledges increased, she filmed videos to thank her supporters, and in just a month and a half surpassed her original target of $20,000.

“You never quite know what people are going to do when you give them an opportunity to be part of something,” she says. “But I feel like my fans are the sort who are invested in my career, and some have been supporting my career for the entire time I’ve been doing this. I’m committed to my music, and it’s amazing to have others who are committed to me in return.”

The ties that bind

Ms. Cousins’ commitment to music was first sparked as a Dal student, during her kinesiology degree. She’d always wanted to play guitar, and was soon borrowing her friend’s acoustic six-string so often that it practically lived in her dorm room all semester. After purchasing her own acoustic guitar with her birthday money and contributions from her fellow dorm residents, Ms. Cousins began frequenting the now-defunct Halifax club The Tickle Trunk, playing the open mic circuit alongside scene staples like Matt Mays and Charlie A’Cort.

At first, she performed covers, but in time began showing off her songwriter’s voice, with heart-stirring compositions that offered intimate accounts of the ties that bind people to one another, and the tensions that break them apart.

After graduation, she worked as an alumni liaison officer with Dal’s External Relations office, continuing to grow her music career on the weekends. It was while hosting an alumni event in Boston that Ms. Cousins discovered Club Passim, noticing that many of her favourite artists from the New England area had played there. On a whim, she left a copy of her first EP, Only So Long, with a club employee. Nine months later, she got a call, and was asked to perform as part of a benefit festival.

“I ended up travelling to Boston to play that festival for several years, each time meeting more and more people and getting drawn into this community,” she says.

Combustable sparks

Just prior to releasing her debut album, If You Were For Me, in 2006, Ms. Cousins left her job at Dal to focus on music full time. In the years that followed, she released a second album (2009’s The Send Off) and collaborated with artists such as Jill Barber, Meaghan Smith and Joel Plaskett (that’s her singing throughout Plaskett’s Three album). She also racked up accolades, including the Canadian Folk Music Award for Contemporary Singer of the Year and three East Coast Music Awards. Dalhousie joined in the action as well, presenting her with the Christopher J. Coulter Young Alumnus Award in 2009.

Throughout, she kept returning to Boston. As she immersed herself deeper into its collaborative, welcoming music scene, she realized that she had found the right people, and the right place, to record the songs for We Have Made a Spark. “It’s that same kind of supportive community that I come from in Halifax,” she says. “As a team, there’s room for everybody, and everyone brings their own flavor. It’s not like there’s a complete lack of ego, but they’re able to play a song as a skeleton and then we all shape it together.”

Songs that had been written alone – some of them in a secluded cabin on a New Hampshire island – became living, breathing entities at Q Division Studios in Somerville, Mass., where the likes of James Taylor, Aimee Mann and Patty Griffin have recorded previously. The group of players working with her, sometimes as many as 15 at a time, performed together in a single room, adding a plethora of voices, rhythms and textures to the songs.

The album has quickly become her most acclaimed release to date; just last week, it was longlisted for Canada's top critics award, the Polaris Music Prize. And she has plans to tour it across North America this year. It seems fitting that a record funded by fans, and made with friends, seems poised to expose Rose Cousins’ music to new communities from coast to coast.

“I feel closer to [this album] than my other ones because I know everyone that’s on it, and I know that everyone on it cares about me, and that I care about them. It was made with a group of people that represent a lot of love and heart.”

DIY digital branding

Just like Rose Cousins, artists and entrepreneurs are discovering how new technologies can be used to mobilize fans, friends and supporters. We asked Dan Shaw, marketing expert and director of Dal’s Bachelor of Commerce program, to offer advice on building a career using social capital.

Be industrious: “It takes a different skill set than just being an artist…you have to not only be IT savvy, but marketing savvy. You have to think about these tools as an opportunity to tell your story: as an artist, as a business, as a brand.”

Be connected: “In personal selling, you start with your centres of influence. And especially in the Maritimes, that can take you rather far. It’s not six degrees of separation here; it’s more like one or two.”

Be supported: “In the music industry, there have often been street teams: groups of fans in each city that would put up posters, sell merchandise, request the song on radio or TV and spread the word. We call that support ‘sweat equity.’ Now, that support has gone digital; it’s now ‘click equity.’”

Be yourself: “Connecting with fans the way Rose does works because it’s authentic. Getting an offer from Rose directly isn’t like having it come from a big label rep from New York or LA. It’s more intimate.”


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