Photos by Scott Adamson
In the wintertime, when Lake Ontario becomes throttled by a plain of ice, a path from Kingston to Wolfe Island is carved by a lakebed bubbler system. The ferry that runs between downtown Kingston and the little island, which sits in the jaws of the St. Lawrence River, chugs dutifully between land and the winter dock at Dawson Point. It's a free service, too; no one pays to go to or from the island (you could literally just ride the ferry both ways all day). The ferry trundles through icy chunks, 55 cars at a time, serving the inhabitants of Wolfe Island and Kingston's curious crowds, linking the two. The only other institution serving these two places as reliably, integrally, and with such industrial work ethic is named Virginia Clark. And she never had anything clearing a path for her.
"It was truly an accident," she says when I asked how she started booking shows in Kingston. We're huddled around a table at The Grad Club, the endearing, eternally mid-'90s-chic pub and venue on the eastern hem of Queen's University's campus. Outside the Victorian bay window by our table, students shuffle through a mid-January morning rain. Clark manages and books the club, which is itself a massive, aging house. Events here look more like DIY house shows than organized concerts.
Known by friends and fans alike in affectionate shorthand as Virg, Clark is an endlessly inviting and generous person. Gleaming, playful eyes are framed by her long, dark brown hair. She clasps her hands and smiles a smile that's more a mantra than a collection of muscles; the warmth and kindness she exudes is seductive, overpowering, comforting. She's a strong, gregarious, benevolent presence. She attended Queen's in the '90s, when Kingston was a stomping grounds for the early tremors of what's now a thriving, perhaps even dominant alternative music industry in the country. Back then, bands like hHead and Weeping Tile gave Canadians early informal introductions to future alternative hold-steadies like Brendan Canning and Sarah Harmer. Among those Canadians was Clark, often crammed into the low-ceilinged basement bar of The Toucan in downtown Kingston.
"They'd all play at this bar 'cause it was the place to go, and I went there weekly to check out this live music, and it was just…" she pauses for a second, and I can almost see 100 toasted evenings in the dank, cramped pub flood her eyes. "A big part of my upbringing was immersed in this community of friends that were musicians. We had a really great little music scene here." Here Clark drops a hint at what's really the thesis statement for the space she's cultivated along these shores: "community of friends." Over the course of speaking with her, she'll drop the names of no less than 21 Canadian bands or artists, spanning the course of three decades. With each mention, her already-jovial demeanour becomes a mix of gushing enthusiasm and steely conviction; she really fucking means it when she says she loves them and that their music is remarkable and important. This is why she does what she does. It's driven by passion and belief and a desire to bring people together.
Imagine loving Canadian music so selflessly and wholly that you made it your livelihood to let other people know how damn good it is. That's what Clark started doing when she moved back to Kingston after a stint in Vancouver in the early 2000s, and what she's still doing today. Clark described a Kingston scene in need of resuscitation when she returned from the coast. "When I came back and started working here, it had sort of died down. I just wanted it to happen again," she explains earnestly. It was a shot to get back to those glory days of the mid-'90s. "I just started asking my friends to come play, and that's kind of how it blossomed. "My first 'dollar bill,' professional show was Steven Stanley from Lowest of the Low," Clark beams. "I had been doing shows just asking friends to come play. I guess the word had gotten out that there were things happening at the Grad Club."
Clark didn't study this stuff. She's a self-made woman; she learned the ropes on her own, trial by fire. She chuckles recalling her first interaction with a booking agent: "This agent called me, and it was like this professional deal. This professionalism started happening with it, and I was like, 'I don't know what the hell I'm doing.' Because I didn't. I didn't go to school for learning how to book bands or invite bands to come play, so I had no idea. I just sort of self-taught."
And out of that self-empowerment and drive has emerged a wildly supportive and dedicated music scene in Kingston. It's a decidedly democratic and friendly approach to music, and likely an advantage afforded to the city by its' size; it's unlikely that Torontonians or Vancouverites thank their concert promoters by name after shows (a steady chorus of 'thanks, Virg!' after a show at the Grad Club is as 'Kingston' an experience as can be had). It's an intimacy and appreciation facilitated by small communities; if Virg wasn't bringing us these shows, we might not have them. Thousands of Queen's students are in the formative years of music taste development, and Clark is handing them a never-ending mixtape of Canadian artists.
In December, when Clark hosted Half Moon Run and Plants and Animals at the Sydenham Street United Church (a sold out affair), hundreds filing in and out thanked Virg vehemently, sweatily, for putting on the show. A few weeks later, she brought A Tribe Called Red to Stages, the notorious club that people seem to want to cast as seedier and shittier than it actually is. "70 year old ladies were there, and young students," she intimates. "They all came together to come to this show, and I was really proud of that.
"That's what it is: bringing people together and appreciating music."
Clark had that mantra in mind when she started what's now a local, provincial, and even national institution: the legendary, idyllic, non-profit Wolfe Island Music Festival. Over the years, it's seen a grocery list of Canadian indie rock royalty playing to thousands in a goddamn community centre baseball diamond in August: Joel Plaskett, The Constantines, Sam Roberts Band, Hannah Georgas, July Talk, DIANA, Born Ruffians, k-os, Shad, Rheostatics, PUP, Alvvays. These are just a few of the names Clark has brought to the small community only accessible via boat. But the ball diamond (where, a week before, island families reunite to host an annual baseball tournament) is a luxurious venue compared to where the festival started: on a dock, 18 years ago.
"It started as a party on a dock," she laughs. "On a hay wagon!" DIY as fuck. Sarah Harmer, who Clark knew from her Weeping Tile days at the Toucan, agreed to perform. "We brought couches down on the docks, and had a benefactor who paid the musicians. So that's what it was, a dock party on the island."
A lot has changed since then. Clark gingerly mentions beginning to charge for the festival: "We were worried charging $10 that nobody would come." Wolfe Island Music Festival still stands as one of the most affordable items on the festival market (tickets for the 2015 iteration started at $50), as tickets for the heavyweights routinely run for at least $300. Clark sees both sides of the equation in the modern festival market. "It's very homogenized, it's very corporate," she remarks. But she shrugs and continues, "I love some of those big festivals, and for what they provide, [they're] great."
Clark's boundless belief in community and friendship are matched perhaps only by her belief in Canadian music. In the face of increasingly vertically integrated and imported culture, Canada's alternative music scene blew up on its own. Virg recalls the alternative renaissance of the early 2000s with starry-eyed romance and adoration. "People were catapulting into stardom: Broken Social Scene, Stars, Hayden. I got to witness all that," she grins. "We started off booking that alternative Canadian music. That was a really amazing, electrifying time." And when that was all going on, 'indie' wasn't a coopted badge of cultural capital.
Even though she saw the start of the glory days, Clark will tell you Canadian 'indie' never really peaked (depending on your interpretation of the wildly overused term; Clark herself scoffs at it). "I think it's still peaking," she reasons, calmly and confidently, caught between a smile and something more serious; she's happy it's still around, but it's existence isn't a purely matter of levity for her. It's a necessity. "I think we still have the magic."
She gets a little more somber: "The diversity? That's gotta continue. It's not just white guy rock." Clark tries to book a diverse and representative bill with her shows, but it's not always easy, given how overrepresented white males are in the industry. "I wish I had more [diversity], actually," she frowns, calling herself out. "Sometimes you get caught in just booking a certain type of music."
Clark didn't have any of this handed to her. No woman in the music industry does. But she is testament to the power of passion, dedication, community, and competence. "It's made me tough, taking my stand" she admits, still smiling. "I had a hard time at first doing that, but now I just stick to my guns." This is a story for all women, this is a job for all women, this is an industry for all women. Virg wants that to be known. "There are more women getting in the business, so that's exciting. There are amazing women out there that can be great mentors. Yvonne Matsell, she started with (Toronto venue) the Horseshoe. She's my mentor, because there aren't many women promoters."
She peers around the now-crowded room we're jammed in the back of, and I imagine she's making sure everyone is enjoying themselves. "There are women out there to help and support you," she reiterates. She reminds me that Vancouver's Hannah Georgas is coming to town next week: "I have a huge crush on Hannah. Music crush and person crush;" she's smiling again. It all comes down to that love and admiration, worn on her sleeve. As an incoming administration in the U.S. prepares to revoke the National Endowment for the Arts (the ramifications of which have already been starkly laid out), the need for this community has rarely been more vital. We should all take a leaf out of Virg's book.
Before I leave, a bartender is already calling Clark over to ask a question. Back to work, but not before she walks me to the door. It feels like she just hosted me in her house. I do not want to leave. Especially not into mid-January morning rain.
A few days pass, and it's Saturday, January 21 around 4:00 PM. The elation and magnitude of the intercontinental Women's March on Washington has lent a radiance and energy to the entire day. My inbox blinks as Clark sends me a couple messages; she wants to make sure she was clear. "There are a lot of amazing and strong women in the (music) business. And I only hope that gets better! We are tough cookies, but are all tremendous support to each other. And I mentioned having to actually fight. The biz does make you fight for your right but that only makes you stronger. So stick to your guns, ladies, and keep persevering. You can make things happen. :)"
Luke Ottenhof is a writer living in Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter.