RYAN BOWMAN, MyToba.ca
When Tracy K decided to leave Manitoba and spend a summer in Toronto after her third year of university, she had no way of knowing it would kindle a long and accomplished music career.
Thirty years, several albums and countless tours later, the Beausejour-born blues artist has come full circle. After bouncing between The Big Smoke and Thunder Bay – with a stint in Manitoba in between – she has once again returned home to embark upon the next leg of her journey.
And after 20 years of raising three kids as a single mother, she’s doing it as a recent empty-nester.
“My kids have always been my biggest priority, while music’s played second fiddle,” she says. “Now that they’ve reached their independence, I’m excited to move on and do my own thing.
“In my head, I’m still 26,” says Tracy, who also does supply work as an educational assistant and dabbles in graphic design. “I’ve been waiting for this moment and I plan on making the most of it.”
The first step, she says, is to do some crowd funding and apply for grants that can go toward recording some of the material that has piled up over the years. From there, she hopes to be in the studio by fall and on the road, touring Canada and the U.S., by next spring.
While touring has always been Tracy’s favourite thing about being a professional musician – “paid vacations,” as she calls them – her travel was limited to two or three weeks at a time, and no more than a couple times a year. With her newfound freedom, however, she expects to hit the road more often – and for longer periods of time.
“From here on out, I hope every tour is my biggest.”
If there’s one part of the vagabond life she’s not looking forward to, it’s all the planning it takes to book tours. In addition to competing with countless musicians doing the same thing, she has to coordinate dates, manage logistics and maintain a budget – all things she admits aren’t her forte.
“There’s a reason we’re musicians, and that’s because we don’t do all that other stuff very well,” she laughs. “Like any job, there’s an order of operations to being a touring musician, and not all of it is fun.
“The basic formula is write, record tour, write, record, tour,” she adds. “It’s not a glamorous life, and it’s certainly not one you’re going to become wealthy from.”
Not that she’s complaining.
“After you do it for as long as I have, you almost embrace that. You have less worries than other people who are consumed with having to maintain a certain lifestyle,” she says. “Most musicians’ homes are pretty humble and very comfortable. We’re all kind of artistes that have our own little bohemian escapes, because we spend so much time on the road.
“There’s a lucky few who get agents and managers and promoters, and that usually comes with some kind of record deal. The rest of us just kind of kick along at whatever pace we can and cross our fingers and hope for the best.”
But despite all the challenges of being an independent musician, Tracy says she can’t imagine doing anything else.
She took up piano as a young girl and first got involved in the music scene as a teenager, playing in bands and singing at weddings throughout high school. While backpacking through Europe in 1982, she met a Canadian soldier who gave her her first harmonica. She hasn’t looked back since.
“I believe that music chose me,” she says. “It’s something that’s just been ever-present in my life and it happened naturally.
“Music runs in my veins.”
Even when she decided to pursue a more conventional career path and began studying education at the University of Manitoba, that summer in Toronto led her back to music.
“I ended up discovering all the coffeehouses and all the studio work you could get there, so I ended up staying in Toronto for close to a decade, experimenting with the music scene while working as a graphic artist.”
Somewhere along the way, as Tracy began to hone her skills, develop an identity and expand her catalog of influences – from Bonnie Raitt and Chrissie Hynde to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee – she gravitated toward the blues.
“It works with my voice, it works with my style,” she says. “My writing, on the other hand, is still a lot more on the folk side, the pop side, more alternative country or Americana.”
Over the years, Tracy began getting noticed. Despite the demands of raising her children, she has played countless jazz and blues festivals across the country, opened for American folk legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, headlined the Live From the Rock Folk Festival and released three original albums (along with live recordings and appearances on various compilations).
She also has the honours of being the first female in the Toronto Blues Society’s Harmonica Workshop, winning Thunder Bay’s regional International Blues Challenge twice and playing an exclusive party on a private island in the Caribbean.
“I’ve been doing this for a couple of decades, so there are too many highlights to name,” she says. “Even though I haven’t been out there touring hardcore like some other artists my age, I’ve definitely had my share of opportunities and precious moments.”
As much as she loves the recognition and the perks, however, Tracy says the biggest reward of making music is the opportunity to connect with others.
“If I’m not performing, I find that I’m pretty miserable,” she says. “It’s the release that I need for my stresses and my anxieties.
“It’s not so much about me just getting up there and performing songs, though. It’s about getting up there and having a conversation with my audience, and it doesn’t have to be a verbal conversation. It shows in their dancing, it shows in their hoots and hollers, it shows in the way they listen.”
Fortunately for Tracy, she won’t have to wait long for an opportunity to connect with an audience in her return to Manitoba; in a homecoming of sorts, she will play the Winnipeg BBQ & Blues Festival this Sunday night.
And If Tracy K has her way moving forward, the gig will be her first of many more to come.
“I think the spirit of music is very alive and well in this community and it’s exciting to be a part of it again,” she says. “Regardless of what local musicians may say about their hometown at any given moment, once you leave for a while we always come back.
“There’s something extremely magnetic about the arts community in Winnipeg.”
Tracy K will perform at this weekend’s BBQ and Blues Festival at Shaw Park on Sunday, Aug. 17. It will be her second appearance at the festival.