Canadian Folk Artist Schroeder Looks To Life Beyond The Prairies (Billboard Magazine)

By Larry LeBlanc, October 1st 2000

Canadian singer/songwriter Monica Schroeder is a special artist, and her acclaimed, independently released debut, “The Expectation Of Home,” is a true gem.

Featuring one of the most spellbinding voices to grace Canadian music, the contemporary folk album features nine compelling original songs by the 28-year-old Manitoba-based performer. Her voice is highlighted by minimalist production using electronica-style drum loops, acoustic guitar, and assorted percussion for ornamentation.

“It’s a very honest record,” says its producer, Olaf Pyttlik, co-owner of DaCapo Productions in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “Monica also has that in-your-face honesty when she performs.”

Originally released September 1999 on Schroeder’s own Night Sky Records, the album is currently available only regionally here to retail in western Canada from distributor Indie Pool Canada and via its online site, Despite its quality, Schroeder notes that sales of the album are still less than 500 units. “I haven’t sold a remarkable number,” she says. “I certainly haven’t recouped costs.”

However, the album was nominated for top pop recording at Prairie Music Alliance’s Prairie Music Awards, held Oct. 1 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. It was pitted against recordings by such nationally known Canadian artists as Jann Arden, Chantal Kreviazuk, and McMaster & James. Pyttlik was nominated as top producer for his work on the album, along with Brian Kauste for its graphics.

For Schroeder, who had just completed her first solo tour across western Canada, the Prairie Music Week conference/awards was a memorable coming out. Although Schroeder (who lost to Arden) and her friends went home empty-handed, she was exhilarated by the experience. “I was shocked by my nomination,” she says, describing the nod as “an incredible psychological boost.”

With her band, Schroeder performed at a Sept. 29 showcase during Prairie Music Week and was prominently featured the following day at the SOCAN-sponsored session Songwriters in the Round with Margo and Michael Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies, as well as western Canadian songwriters Joel Kroeker and Susan Bond.

“Monica’s amazing,” says Michael Timmins. “Her voice is so beautiful. She first sang “Longing,’ and Margo and I just looked at each other. We both realized she’s real. I’m excited when you hear somebody outstanding like that. Hopefully, we can do some shows with her.”

“For somebody who had never done anything in the industry beforehand, that weekend was a huge triumph,” says Pyttlik. He first met Schroeder two years ago, when she used his former studio to record a cassette of traditional hymns to honor her late father. The cassette for family and friends featured Schroeder singing with guitar, but Pyttlik recalls he wasn’t overly impressed by her performances until near the end of the session, when she performed two of her own compositions, “Waiting” and “Without You,” both on her album.

“All of a sudden her voice came to life,” recalls Pyttlik, who encouraged Schroeder to record an album of her own songs. “With the hymns, she was relatively stiff. When she sang her own songs, her voice was absolutely gorgeous. I was also struck by the beauty of her writing. It was so rich, honest, and clear.”

Pyttlik performed a pivotal role in the recording of Schroeder’s album. He not only produced, co-engineered, and played keyboards, bass, and acoustic guitar on the sessions but also handled drum programming and arrangements and co-wrote three tracks. Additional backup was provided by Randy Bergman on electric guitar, Nolan Balzer on acoustic guitar and bass, Todd Martin on tabla, and Steve Martens on drums.

Schroeder was initially taken aback by Pyttlik’s production take on her songs. “I had envisioned the album being really acoustic,” she says. “Then I got really excited that it sounded so different than I expected.”

“Monica did have a fair input into the album,” insists Pyttlik. “There were directions she helped me to take, and there were approaches she wanted to take.”

Schroeder had written songs sporadically for years but only became serious about her songwriting in 1998. “I’m not very prolific,” she admits. “The last song I wrote took a year to finish. I struggle coming up with lyrics which I think are honest and mirror what I’m feeling. For the most part, my songs are autobiographical — although many aren’t about me. I can also only write about something once I’ve dealt with it-once it has lost its impact in my own life.”

In the past two years, Schroeder has performed at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, the Brandon Folk Music and Art Festival, and the Pan Am Games in Winnipeg. In March she was featured with Karen Kosowki and Sarah-Lynn Otsuji on CBC Radio’s “Cultureshock” program. However, airplay of her music has been mostly limited to CBC Radio and to college stations.

“Commercial radio is a struggle,” says Schroeder. “It’s tough to get music directors to play or even look at an independent release. Q94 [Top 40 station CHIQ] in Winnipeg has played “Something Beautiful’ on its weekly “Canadian Top 10′ show.”

Raised on a farm in Horndean, Manitoba (“a collection of homes around a railway crossing”), Schroeder now lives in nearby Winkler, as does her family. When she’s not performing, she works at a group home for mentally challenged adults. One hundred and twenty kilometers southwest of Winnipeg, Winkler, a Mennonite community of 7,500 people, is known for the diversity of agriculture on the rich farm land surrounding the town. “I’m a farm girl,” says Schroeder. “I’ve driven tractors, manured the barn, and harvested.”

However, unlike the prairie region’s best-known songwriters, Joni Mitchell and Connie Kaldor, Schroeder hasn’t been inspired in her writing by her surroundings. “I find it interesting when people say that their writing has been inspired by their landscape,” she says. “I don’t understand that. I’m a late-night writer with the curtains drawn. I could be anywhere.”

Nor was Schroeder influenced by Mitchell, who has cast a giant shadow on a generation of Canadian female songwriters. “I’ve never listened to a Joni Mitchell album,” Schroeder says. “The first album I bought, at 14, was Tears For Fears’ ‘Songs From The Big Chair.’ From there, I went straight to Crowded House, U2, Midnight Oil, and Blue Rodeo. I also listened to a lot of Bruce Cockburn.”

As a teen, Schroeder dreamed about going off to Winnipeg to attend university and play in a band. Following high school, she did indeed move to Winnipeg and attained a bachelor of arts degree in social and economic development at the university there. Following graduation, she worked for five months as a social worker in Brazil.

“I grew up interested in social concerns and wanted to learn more about it,” she says. “I worked first in northern Brazil and then in Rio de Janeiro — I worked with families living under bridges. I had never been subjected to that kind of poverty. Afterwards, I came back to Canada and began looking for some direction in my life.”

Music, says Schroeder, has since provided her with a strong sense of being. “I’ve found a direction, but I’m still looking for how I want my life to play out,” she says. “The next move of my life will be to Winnipeg. That’s coming soon. I want to be part of a much bigger community of musicians. There’s nobody to play music with in Winkler.”

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