A horn player recently told me about how jazz colleagues are somewhat rusty from not having the gigs or the opportunity to jam during the forced isolation of the pandemic.

Folk rocker, singer songwriter, guitar player and Crown Point resident Laura Keating had a different experience during the past two-years.

A portrait of Laura Keating.
This photo and feature photo by Gord Moss.

“I turned to new ways of promoting my music. Hence, the radio play on folk shows in Canada, US, Italy and the UK. I also wrote songs, rehearsed outdoors with my drummer, did a couple online concerts and did online videos. I tried to stay productive. It was a time where you could get depressed if you let it.”

Keating is debuting on June 9 in Dundas at the Shawn & Ed Brewing Co on 65 Hatt Street. She and her drummer Gord Moss are performing live shows in bars and music venues across southern Ontario in the upcoming months.

On stage she passionately lays bare her emotions and anxieties in a series of catchy and well-crafted songs where not a word is out of place.

In Mercy Me, for instance, on her first album (Let Me Tell You) Keating reveals her dissatisfaction for the trappings of middle-class life (“Nice car, Nice clothes, you think that I would appreciate those,” she sings). It seems to have made her a sinner as a Christian and there is no way to resolve that, she sighs. Incidentally, this song Mercy Me has received finalist status in the blues and roots radio international song contest in January 2022.

Another song from the same album, Blue Water, is a tribute to the city of her birth, Hamilton and its view of the harbour and Lake Ontario from on high. “They call it a mountain here. But its really a great big hill. That’s okay. I love it still,” she sings.

A reticence to reveal too much about herself pervades the music.

“That is what I love about music. I can have a personal meaning behind that song and sometimes I don’t want to talk about it. Just listen and take what you will,” she explains in a recent interview.

I asked what comes first, the words or the music.

“Usually, I have a lyric in mind first,” she replies. “A phrase tied to a riff and then it goes from there. If I stumble in the process, it is usually because I haven’t clearly defined in my mind the message I want to convey. Once I do that, it usually comes together fairly quickly.”

Let Me Tell You came out in 2017. She will not say when a second album might appear. But there are about 100 songs in her repertoire to choose from.

Keating grew up in a family where her brothers were playing music and two of whom were already doing it on a professional basis. She herself started writing songs at the age of 15 and learned piano. The young woman decided not to make this a full-time career which would have meant eking out a marginal living on paid singing gigs in bars intermixed with waiting tables or other lower paying jobs. “There was a lot of instability as a full-time (music) thing,” she says.

This is in contrast to the experiences of younger artists in the late 60s and early 70s when music labels were snapping up promising new talent. By the time Keating came of age decades later those possibilities no longer existed.

Keating studied radio broadcasting followed by a career in writing ad copy on air and in print. She later became a stay-at-home mom raising four boys. But the interest in music never really left. At one point she began teaching piano privately to children in her home.

In 2011, Keating embarked upon a period of intense songwriting which she says has continued. One year later, she was busking on Hamilton streets. “I was a bird that got let out of the cage,” she says.

I am trying to imagine what belting out songs in the open air with a cup on the pavement for change must have been like since Hamiltonians are generally fixated on traveling to their destinations in the comfort of their cars. Walking on the sidewalk almost seems taboo here.

Keating maintains that she made money from onlookers. It was “rehearsing in public.” But she resists disclosing the location of her street corner performances, preferring to keep it a bit of a mystery.

“Performing in public was nerve wracking but it wasn’t scary. And yeah, sometimes it didn’t go well. I learned every time I went out.”

The busking lasted about a year and a half. Around the same time Keating also did the evening open mike at the legendary Homegrown Hamilton on King William Street. It has since closed. At its height the outlet had a reputation for grittiness, and she always felt comfortable there.

“I remember going to Homegrown by myself after telling my husband to say home…It was well run and everybody there was non-judgmental,” says Keating.

She can remember distinctively her first paying gig in a bar. A woman whom Keating had never met was listening intensely to her one day and then made an offer out of the blue. “I want you to play in my bar tonight.”

It turned out Keating was speaking to the proprietor of a little bar on the Mountain.

The two dickered over the price for a performance. “I wanted $50, she wanted $25 and we agreed on $30. This was back in 2013,” recalls Keating.

During the negotiations Keating stressed she only performed original music and the bar owner was fine with that, saying “Yeah, I love your stuff.”

However, upon arriving in the bar for the gig, the husband of the bar owner had other ideas. He requested Keating sing and play covers of songs familiar to the drinking customers.

Keating stood her ground and said no. “I said the reason I am (at this bar) is because I do this (i.e., perform her own material) and that is the only reason I am doing music because I write it.”

The husband backed off and Keating did the performance on the terms as negotiated originally.

Looking back on that experience she says interpreting other people’s songs is a separate skill and not something that particularly interests her.

Fortunately for the Hamilton singer there are sufficient bars on the circuit in the province that let do her own thing.

Clearly, the music performances represent a personal investment in terms of money and time for someone doing gigs in mid-life.

A past career in marketing has come in handy in teaching the value of promotion and the effective use of social media and an online presence.

Keating is not desperate to accept every gig coming her way in a competitive business.

“I am in a sweet spot. I am not 25 where I have to do five gigs a week to pay the rent. I am enjoying it and I am working as hard as I can with the time that I have.”