For a guy who admits he’s not really the outdoorsy type, Joel McConvey seems pretty at home in High Park. He even colour-coordinates. Photo by Corbin Smith/Torontoist.
On a gloomy and unseasonably chilly day in mid-May, we stand next to Joel McConvey on a hill in High Park, our eyes squinty and backs slightly hunched to minimize our exposure to the heavy drizzle. But even in less-than-ideal weather, the impact of the surrounding treetops, rocks, and plants⎯the closest we have to the great outdoors downtown⎯is not lost.
“I should really come out here more often,” he tells us, noting he’s a nearby resident and all. A surprising musing since, as one of the three creators and producers of The National Parks Project, he’s had nothing but parks on the brain for the past five years.
From conception to fruition, The National Parks Project, a 13-part miniseries documenting Canadian musicians and filmmakers in Canada’s most remote areas of wilderness, has its roots in our nation’s landscape⎯stemming from Banff and a conversation between Parks Canada and McConvey’s business partner, Ryan Noth. With a brainstorm between McConvey, Noth, and co-creator Geoff Morrison on Toronto Island, the idea to have three musicians and one filmmaker, all Canadian, create an original short film and soundtrack documenting their experiences in 13 of the country’s most majestic national parks began to bud. And inevitably, the terrain of the Bruce Peninsula, Cape Breton Highlands, and Sirmilik, among others, is where the concept really came to life. Now, culminating in a TV series, a set of short films, an online portal, and a 20-track album, The National Parks Project will finally blossom at the Royal this week, with a record-release party on Thursday (the official 100th anniversary of Parks Canada) and a short theatrical run starting on Friday. With this, after half a decade of work, McConvey’s passion project comes to a close. So do our nature analogies, we promise.
When asked how it feels, McConvey doesn’t have to search hard for an answer. “Amazing,” he half-sighs-half-chuckles. “No really, it feels really good. It’s rewarding.” Undoubtedly, it feels rewarding that years of hard work, scheduling with artists, pitching to partners, and writing grant proposals, even while he was in South Korea teaching English, is now paying off. “A labour of love,” as he calls it, and he’s proud of how it celebrates Canadian film, music, and nature⎯three fascinations shared by McConvey, Noth, and Morrison⎯on a coast-to-coast-to-coast scale. “It’s not about being finished; it’s about sharing it with people.”
Cue the collective Canadiana “awwww”s. But as heartwarming as it is, The National Parks Project is also just really, really cool. Besides getting to work with his friends and some of his favourite musicians and filmmakers, McConvey also had the chance to travel to areas so remote you either have to: a) have tons of cash to charter your own seaplane, or b) be a tree. And sometimes not even that would work, like in the Northwest Territories, where McConvey joined filmmaker Kevin McMahon at Nahanni Park, as Jace Lasek and Olga Goreas from the Besnard Lakes jammed on solar-powered electric guitars with Shad aboard a raft (who was disappointed to discover that he was not, in fact, the first black guy to travel down the South Nahanni River). On another night up north, McConvey remembers sitting in on another session at 1 a.m., the sky the colour of a peacock, noticing a dot hanging over the horizon. “That’s Venus,” he was told, as the music reached a crescendo and the northern lights started their own performance overhead. “That was one of those moments…I just went, ‘Yes! I win!’” McConvey grins.
The possibility for moments just like that made The National Parks Project a “dream job” for artists such as Jim Guthrie, who was on the inaugural artistic expedition⎯a sailing trip around the islands of Gwaii Haanas in British Columbia, alongside Sarah Harmer, Bry Webb from the Constantines, and director Scott Smith.
The choppy shores of Gwaii Haanas in B.C. would have made our stomachs flip, too.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing, though. It seems that two flights, a bumpy bus ride, and six days of sailing from island to island aren’t the most conducive conditions for artistic collaboration. “We weren’t stationary, and it was annoying that you couldn’t pull out your guitar and play…And you’re with people you don’t normally make music with, dealing with elements, without your own bed or luxuries of the city,” he says. Then, there was the seasickness. “I never actually puked, but there were times when we were really getting tossed around. And there’s nowhere you can go!”
But on the third day of the trip, he remembers, the crew found a longhouse and slept there overnight. “The one night we slept on land,” he says, “it was the first time I caught myself in the moment, and got to slow down. It was the first moment we all had just appreciated where we were.” And without discussing it, the three performers got out their guitars, banjo, keyboard, and even Guthrie’s iPad, and created the track “Longhouse.”
“It took a while to leave the city behind, but it was super stimulating in a completely different way,” he says. “It was a trip of a lifetime. It’s a cliché, but it doesn’t make it any less true, that [being outdoors] really does help you get in touch with nature and yourself.”
Now cherishing stable ground and the proximity of urban amenities, Guthrie is back in Toronto and will be playing at the album release party at the Royal, alongside other participating musicians like Bry Webb, Andrew Whiteman from Broken Social Scene, Sophie Trudeau of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and NPP‘s music director, Paul Aucoin. McConvey will also be there to bid farewell to this particular park-related project. However, even for a guy who admittedly isn’t the outdoorsy type, it likely won’t be the last, he says.
“I’ll probably be haunted by parks the rest of my life.”