The culture around music was already shifting, influencing technology as well as being influenced by it, long before it was pegged as a casualty of the digital age. But today, when a song can be exchanged as freely as a glance, so many questions remain around the commerce and transactions of music that any label weathering the winds of change is admirable.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that Six Shooter Records has not only held its own since being founded in 2000 by Edmonton-born Shauna de Cartier, but pushed into new territory. In 2012, in addition to its usual activities of artist management and releasing records, Six Shooter produced its first ever festival.
All roads lead home. Although Six Shooter began in Toronto and is firmly anchored there, Edmonton functions as a kind of spiritual motherland to the company, and the Interstellar Rodeo launched over a sunny weekend in late July in the leafy embrace of Hawrelak Park, its first notes delivered by Michael Rault, another Edmontonian decamped to Toronto. (All roads lead away.)
Interstellar Rodeo was enthusiastically embraced by music fans, praised for its eclectic lineup, good wine and food, intimate venue and relaxed vibe. This year’s Rodeo sold out well in advance—an enviable feat for a young festival, and a triumph for a company with a staff of four and boundless ambition, its sense of purpose encapsulated in its tagline: “Life is too short to listen to shitty music.”
Six Shooter exists, to a large extent, on a continuum with de Cartier, who exudes warmth, grit, straightforwardness and unflappability, and has a disarming mellow chuckle she deploys frequently, in response to both adversity and delight. Her passions dictate its roster; her values are the foundation of its reputation; her experiences and needs have outlined its structure and trajectory. But she doesn’t stand alone—Helen Britton is not a foil to de Cartier, but a force multiplier, and although they are business partners, the term seems inadequate in expressing the scope and intensity of their relationship. The women are two heads of the same beast.
“Trying to explain what I do and what Helen does doesn’t make any sense to anyone in the outside world,” de Cartier offers. “There’s not really an organization chart, like a pyramid or triangle—it’s more of a circle. We don’t really have titles, except maybe for legal documents. We’re not into that. There are different areas of responsibility, but the idea is that everyone’s contribution is important.”
De Cartier traces the origins of Six Shooter’s ethos back to Edmonton. “Coming out of university, I got an entry-level job at Phoenix Theatre, as their downtown publicist,” she recalls. “I loved it so much—I felt like I’d found my people, who I didn’t even know I was looking for! Because I’ve never felt, like: ‘Oh, I’m an outsider, I’m a loner, I don’t fit in’—that’s not it at all. But when I started working with this company, which very much defined itself by its passion for the art of the stage and its dedication and commitment to trying to create critically acclaimed work, I think those values—for art and the artist—were really instilled in me, at a fairly impressionable age. That was transformative. I felt the value of art and the humanity of art; I discovered that by working at this little theatre company, and it never really left me.”
From there, de Cartier “hopped around more corporate-oriented jobs. I got offered a promotion. The same week, I had a number of unsolicited job offers—it was really a weird time! But when that happens, you have to sit down and think, ‘What do I want? What are my goals in life?’ Because I could really see the path I was on, and where it was heading, and I realized that wasn’t really what I was all about. What I wanted from my life and my career was to do something where who I was and what I did was the same. I had that when I worked at Phoenix. And I hadn’t had that since—it was close, but not there.”
One offer was from Captain Tractor. The band was looking for a manager, and they wanted de Cartier. “They‘d approached me before and I was like, ‘No! It’s not enough money, it’s too insecure, I’m doing an MBA and putting my husband through school—that’s crazy!’” de Cartier roars. “But because of the timing and the way the universe is, it was actually the one that had the most appeal to me. I knew that if I went down that path, I would be the same as my work; those two things would be in alignment.”
De Cartier worked furiously to absorb as much knowledge of the industry as she could. “Chris Wynters and Scott Peters in particular, and Aimee Hill; they really taught me the music business. Two years later, I started Six Shooter, and haven’t really looked back.”
She reconsiders: “Well, I look back occasionally, and think about where I’d be if I’d stuck with my corporate path. Probably would’ve made more money, and it would’ve been an exciting career, but it wouldn’t have had the same kind of meaning for me personally, where I can really get behind an artist who I think is worthy of my time and my resources, who I think is going to create a body of work in their lifetime that is going to be lasting and important.”
No clearer touchstone for curatorial excellence could possibly exist, which is proven in the pillars of the label’s roster, a couple of musicians who, bound as they both are by de Cartier’s fierce devotion to them, needed very different things from their careers.
“I started Six Shooter Records, really, with two artists: Luke Doucet and Martin Tielli,” De Cartier states.
“I was managing Veal, Luke’s rock band, and we were looking for a deal with a label. We almost had one, but it fell through. So I started Six Shooter as a way to release Veal records. Then I was at the Edmonton Folk Festival in 2000—I come home every year for FolkFest, because I love it so much—and I was watching a workshop with Steve Dawson, Oscar Lopez and some other guy. I phoned Luke on my giant cell phone, which was the size of a shoe back then, and I said, ‘I’m at this workshop of guitar players, and you should be on stage with them!’ because I knew what a great player he was. And he agreed. I said, ‘I think you should make a solo record of more acoustic stuff!’ because he’s an incredible acoustic player, and Veal is this electric rock band. And he agreed. Four months later he was like, ‘Here’s my finished record!’” De Cartier laughs. “That was Aloha, Manitoba.”
She does some mental arithmetic. “We’ve made 10 records over the span of 14 years—three Veal records, five solo records, and two Whitehorse records. And then we started a guitar festival!” she exclaims. “It’s been a really brave journey with him. He’s so talented, so smart, so dedicated, hardworking—just an amazing person with great integrity. And he’s really challenged me, and I’ve challenged him, throughout our career together—to shoot further, aim higher, keep moving. Tenacity is in his character. As an artist, he’s very central to Six Shooter. He’s helped define what we’re all about.”
That autumn, while Doucet was finishing his debut solo album, de Cartier met Martin Tielli. “I move to Toronto earlier that year, I’m at a bar, and I meet Martin Tielli, who’s just there. Just met him at a bar!” She’s incredulous at the memory. “We’re talking and I say, ‘Hey Martin, I don’t know if you’ve ever considered making a solo record, but I have a label and I’d be so incredibly honoured if you would consider working with me, because the Rheostatics were and still are my favourite band of all time. So I thought that was a fairly audacious thing to say, and he just looked at me and said,”—de Cartier puts on a quiet, hesitant voice—“‘Really?’”
She had impeccable timing. “Turns out he’d just emerged from a two-month writing binge where he wrote 70 songs. Obviously, that’s a lot of material, and the Rheostatics are a band that has three songwriters. We became friends, and he sent me demos of 35 or 40 of those songs on cassette tape. Then we brought Michael Phillip Wojewoda into the conversation and narrowed it down and recorded again. And that was We Didn’t Even Suspect That He Was The Poppy Salesman, which I think is a really important and amazing record and one of the ones of my entire catalogue I’m most proud of. And it was the first record I became super-involved with, because Martin let me. My opinion mattered; it was relevant to the process. And that was a real privilege.”
De Cartier still marvels at the improbability of her connecting with Tielli. “He has such a signature sound. Nobody sounds like him, he’s absolutely unique in this world. He’s probably the most talented person I’ll ever have the privilege to meet. And he’s one of the best examples I have of Six Shooter: I feel that all of the artists we’ve worked with are incredible people whose work needs a broader platform, and are worthy of our time, and our focus, and our love. It always comes right back to that. And I think one of those things that happens when you’re really clear on why you’re doing something, right from the get-go, is it informs every decision you make.”
While de Cartier was setting up shop in Toronto, Britton was finishing an International Business degree in Manchester after a girlhood in a rural Midlands village. Her loose plan was to travel to North America and work on her Masters at a comparable school, which turned out to be Hamilton, and she eventually landed in Toronto, having fallen in with a group of new friends in the music industry, people like Sarah Slean and Jeffrey Remedios.
“I honestly never planned on a career in music, and I feel guilty saying that, because I know how many people crave it so much, and work so hard, and intern for free and all that, and it just got handed to me on a plate,” Britton says ruefully. She worked her way through a hodgepodge of music business jobs, large and small, as she settled her immigration status—receptionist at Zomba, rising to executive assistant to the president and promotions coordinator; running Jane Siberry’s office; projects with Paperback Records and Arts & Crafts; door and merch girl. Britton and de Cartier wound up sharing office space, and one day de Cartier asked if Britton would consider helping her out.
“Shauna had just had a baby and her assistant had left,” Britton remembers. “She offered three afternoons a week. I think two weeks later she asked if I would be her business partner.”
De Cartier elaborates, “I think at that time I’d signed Christine Fellows, NQ Arbuckle, Ford Pier. I was also managing the Weakerthans, and starting to manage the Rheostatics. Helen came on board and just saved my life. We just instantly connected. She made it possible to move forward.”
“We spent hours emailing and discussing our partnership in a lot of detail, which I think was really healthy,” Britton notes. “I was totally excited to be in. Shauna had this small baby, and I was in on the level where if she needed me to babysit, then I would do that. The baby was at the office, and if she was crying and the phone rang, I didn’t mind helping out on that front too, I think that was an attraction for Shauna—that I was all in, however we made this work for our lives. Our first business trip together was Midem. I’d do meetings in the morning and she’d be with the baby, then we’d swap halfway through the day, so there was always someone with the baby but meetings were happening all the time. I don’t think that’s something you get with every partnership.”
In return, de Cartier ceded much of the international work to Britton, which she often parlays into a family visit.
“Helen is incredibly organized,” de Cartier says. “I’m somewhat scattered. So she’s really able to pull everything together and give it structure. I’m kind of emotional. So it’s a good match for us, because sometimes I can be all caught up in the artistic realm of things and drop balls. She’s got that British, matter-of-fact common sense thing going on. Our artists immediately took to Helen, in terms of their confidence in her and her abilities. It immediately doubled us.”
With the addition of Britton and with several new artists on the label, Six Shooter began to feel like its own animal. “In 2005, we signed a couple more bands and I thought, ‘This whole thing is not about me anymore’. Sure, I started the company, but it’s beyond that,” de Cartier chuckles. “It was never really about me—it was always about the artists. But Six Shooter has a reputation now. When it started, Six Shooter was about Luke Doucet and Martin Tielli and their brand and their reputation. But as you start to build a roster, the label itself has a brand that is made up of the components of the individual artists, I think, but also of its staff and people at the actual label who make it work, who contribute to that.”
As of 2012, Six Shooter had enough of a reputation—for both an intense caretaking of artists and putting out a certain kind of textured, thoughtful, emotional, songwriter-focused music—to try to pull off a festival. (De Cartier had tried for 2011, but it didn’t come together.)
“We wanted to do something that reflected our own brand and philosophy and kind of music on a larger scale,” de Cartier offers. “We felt we had the right skills and inspiration. And Edmonton was the perfect place—I was born and raised there, we had relationships there, I knew the venue and I knew it wouldn’t be a problem to get volunteers. It almost seems inevitable.”
As for programming, Six Shooter’s artist-friendly reputation and far-flung friendships made that relatively easy, even in the inaugural year—at least after finding a replacement for the original headliner, Sinead O’Connor, who’d canceled her whole tour.
While the festival went off without a hitch last year, this year’s Interstellar Rodeo has a much larger audience. But de Cartier’s vision and Britton’s Excel spreadsheets and logistical acumen will prevail, leaving nothing but a beautiful experience to linger, leaving the audience looking forward to next summer’s Rodeo. And the ones after that.
“I’m sure in a few years it’s going to be like, ‘Remember when we didn’t do a festival? That was weird!’” Britton muses. “It’s going to become normal. In that way, I feel like it’s a momentous thing: we did a festival and it worked and it started a new leg of our business and I don’t know where that’s going to take us. I guess we’ll see. It could go anywhere.”
Fri, Jul 26 – Sun, Jul 28
Heritage Amphitheatre in
Hawrelak Park, sold out