By Kevin Bruch
CALGARY – The mere mention of Robbie Banke’s name in his hometown of Calgary inevitably brings a smile to those in the know. You might know him personally, or have a shared memory of seeing Robbie play at one of many house shows. Perhaps you’ve seen him at Market Collective, or have simply shared a smile with the good-natured folk singer.
Bankes is currently living a double life, traversing often between Canada and Norway. He is studying folk music at the University of Telemark in Rauland, Norway. Meanwhile, he is preparing for the release of a new Alberta-recorded album, Foothills. Speaking to BeatRoute via Skype, this writer detects Norwegian inflections in his speech. That won’t be the only thing he brings back to Canada when he returns in June to perform the new record. Indeed, he identifies his music as a merging of nationalities, dubbed “Nordic Canadiana.” “Working with traditional music can be really cool, and deserves more attention than it’s getting,” says Bankes, who claims the term “Nordic Canadiana” as a way to transcend the genre tropes that bog down folk music all too often.
He concedes, “This is not a traditional record.”
Listening to Bankes’ songs is listening to the experiences of a young man trained in that traditional way. It’s steeped in the essence of this corner of the world, where the Prairies roll into the Foothills that are the album’s namesake.
“We could have made a cool record in Norway,” says Bankes.
“But it wouldn’t have sounded the same.”
Bankes’ roots are firmly planted in Prairie soil. Though only 22-years-old, Bankes has been playing in the aforementioned houses, markets and venues throughout Western Canada for years, culminating in a nomination for Young Performer of the Year at the Canadian Folk Music Awards in 2015. His experience is immediately apparent in the poetic lyrics of his original compositions; it also is demonstrated by his interpretations of traditional folk songs that speak to maturity beyond his age. That mix of a traditional grounding in his Norwegian education and more modern and decidedly Canadian approach to song writing is the key to his layered sound.
Foothills was recorded in Nanton, Alberta at Crabapple Downs by Steve Loree, who has worked with alt-country mainstay Corb Lund. The album features Charlie Hase on pedal steel, Melissa McWilliams (of Calgary act The Bitterweed Draw) on drums and Mark Grosjean on bass guitar.
“It was a completely different experience from my first album,” Bankes tells BeatRoute.
“I recorded that sitting in an old play house in Mark Ellestad’s yard, it was very off the cuff.” The differences are apparent when you listen to the new and old recordings of audience favourite “February Snow.”
The trademark sentiment and nostalgia remain, but there’s a grander sweep to the sound on Foothills, with Bankes’ sparse guitar accompanied by the depth of a bass, powerful drums, and sighing pedal steel.
This is an artist with a big heart, and even bigger potential. If you were concerned that his successes in Norway would rob Canada of this young talent, fear not.
“Canada’s my home, it’s not just where the music started, [and] it’s also where I’ll end up.”
The sublime reverence for the Prairie skies and rolling hills of Bankes’ home that is both lyrically and sonically present throughout Foothills is all the evidence you need.
Robbie Bankes releases Foothills on June 23 alongside Mike Tod and Nathan M. Godfrey at Festival Hall (Calgary).