By Julijana Capone
CALGARY — Bleary-eyed country jams with psychedelic diversions and humourous narratives drawn from the streets of Winnipeg are the bedrock of JD and the Sunshine Band’s tunes.
But this is no ordinary musical operation. Since its inception, the band has also played an important role in bringing a community of marginalized people in from the fringes.
In 2013, the band formed as part of the Solvent User’s Recreation Project (SURP) at Sunshine House, a drop-in and resource centre that focuses on “harm reduction, population health promotion, and social inclusion,” according to its website. Some of the people it assists are “street-involved,” homeless or insecurely housed, and some are affected by HIV and/or Hepatitis C.
Program coordinator JD Ormond, also a Winnipeg singer-songwriter and the band’s namesake, built the program as a means to connect participants with practical skills and improve their quality of life.
“A lot of the members were people on the streets, who were affected by or using solvents,” he says. “We opened our doors and catered to accommodate all of the interests of people on the street…the intention was also to build skills; rebuild motor skills that may have been lost from solvent use; and to connect people with the broader community and social supports.”
One of the program’s first music-based workshops revolved around writing and recording a song, called “Saturday Night,” a waltzy country song detailing a booze-fuelled night on the town.
“It was free of judgment and hugely successful in bringing people in from the margins,” Ormond says. “There were a lot of things that we were proud of, so we thought why not do something exclusively based around music?”
And so the band went on meeting several times a week to rehearse, which then led to the release of their self-titled debut record in 2014, followed by a flurry of live gigs. The band has since played everywhere from soup kitchens and missions to well-known Winnipeg music venues and major festivals, such as Interstellar Rodeo, playing alongside artists like Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle.
Now JD and the Sunshine Band can add a second album to their list of accomplishments with the release of Soaking Up the Rays, out last month via Transistor 66.
The Sunshine Band boasts upwards of 12 members at any given time, including a crew of percussionists, called The Shiners, who play shakers made out of old syrup containers, and provide the backbeat of the group.
“It’s been a blast,” says band member Adrian Spence, who shares drumming duties with his brother, Gilbert, and also sings lead vocals on the album’s classic country numbers, such as the George Jones cover “The King is Gone,” while Ormond takes the lead on tracks like the twangy, psych-inflected toe-tapper “Brain Freeze.”
Spence says he’s seen how the program has made a difference in the lives of its members. “The Sunshine Band cut down a lot on their solvent abuse,” he says. “That’s important for me. I don’t do that. They cut down a lot, so I’m happy for that.”
“The music’s important to me, eh,” Spence continues. “That’s all I have left is playing and singing…I know all these people coming around. We see them on the street. We have no problems. I know what they do out on the street with that solvent stuff. I’m right there amongst them. No problem.”
Indeed, it’s the support and acceptance that the house nurtures that’s made it such a haven. Sunshine House’s harm reduction approach means that people can come as they are without judgment, even if they’re still using.
“We have a no-using policy in the house, but we have no control over what people do on the streets,” Ormond says. “We don’t turn people away if they’re high…other places around town will smell that you’ve been using and tell you that you can’t come in. We won’t…we are not out to fix anyone. We are just there to give people options and outlets.”
The fact that, nearly four years later, the band still exists is indicative of the program’s success. And, with the band’s skills and comfort levels developing, doing a prairie jaunt beyond the Perimeter Highway isn’t out of the question. Given the right amount of care, JD and the Sunshine Band could bring their positive rays westward one day.
“The ability to be mobile and to travel; to leave the city limits or to even leave the limits of their own neighbourhood is not something that these folks are used to doing,” says Ormond. “It would be huge for the people in the band to experience what it’s like to travel.”
Check out JD and the Sunshine Band’s sophomore album, Soaking Up the Rays, out now via transistor66.com. All proceeds from the sale of each album go to support programs at Sunshine House. You can also head to the Sunshine House website to make a donation directly at sunshinehousewpg.org.addiction, addiction recovery, JD and the Sunshine Band, Manitoba, MB, Soaking Up the Rays, Sunshine House