Nick Ferrio: Come Hell or High Water

The local musician on finding a home and building a community

Nick Ferrio (photo by Karol Orzechowski)
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On May 13, 2017, Nick Ferrio and his partner Manon Gagnon welcomed into the world their first child: Franklin Mitewamewkwe Ferrio. It had been an unusually complicated and fraught pregnancy, full of tests and visits to Toronto specialists and uncertain diagnoses, but that all changed when Frankie was born.

“For a long time I was searching for something,” says Ferrio, “some kind of satisfaction, whether it was from taking on music advocacy roles, or putting out records and touring, but I still was never satisfied. But the thing I was missing was this person in my life. When he was born it was satisfying in a way I wasn’t expecting. It’s like a piece of yourself, and a piece of Manon, that truly needs you. It’s amazing.”

NICK_F_ECM_DONE-2179Ferrio’s own family history was challenging, torn apart by substance abuse and divorce. Ferrio, the oldest of four children, took on a father figure role in his household at a young age, and in a way, it’s a role he’s continued to play on the local music scene. He’s served as an official and unofficial advocate for music in Peterborough, while still trying to define his own identity and his musical ambitions.

Through multiple bands, multiple iterations of his own solo career, and multiple roles in Peterborough music, he has become an essential—if occasionally controversial—figure in town, speaking to the opportunities and challenges of someone trying to build a life for themselves and their families as an artist in Peterborough.

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Nick Ferrio grew up in the small town of Virginia, Ontario, outside of Sutton (“We had a gas station and a Becker’s,” he recalls). There was always music in his house, but no one played. He got his first guitar at age eight, and started learning chords on his own. Music served as a release and an escape from his home life. “I’d practice outside a lot. I used to just go down to the water and sing.”

By age eleven, he was writing songs, and soon formed a band, Wayne Regetzsky, with a friend. There were few opportunities for performance in Sutton, so Ferrio began organizing his own shows. “There was little groups of kids who were putting together bands. It’s like the kind of bands you’d see at the Spill. They were really weird, but it was kind of cool, people trying stuff.”

Things got started in earnest for Ferrio when he started dating a Peterborough girl and found out about the biggest band in town at the time, the Silver Hearts. He would take the bus into town for the Hearts’ now-legendary Wednesday night shows at the Montreal House, and soon decided to move to Peterborough and enroll at Trent.

NICK_F_ECM_DONE-2152He arrived in town almost a year early and devoted himself to integrating into the local music scene. “I just went out to everything, and I still kind of have that strategy. Eventually I was living above the Spill and I was working there, so I was seeing a lot of bands and I was listening to a very wide variety of music. Growing up in Sutton we didn’t have that. Being in Peterborough felt like the first town I was ever a part of.”

Ferrio started performing solo, eventually taking the moniker Weird Weather. “I was playing a lot of acoustic guitar. I was going back and learning a lot of early folk songs, trying to figure out what the canon was and what I could pick up from it that would make me a better songwriter.”

He joined the band Bloody Miracles with Ben Rough and then-owner of the Spill James Kent. In second-year university, he shared a house with Jonas Bonnetta, a musician who had already started building his own career with his band Evening Hymns, and who would later go on to wide critical acclaim and a Polaris nomination. “That was a pretty wild time,” recalls Ferrio. “Jonas was the new guy on the scene, the cool guy, bringing all these cool bands to town. The Constantines were sleeping over on my floor. Ohbijou played in our basement.”

Ferrio also joined the Burning Hell, the strange musical collective centred around the witty, philosophical lyrics of fellow Trent student Mathias Kom. The Hell too were gaining attention, and at the end of second year, Ferrio went on his first cross-Canada tour opening for Kom.

The tour “made no money and we camped a lot,” but soon the Hell were touring internationally. Kom was a supportive bandleader, and often gave opening spots to Ferrio or other bandmates. While the Hell remains a cult favourite in Canada, in the UK and Germany, “the Burning Hell signs autographs. It’s weird, but it’s also really encouraging. It makes you feel like you’re not crazy. Like, oh these people actually like this. I wasn’t totally wrong.”

Ferrio was soon connecting to an international network of artists who he would continue to work with throughout his career, but he was also realizing what a struggle it was for musicians, and how hard it would be to build a career. “I feel like 99% of musicians in Canada are not able to make a sustainable living doing what they’re doing.”

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Weird Weather recorded two albums, but disbanded when Ferrio went to Guelph for grad school. He returned a year later wanting to start a new band, inspired by the classic country sounds of George Jones and Hank Williams that he had grown up with in Sutton. “All those songs are really heartbreaking and evocative,” says Ferrio. “It was like reading classic poetry put to music.”

His debut album, 2012’s Introducing Nick Ferrio & His Feelings, was the result, and though Ferrio has since abandoned the rigid structures of country music, Introducing set the tone for his music to come: passionately emotional, deeply personal, and alternately fragile and defiantly rebellious.

For his next album, 2015’s Among the Coyotes and Birdsongs, Ferrio enlisted the help of many of the people he had met while touring. The Wooden Sky’s Gavin Gardiner produced the album, and it featured Bonetta, Julie Doiron, Ian Kehoe (Attack in Black), Steve Lambke (Constantines), and more.

NICK_F_ECM_DONE-2133Written in the aftermath of a difficult breakup, it was an album about the ferociousness of love, with Ferrio’s sound transitioning from country into hard-won folk-pop. “I was listening to a lot of really emotive stuff: lots of Doug Paisley records, Randy Newman, Paul Simon, classic songwriters. I was diving into their canons of work and figuring out what they had been doing.”

The recording process proved challenging, with so many guests with busy careers, and requiring lots of back-and-forth travel between Peterborough and Gardiner’s Toronto studio. It stretched from 2013 to 2015. “You can change a lot in three years,” says Ferrio. “By the time it came out, I didn’t feel as connected to the songs.”

Once again, Ferrio’s music was undergoing a transition, thanks in part to a fellow local act: the innovative and unpredictable punk trio the Lonely Parade. Ferrio and the Parade teamed up for a couple of festival shows, and clicked. “At their core, they’re a punk band, so they took everything in a different direction, and I was like, this is awesome! In a lot of ways, I wouldn’t be making the music I’m making now if I didn’t have those moments.”

By the time of Ferrio’s most recent album, 2017’s Soothsayer, he had transformed into a loud, rocking power-pop band, with Brandon Munro and Dan Jacobs backing him up. “The image of a soothsayer, I see that album as predicting my future. I think of the album as a renewal or a new beginning.”

For it, he shed the Toronto studio, recording in town with James McKenty and Jacobs. It allowed him the freedom to go back and forth on songs, to take breaks, and to record when the mood takes him. It’s a mode he’s continuing with his new record, which is nearly finished and awaiting a 2018 release.

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Ferrio’s musical explorations have come along with a wider exploration of his identity. When he was eight years old, his grandmother admitted on her deathbed that she wasn’t a Scottish girl from Toronto, as she had always claimed, but was actually born on the Peter Chapman First Nation near Melfort, Saskatchewan. She was Cree, but, like Ferrio, passed easily as white, and so when she moved to Toronto, she chose to keep her identity a secret.

In Ferrio’s tumultuous home, this fact was rarely discussed, and in the small town where he grew up, across Lake Simcoe from the home reserve of the Chippewas of the Georgina Island, it was easier to not think about. “When you grow up in a rural place with a First Nation, you see the racism really clearly, and you know that’s passed down from parents to kids. On the bus or at school, there would be kids who would say we’re going to fight the native kids tonight.”

Nick Ferrio (photo by Karol Orzechowski)But as Ferrio learned more about the history of his people, it took on new meaning. One of the reasons he chose Trent University was for its Indigenous Studies program, where he learned more about Indigenous culture and the destructive impacts of colonization.

“I realized it was something I was deeply passionate about,” says Ferrio, “and it blossomed from there. Learning about Indigenous culture and realizing I have a place in that, it’s changed my whole worldview.”

More and more, it’s also changing how Ferrio thinks about songwriting. In university, he read about the Indigenous musician, writer, and Trent professor Leanne Simpson, and he has since joined her band. “Playing and working with Leanne, I’ve learned a lot. Her work is so impressive because, no matter what she writes about, she writes through an understanding of colonization.”

He recognizes that his ability to pass for white is a privilege, one that wasn’t afforded to his classmates. “The same thing happens with deciding I’m not going to politicize my work.” Indeed, Ferrio’s music has never been explicitly political, but as his songwriting has evolved, he has spent more time engaging with the social politics of the music industry and his home city. How to integrate the politics of his burgeoning identity remains an open question. “There’s a guilt associated with that. Part of me is still processing that, as I get older and more aware of those things.”

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As Ferrio was gaining prominence as a solo musician on the local scene, new opportunities arose to contribute to Peterborough music in a different way. He started booking more shows for other bands. He applied for a position with the newly formed Music Peterborough, an organization dedicated to promoting music tourism in the city, and for an executive director job with the Peterborough Folk Festival. He got both jobs.

Nick Ferrio (photo by Karol Orzechowski)“I had written some grants for my own music and received them, so I had a bit of that skill and wanted to develop it,” says Ferrio. “And the other thing about living in Peterborough as a musician is there’s no work, so I was constantly just scraping by. The path to advocacy was, yeah I was passionate about it, but also, I needed work, and it was something in the community in the field I wanted to be in.”

Then, partway through 2013, the Folk Festival’s artistic director quit, and the board of directors asked Ferrio to take over that job as well. He finished booking bands for that year’s festival, and the next year, was suddenly responsible for the entire festival.

Ferrio presented a different version of folk than the city, or the board, had seen in years past, including more loud rock acts and big names on Canada’s indie scene. He also named the Lonely Parade—essentially a punk band—as the festival’s Emerging Artists. (This was before he played with them.)

The new direction put Ferrio in conflict with many on the festival’s board of directors, and eventually he resigned in early 2015, with a rather public open letter decrying the board’s actions. By that time, funding for Music Peterborough had dried up, and that position ended too.

“I realized after doing it for a while it was like, this isn’t exactly the field I want to be in,” says Ferrio. “It’s like being a greenskeeper when you really love golf.”

At that point, Ferrio recommitted himself “100%” to his own music. “I’ve certainly over the past couple years backed out—or not even backed out, turned around and walked out the door and lit a match and tried to get as far away as possible.”

But advocacy keeps creeping back into Ferrio’s life. Earlier this year, when the DBIA announced plans to hire security guards to patrol the downtown as ‘downtown ambassadors,’ it was Ferrio who launched a petition against the initiative, eventually landing him on CBC’s Ontario Morning opposite DBIA executive director Terry Guiel. “I guess I’m just opinionated,” says Ferrio, “and sometimes I’m a bit of a rabble rouser, so I vocalize those opinions.”

Ferrio’s years in the local public eye have made him a sometimes controversial figure in town, but has also given him a voice and power that few local musicians have. “I never thought I’d end up on CBC Radio. That wasn’t the goal. But I’m glad that happened. It caused them to panic, and that’s a good thing. I think I have a lot of influence on things that happen in the community, maybe more than I realize.”

Nick Ferrio (photo by Karol Orzechowski)It’s a responsibility that Ferrio is taking more and more seriously, as tries to build a life for his son, and as he sees the scene change around him. Last month, the venue that gave Ferrio his first shot in town, the Spill, closed its doors. “At the time you don’t think about how fortunate you are,” says Ferrio. “The reason I wanted to come here was there was a place like that where I could play music. But now we’re the older crowd that once were the younger crowd, and we need to make a point of making room for younger people and other people who don’t have space.”

The Spill was successful because of the tireless efforts of its owner, Dave Tobey, who devoted his life to nurturing young artists and slowly, intentionally growing a community around his venue. It’s a difficult life, and not a very lucrative one, and, as Ferrio has seen from his organizing work, one that doesn’t always make you very popular in town.

During my interview with Ferrio, he referred several times to Peterborough music being “on the precipice of an abyss,” still uncertain about the path back to safety, or who will pull us back. “I know that Manon and I were talking a few nights ago, and saying we either need to get out of town, or get in town. I think now is a very pivotal time for a lot of people to decide if they want to stay here and make a difference, or if it’s time to move on, and I think I’m included in that. I’m totally on the fence. I think it’s too soon. We’re still cleaning up the mess.”

 

Nick Ferrio plays at Market Hall on November 8 as part of “We Love The Spill: A Tribute To Dave Tobey” (more info), then heads out on the road with Leanne Simpson as part of the New Constellations Tour, November 23 to December 10 (more info).

 

Photos by Karol Orzechowski.

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Gabe Pollock

Gabe Pollock

Gabe Pollock is Editor-in-Chief and co-Publisher of Electric City Magazine. He is a Peterborough-born freelance writer and editor who has covered Peterborough music and culture since 2012, first on Electric City Live and now in its magaziney successor.