At Home with Juno-nominated band, The Once

by Lyndsay Thornton

On March 11th, I was lucky enough to chat with Geraldine Hollet and Phil Churchill of the Newfoundland band, The Once, who will be coming to Kelowna on March 28th.
The two singer songwriters (with the exception of third band mate, Andrew Dale) got together at Phil’s family home in St. John’s for a Skype date. We talked about the ins and outs of their sound and it’s echo of international success; this year’s record, Row Upon Row of the People They Know, is nominated for a Juno at the upcoming awards on April 1st.

Since releasing their 2009 self-titled debut album, the members of The Once have been riding a quickly swelling Newfoundland tide. “We keep expecting it to stop,” says Phil, “but it doesn’t. It just keeps going.” The debut album has won an astonishing eight awards to date, including two Canadian Folk Music Awards, four Music Newfoundland and Labrador awards, an East Coast Music Award, and a Galaxie Rising Star. And on Feb 7th, the band members got a call telling them that they have been nominated for a Juno for Roots & Traditional Album of the Year. This may have come as a surprise to The Once, but to their many fans around the globe, this young band has already proven to be a rising star in the glowing Canadian indie scene.

It was only a few years ago that the Once was playing the Lunenburg Folk Harbour festival in Nova Scotia, their first time out of Newfoundland, when they found themselves in the midst of a demanding crowd. “People were upset with us, because they liked the music and we didn’t have an album,” says Geraldine. At the time, The Once had only an EP to their name, recorded by a friend “who,” says Phil, “we basically paid in Tim Hortons.” Always a comedian, Phil was joking on the Lunenburg stage when he said, “Well if anyone actually wants to pay for us to make an album, we’ll do one!” To their astonishment, The Once learned that a gentleman in the crowd indeed wanted to fund them to record an album. “It’s just been steady since then,” says Geraldine, who explains that after the debut album was out for a year, the Borealis label caught wind of it, promptly signed The Once, and released the album nationally. The band has gone on to tour extensively in Canada and America, as well as play overseas in Europe and Australia.



All three members of the band were born and raised in small Newfoundland towns. Their roots in the traditional music of Newfoundland has unconsciously surfaced in their set lists. “It was mostly the music our parents listened to,” says Geraldine, “but a lot of it seeped into my bones somehow. The same way that pop music does, simply because you hear it around all the time, on the radio etc.” For Phil, it’s not something that can be pinpointed, “It’s like how do you know ‘Hound Dog’ by Elvis Presley? You just do.” As a child, Phil learned the island songs of legendary Newfoundland folk singer, Ron Hynes, just like his peers: unaware that the songs were intrinsic to a specific Newfoundland culture.


Although the members of The Once are steeped in this musical history, they’ve arranged traditional songs in a contemporary fashion, with a unique and beautiful subtlety. It’s not just sea shanties and folk tales that they draw their inspiration from either. On Row Upon Row of the People They Know, they’ve included a “folked-up” version of Queen’s “You’re my Best Friend,” contrasted with an un-cooked, gutsy recording of the 17th century ballad “My Husband’s Got No Courage”.  “I think part of the reason why the stuff we cover has become so weirdly eclectic and broad,” says Phil, “is that we are always preparing for writing our own music. We’ve each been writing our own songs for a long time, but I think we’ve been a little frightened to put our material out there before now. It makes it easy to write whatever you want when your first record’s range of songs is so broad.” Almost everything for Row Upon Row of the People They Know is recorded live off the floor, with acoustic instruments.


“Oh my god,” says Geraldine, “you should have seen us recording this album. The pressure!”  Most of this album was cut in only five days, to the point where “there were 2 songs left to record, it was Thursday morning, we hadn’t finished these things and we had no idea how we were going to, and we were leaving Saturday to go out on a tour of the country!” Through the intensity of this experience, the members of The Once learned that they work very well under pressure. “It’s different than writing a paper in college,” defends Phil, “Any more time, any less pressure, would not necessarily have made a better record. You can keep knit-picking, you can start second guessing yourself, but this was kind of like, ‘It’s done? Yep. Should we lay on some piano? Nope. No time. Doesn’t need it. Next song.’ You look back after and go, piano would have ruined that!” The Once’s music in the studio is something that keeps growing and changing, just like the way they record things live.

The enormous success of Row Upon Row of the People They Know, with its emphasis on original material, proves that The Once have secured a place, not only in the Newfoundland folk repertoire, but also within the Canadian musical continuum.


The trio will be shaking up their sound live at shows across Canada this month, hitting Nelson on March 26, Kelowna on March 28, and Vancouver on March 29.  For more information, or to download their album, visit


Watch their music video “You’re My Best Friend”

One Response to “At Home with Juno-nominated band, The Once”
Check out what others are saying...

Leave A Comment