By Jay Scott Kanes
STANLEY BRIDGE, PEI, Canada – Some people drive across provinces to hear Leon Gallant sing. They appreciate his stories and jokes too.
A multi-instrumentalist from Stanley Bridge, 42-year-old Leon writes and sings lively songs, usually with country, folk and east-coast influences. He pauses to spin yarns about the people and places he knows.
“It’s home-grown music,” Leon said. “The songs I’ve written relate to right here. You couldn’t get much more of a Prince Edward Island home-boy than me. I tell an odd story too. The worst of it is they’re mostly true.
“Simple things in life work best. That’s why I like simple music and good stories. The music’s hard-driving in a kitchen-party style. It gets the toes tapping a bit. We like to have fun.”
Leon thrives on the summer circuit, often doing several shows a day at Avonlea Village, Stanley Bridge Hall or Carr’s Oyster Bar. “We cram everyone in, and the more the merrier,” he said. He’s popular with tourists, but “local support’s always there too. Among people you know and familiar faces, you feel more comfortable and have more fun.
“I love all kinds of music and like to mix it up,” Leon said. His songs tell of lumberjacks, fishermen, bus drivers, hockey players and seafood lovers.
Now Snapshot and Slapshot
Were two rugged hoods,
But when they took to hockey,
Boy, were they ever good?
They could shoot the puck
Like a shotgun blast.
And throw a check
Like a big Mack truck.
Any team with any sense
Would surely sign them up….
From “Snapshot and Slapshot”, Leon Gallant, 2003
“Leon’s a real tradition, a man writing local songs,” said fellow musician Michael Pendergast.
“Mainly, I’m a singer, songwriter and guitarist,” Leon said. But he also plays mandolin, fiddle, harmonica and piano.
“It’s not easy to write a song. Something needs to inspire you. At times, I’ll have a tune in my head and try putting words to it. In other cases, I’ll have the story in mind and build around that. I always like story songs.”
Response to Leon’s music stays “very positive”. Original material dominates his solo CD, Down by the Bay (2003). “It’s a collection of Maritime party songs. There’s not a slow tune.”
Down by the bay, boy, where the great seagulls fly.
Down by the bay, boy, where the salt gets in your eye.
Down by the bay, boy, where I’m very seldom sad.
Down by the bay, boy, home of my Mom and Dad….
From “Down By the Bay”, Leon Gallant, 1996
On a second CD, Between the Jigs and the Reels (2005), Leon shares the singing and playing with Pendergast. “I still have material for another CD,” Leon said.
Between the tunes and the songs,
We’ll all get along
In a language we all can understand….
Between the jigs and the reels,
We’re going to get a feel….
It’s quite magic when music fills the air.
From “Between the Jigs and the Reels”, Leon Gallant and Michael Pendergast, 2005
“My music’s self-taught,” said Leon, who jokes: “When I first started to play, strings and splinters flew everywhere.
“I moved to Toronto when I was 18 years old. Missing home, I’d pick up the guitar, play songs from around home and entertain myself. The more I came home for summer holidays, the better I got at music. I performed at a few clubs, and it went well, so I did more. I returned every year, and the music built. With more shows, my name got out and about.”
A commercial painter by trade, Leon waves color-dabbed brushes less as he tugs on guitar strings more. Most winters, he still paints at hotels and building sites in Ontario or elsewhere. “When I need to earn extra income, away I go,” he said. “I’ve painted from Kapuskasing to Ottawa. Over the years, I’ve worked right across Canada. It’s neat -- like being on the road, but swinging a brush instead of playing the strings.”
Song lyrics enter Leon’s head as he paints. “The work’s repetitious,” he said. “Your mind wanders. I’ve lost so many great lyrics by wrongly thinking I’d remember them later.”
At many of Leon’s shows, the audience includes Thomas and Anita Gallant, his proud parents, both in their 80s. An uncle, Aubin, age 83, often strides onstage to step-dance.
On PEI, Leon’s dad commands celebrity status too. When lobster fishing in 1959, Thomas discovered a famous shipwreck -- the Marco Polo lost in 1883. “He’s been in National Geographic magazine, on TV commercials and often interviewed,” Leon said. “A big sea-storm had sucked all the sand off the wreck so he could look down and see it.”
As the youngest of seven children (four boys, three girls), Leon spent a “wonderful” childhood roaming in Stanley Bridge. “We grew up entertaining ourselves,” he said. “My father, uncles and other relatives are great storytellers. At family gatherings, the stories would start, usually leading to laughter.
“We dabbled in the entertainment business too. In the 1970s and ‘80s, my father took tourists out deep-sea fishing. As a young man, I fished with him.”
Music lurks in Leon’s genes. “My great-grandfather, my grandfather and a great aunt fiddled, my uncles played guitar and sang, and I have so many musical cousins,” he said.
Leon’s frequent collaborators include Pendergast, guitarists Chris Gauthier or Dave Wigmore, pianist John Theodore, drummer Brendan Peters, fiddler Billy MacInnis and studio man John Bulman.
Despite Leon’s creativity and charm, he isn’t married. “It’s nice to have the freedom to play music, coming and going as you please,” he said. “But never rule anything out. If I met the right lady, I’d probably be ready to settle down.”
Ultimately, “I’ll ride the music for as long as it keeps going,” he said. “Then I’ll play in my kitchen at home, even if no one else listens. We live and breathe music around here. I’d never see myself not playing.”
Those tourists who drive long distances to attend Leon’s shows love the rollicking sounds and joviality. “My father always taught me to keep things simple, honest and fun,” Leon said. “Then you can smile, no matter what, which counts for a lot.”