It’s a question they get asked a lot, but for singer-songwriting musicians Matt McKenna and James Bloemendal, aka Ash & Bloom, it never gets old. It’s elemental to where and who they are today.
So how did the two young musicians meet?
The answer takes them back to steel town, Hamilton, Ont. to be more specific, where McKenna, who grew up just south of the southern Ontario city, and Brampton native Bloemendal were both members of the baritone section in a choir, singing classical music.
They started performing in a number of bands, and seven years after meeting, decided to form as a duo, hence Ash & Bloom.
Another oft-asked question for the guys is where they came up with their name.
McKenna is happy to oblige.
Although it evokes some phoenix rising imagery, the name Ash and Bloom actually describes the two men’s unique and diverse personalities.
“Bloom is James, and Ash is me… What I love about it is that you can put your own interpretation to it,” said McKenna, while on a stopover in Salmon Arm. (Both men are familiar to these parts as they performed in the Okanagan on another tour last year.)
“We are also opposite personalities. Ash and Bloom represents each of us in a cool way. I also like the images themselves, and each of the words Ash and Bloom also feature letters in each of our names.”
Now on a rise, with a new LP of their original music (Let The Storm Come), Ash & Bloom are currently on a cross country tour that brings them to Vernon’s Bean to Cup coffee house Thursday for a show in support of the Vernon Women’s Transition House Society.
“We’ve come a long way from singing classical and choral music to more folky stuff,” said McKenna. “It was an aesthetic choice to do a duo, but the reality of touring and being on the road, it was more feasible to go on the road with just two of us than a full band.”
They make up for lack of band members by rounding out their sound with percussion. McKenna plays a kick drum while Bloemendal plays tambourine.
“We’re more than just two guys with guitars,” said McKenna.
That blend of voice, instrument, and persona has worked well for the duo on their debut album, which has been receiving good reviews since it was released in June.
Let the Storm Come did not come quickly.
After their previous bands had hit the end of their cycle, McKenna and Bloemendal decided to go into hiding and share something new with the world.
“We were radio silent for three years and wrote about 400 songs,” said McKenna. “With the first 50 songs, we felt they were precious and needed to be preserved, but after we whittled them down, we had to become ruthless. James and I had two producers with us to choose the final list. Each person in the group had to agree on the song. It had to have that magic.”
McKenna is referring to Marc Rogers, who has worked with Nelly Furtado, The Philosopher Kings, and Sarah Harmer, and Karen Kosowski, who produced the 12 original songs, including co-writes with a collection of Canada’s finest songwriters – Peter Katz, Caroline Brooks (Good Lovelies), Julie Crochietere and Rob Szabo.
“As a younger musician, it’s thought that you shouldn’t let other people pollute the process, but these are people we admire. The process was that the music doesn’t have to be just for yourself… We want the music to also be accessible to our listeners,” said McKenna.
“Now that we have it behind us, it is so nice. It’s difficult to know when you’re choosing the songs that it’s always the right thing to do, but to have it pay off is nice.”
In full touring mode since the end of May, Ash & Bloom have played just about every kind of venue, from festivals and churches, to wine bars and cafés across Canada and they are getting ready for a fall tour in Australia. They also just performed one their biggest houses to date at the Canadian National Exhibition (known to Torontonians as the EX), opening for Christopher Cross, of Sailing fame.
“We flew in from our tour in Saskatchewan to do the show,” said McKenna. “Christopher Cross is so effortless when he sings. Personally, for someone who puts in a lot of effort when I’m at the top of my voice, to see him do it so effortlessly was incredible to witness.”
Going from the EX to a little coffee house is not a let down, but a way for Ash & Bloom to connect with their audience.
“We end up playing a different kind of show each time going from little coffee houses to arenas. Each of us played coffee houses and open mics growing up. We love the intimate environment of 40 people in a room, being able to hear our voices as they are,” said McKenna. “There are so many elements we love about our intimate shows. We get the audience to sing along with us. Just us and 40 people, it’s special.”
Ash & Bloom are at the Bean to Cup, 3903 27th St., Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15, with proceeds going to Vernon Women’s Transitions House Society. Call 250-542-1122 for tickets or get them at the door.