Cortes-Island-based Awakeneers have had to re-imagine what their band is and how to get their music out to the world after COVID-19 shut down their touring aspirations. Photo courtesy Awakeneers

Cortes Island band reinvents itself for the COVID-19 world

‘We had to revisit how this whole thing was going to be sustainable’

They didn’t even plan on forming a band.

But when you grow up in the backwoods of B.C., surrounded by various instruments, there’s almost no way that you don’t organically just sort of become one.

That’s what happened with Awakeneers, a Cortes-Island-based group made up of one large family – the McKenty’s – and a few other talented musicians who wanted to be a part of what they saw happening.

“All the Awakeneers have music in their blood, having grown up surrounded by music,” says Robert McKenty, the patriarch of the group. “Being exposed to classical and rock and folk and secular and sacred and then becoming inspired to write their own music, it just kind of took hold of them. I don’t think any of us were aiming to produce a band. We started getting invited to play places, and it was happening more and more, and so we started touring little bits of things without even having a name.”

And because they didn’t have a name, the people booking them for shows would just give them one.

“It was kind of awkward, because they’d sometimes name us things we didn’t really like,” Robert says with a laugh. “We were touring in Europe one time and they called us ‘The Wild Canadians,’ because we came from the backwoods of B.C. and lived in the wilds with bears and stuff, but when we came back and kept calling ourselves that, people wondered why we didn’t drink and behave in a wild fashion, so that name didn’t really fit.”

At that point they decided they needed a real, official name to go by, so they brainstormed, “about 80 or 100 names,” Robert says. They settled on The Merry McKenty’s because it sounded like a good fit for the traditional fiddle-based music they were mainly playing at the time. But when they started writing their own compositions, it didn’t really fit anymore, so they named themselves The Solaris Music Project and toured under both names, depending on what kind of set they’d be playing on a given night.

It got overly complicated, though, as each of the bands had a different member as a booking agent, “so there were a few times where we were almost double-booked in different places,” Robert says. The lines began to blur even more when the Merry McKenty’s started incorporating originals and Solaris started playing fiddle-based contra dances. It got to the point where nobody knew exactly where one band ended and the other began.

So over the next two years, they debated how to amalgamate the bands and what to name the new entity.

Eventually they settled on Awakeneers, and were all set to head back out on tour under their new moniker when a global pandemic hit and shut down live events.

They suddenly found themselves not only working on how to re-imagine the band itself, but also how to get their music out into a world where traveling around and playing it live – as they’d done for years – was no longer an option.

RELATED: Tidemark reinvents live performances with hybrid model

“We’re super fortunate, in a way, in that most of us ended up in one place when COVID hit, which has meant that we all still get to play together on a daily basis,” Robert says.

But in terms of getting their music out to their fans – new and old alike – they would need to be inventive.

“It was an emotional challenge, for sure,” Robert says. “But we were lucky to have so much tech savvy experience in-house that the transition was actually pretty easy.”

They went full-steam into online content, including filling up their YouTube channel and even developing their own mobile app.

CHECK OUT AWAKENEERS ON YOUTUBE HERE

But as all musicians know, putting your music out into the digital world is a hard way to make a living.

“Touring had finally gotten to the point where it was a break-even proposition, as long as we were willing to camp instead of staying in hotels,” Robert says. “So we had to revisit how this whole thing was going to be sustainable.”

To their surprise, however, all they needed to do was ask.

“What we’ve found,” band member – and former tour planner – Immanuel McKenty says, “is that when we make things ‘by donation’ or ‘free,’ we earn as much as we do when we have a set price. If you give people the option to donate, it turns out they’ll often take that option. People are incredibly generous. We’re actually making more money giving away our music than we were by selling it.”

And while they would certainly rather be back on the road playing live shows, Awakeneers will just have to keep making their way through the musical world digitally for now.

“We’re just going to play it by ear and try to make the best use of the time we have while we’re in this situation,” Robert says.

At least they have lots of time to practice.

“Usually our summers are filled with rushing from place to place, and this is the first summer we’ve gotten to just hang out on Cortes and practice and write and record,” Immanuel says. “It’s gives us a chance to go deeper with our writing, for sure.”

And they’ll keep sharing their work however they can. Because it’s important.

“A lot of creative expression gets amplified during challenging times,” says band member Erica Giannone. “Our music tends to have a certain quality that people can tell is the result of some inner process, or as a response to something, so being able to share whatever we can in a positive way in response to what’s going on these days, even if it’s digitally, feels like a valuable way to contribute.”

You can find the band, along with links to download their free mobile app, at Awakeneers.com, on Instagram (@awakeneersmusic) or on Facebook (@awakeneers).

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