Guitar virtuoso Don Ross didn't have to look far to find inspiration for his latest album, Water. It was right outside his home. When he wrote the songs, Ross was living in tiny Seabright, Nova Scotia, just minutes north of famous Peggy's Cove. Of course, the ocean spoke to him.
"It's been a theme throughout a lot of my life," says Ross, "having grown up on an island in the middle of the river in Montreal, and now for the last many years living in the Maritimes and always being right by the water. And then coming out the other side of the pandemic, it felt like resurfacing, an allegory for the whole thing."
Ross has since moved and now resides in P.E.I., where his spouse, musician Brooke Miller, is from. But the time in Seabright was crucial to the current state of his career. For much of the pandemic, he was pursuing an M.A. in orchestration online from the University of Chichester in England, quite a departure for someone recognized as one the world's great solo guitar players. Having not made an album for six years, he wanted to incorporate this new interest into this work.
"I kinda wanted to make a big, sweeping gesture with this record," says Ross. "I decided that I wasn't going to worry about guitar pyrotechnics or anything like that, I just wanted to make an album that really reflected who I was musically at this point in my life. I've been studying orchestration, so I did one piece with a full orchestra, a real 70-piece orchestra, there's a couple of other pieces with a string quintet (P.E.I.'s Atlantic String Machine), and then there's another piece with sampled orchestration, but it sounds like a real orchestra."
Ross's new skills have led him into new fields, including composing for the film and video game industries, scoring documentaries, and even a series of silent movies. As heard on the new album, more than just adding strings to guitar pieces.
"One thing does feed the other. I've always thought orchestrally as a guitarist anyway. I'm not really about the guitar, I'm not a guitar head, I don't collect guitars, and I don't listen to much guitar. I started playing guitar as a kid, and I realized it had all these properties to it, it was capable of playing melodies, harmonies, and inner voices. I wanted to approach it almost like you would a piano or an orchestra. So I've always been keen about being conscious about what I was writing, so you could almost take the piece off the guitar, and play it on the piano. It's not just guitar music for the sake of being a guitar player, I've never found that very interesting anyway. When the guitar is used in a really effective compositional, musical way, then I get turned on."
Forced off the road by the pandemic, and without an album for six years, Ross found his fans hadn't moved on. A Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the new recording met its goal in just 28 hours, and he eventually doubled the initial amount sought. That let him travel, hire the orchestra, and even bring one of his early heroes in for a session. Bruce Cockburn sings the lead vocals on his own composition, "Stained Glass," from his 1974 album Salt, Sun And Time.
"I used to play the album almost every night for about a year, as I was falling asleep," says Ross. "There was just something about that song, I would hear it as I was drifting off, I'd think to myself, what a beautiful song. I learned it from the record but never did anything with it, never performed it or anything. Then about six years ago, Bruce and I were at the same music festival in Alberta. I saw we were going to be sharing the same workshop stage, and I got in touch with him and said, 'Dude, can you do a bucket list favour for me, can we do a song together?' We bandied a few about, and I said, 'What about "Stained Glass," that's probably my favourite song of yours?' And he said, 'Oh my gosh, I pull that one out every once in a while, let's do that one,' and it worked out well."
Ross is back on the road, and about to bring the Water album home to the East Coast for shows. He's also bringing another guitar player he admires, Pipo Romero, who Ross first heard online, and subsequently worked with in Spain.
"He's from the south of Spain, the heart of Flamenco country," says Ross. "He's terrific, people go nuts when they hear him. He's a cool young guy, he's so Spanish it hurts."
You can see Don Ross with Pipo Romero at the following:
May 18 The Guild, Charlottetown
May 19 Charlotte St. Arts Centre, Fredericton
May 20 The Fiddling Fisherman, Souris, PEI
May 21 The Carleton, Halifax