Behind The Sawdust City Music Festival With Founder Miranda Mulholland

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Miranda Mulholland. Photo courtesy of the Sawdust City Music Festival

Miranda Mulholland has been coming to Gravenhurst since she was in utero, and this year, she’s bringing the Sawdust City Music Festival back to town with her for the third annual celebration of multi-genre music.

The three-day multi-venue music festival will return to Gravenhurst from Aug. 2 to 4. This year’s festival includes headliners Bill and Joel Plaskett along with Irish musician Maria Doyle Kennedy, rock band the Sadies and a slew of other musical talents. The weekend includes two nights at the Opera House, evening shows at the Sawdust City Brewing Co. Saloon, Music on the Barge and performances at the Oar and Arts At The Albion. The event also offers other attractions throughout the weekend such as a songwriters’ circle, a kids zone and a vendor village in Gull Lake Rotary Park. Shows at the Opera House cost $40 and weekend or VIP packages are available for attendees wanting additional perks, but the rest of the festival’s shows and activities are free. Mulholland, artistic director for the festival and a musician herself, founded the festival in 2017.

Miranda Mulholland. Photo courtesy of the Sawdust City Music Festival

Mulholland’s family cottage in Gravenhurst has been her favourite place for as long as she can remember, giving her the chance to attend shows at Music on the Barge, the Opera House and the BIA’s Sawdust City stage on main street. When she decided to create a festival, the decision to have it in Gravenhurst happened in the same second.

“Everything’s within walking distance, the amenities are amazing, the community is amazing,” Mulholland said. “I have a record label and I love bringing people together, so I thought [Gravenhurst] was a perfect place to do a live manifestation of the label, bringing a bunch of artists together to collaborate and make songs together that never existed and will never exist except for right now at this performance at this time.”

Beyond the area’s strengths as a venue, Mulholland said that Gravenhurst was the first place she felt connected in a larger way, gaining a sense of belonging from years of family stories. Her family has owned land in Gravenhurst for over a hundred years and she’s been visiting since she was still in her mother’s womb.

Mulholland said her great-great-grandfather Charles Mickle, who owned the main sawmill in town that garnered Gravenhurst the nickname “Sawdust City,” was a real believer in the arts and culture. Mickle was elected mayor of the town twice and championed the construction of the Opera House, which is still in operation over 115 years later.

“Being able to use the Opera House that my great-great-grandfather had built to put on shows, what an amazing full circle,” Mulholland said. “I feel like it’s almost my responsibility to continue to serve the community that he loved in the arts and culture space.”

Photo courtesy of the Sawdust City Music Festival

As part of that service to the community, the festival is offering a songwriting workshop called Write It, Track It, Play It for up to 10 participants. Anyone 13 and over can apply for the free program and all levels of experience will be considered.

“In this day and age with streaming, it’s just so difficult to make a living as a songwriter, as artists,” she said. “I really wanted to offer this experience to the town and we’re really looking for local musicians.”

In another full circle connection, Write It, Track It, Play It includes a collaborative songwriting workshop led by songwriter James Gordon, similar to a workshop Mulholland did with Gordon in her hometown of Guelph at a 1991 conference called Author Author.

“I would’ve been in grade school and I went to his songwriting workshop,” Mulholland said. “We wrote a song together in the workshop and it was really formative for me, so here I am all these years later bringing him back to do a similar kind of workshop.”

The workshop also includes a professional recording studio session with Rob Currie at Currie’s Music in Gravenhurst and reserved seating at the songwriter’s circle on Aug. 3. In addition, participants get the opportunity to perform their newly written song live at the music stage in Gull Lake Rotary Park and will receive an MP3 of their original song at the end of the program. Mulholland said that once the festival is in the black, she hopes to create a legacy fund to further support songwriting in the area and help create musicians that could one day take the stage at the festival.

The Sawdust City Music Festival in 2018. Photo courtesy of the Sawdust City Music Festival

When the festival was in its first year, Mulholland relied on her connections as a musician to fill the lineup. Since then, artists and their agents have started reaching out in hopes of securing a spot. Last year’s festival hadn’t even come to an end before she started to receive requests from artists looking to play in the next year’s lineup.

The goal is to make the festival a community event while also bringing in world class talent, Mulholland said. She tries to ensure the lineup is diverse, has gender parity and represents the community that she loves musically, while also presenting new artists for locals to love.

The Sawdust City Music Festival in 2017. Photo courtesy of the Sawdust City Music Festival

Mulholland brought in Jeremy Dutcher for the inaugural festival in 2017 after listening to his unreleased EP at a grant hearing. It was one of the first festivals he ever played and since then, he’s gone on to win a Polaris Prize as well as a Juno Award for Indigenous Music Album of the Year. 

“I want to use my instincts and my day job, which is being a professional musician, to find these gems and be able to bring them to Gravenhurst so people can discover them,” she said. 

This year’s festival features a wide range of artists including violinist Lara St. John, indie musician Emm Gryner and blues rock artist Jay Gilday, but Mulholland said that Irish musician Maria Doyle Kennedy is one act not to be missed in this year’s lineup. Kennedy is better known for her work as an actress in shows like Orphan Black, Outlander and Downton Abbey as well as movies like The Conjuring 2, but she also has a long history as a folk musician. Mulholland said she can’t wait to bring Doyle to Gravenhurst, where she expects her to dazzle.

Along with her instincts, Mulholland has a Board of Directors to help guide her decisions in areas like artist selection and spending for the festival. Part of the board’s guidance has included bringing Mulholland back to the stage of her own festival after attendees complained about her band’s absence the year before. 

Harrow Fair. Photo by David Irvine

Mulholland’s band Harrow Fair played the festival in its inaugural year when the event was unknown and the lineup needed bolstering. However, Mulholland pulled back for the second festival, featuring her bandmate Andrew Penner while excluding herself from the lineup to avoid conflict of interest. Now, she’ll return to the stage by fan request, performing as part of Harrow Fair in a show at the Opera House on Aug. 2.

“[There are] a lot of hours you’re here to work and that’s with a very different side of the brain,” she said. “To get to perform with my favourite band for 25 minutes, half an hour is awesome because I get to kind of take off the organizer hat for that amount of time and do what I love the most.”

To buy tickets to watch Mulholland and others perform, or to get more information, visit the Sawdust City Music Festival website.

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