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In conversation with Dean Stairs


By CAROLYN R. PARSONS Special to The Pilot LEWISPORTE — 104 Main Street in Lewisporte is the most unexpected venue to play host to world-class musical entertainers, but when I attended Ian Foster’s performance at the Citadel house on Jan. 26, as an avid music fan, I felt like a miner who has just tumbled into a gold mine must feel.  There was a good but intimate crowd, the admission was a mere $10 and, while it wasn’t a kids’ show, it was family friendly. Hot, organic free-trade coffee from the Fogo Island Coffee Company was part of the evening and sweets and other treats were served. Even better though, was that rare perfect energy for an evening of entertainment.

Dean Stairs at work in his recording studio.

Later, when Ian Foster turned all of the lights out for the final number and I looked out the large east-facing window into the starlit sky, I realized that I could have been anywhere in the world. Indeed, Mr. Foster has travelled the world, and had regaled us all evening with stories of Italy and other faraway places, their peoples’ opinions of us Newfoundlanders and his humorous responses to them. He is just one of many of the musical talents who stop by the Citadel house in Lewisporte on a regular basis. 

Why Lewisporte?

Dean Stairs, co-owner of Citadel House, is adamant that this venture of his succeeds not in spite of it being located here, but because it is located here. 

“I knew a lot of very talented musicians, being on the board of Music NL (Music Newfoundland and Labrador) and the ECMA (East Coast Music Awards) and they were playing venues in St. John’s and then driving across the island to Corner Brook with nowhere in between to play,” he said. “Then these artists would leave Newfoundland on the ferry and play across Canada and around the world and we were missing out. This location — Lewisporte — could be a lynchpin in a larger plan to bring artists to the area.”

So when an alternate venue where he had booked shows with children’s entertainer Dan Bursey fell through, Mr. Stairs and his wife Stevie decided to offer up the living room of their 7,000 plus square foot home as an alternative. 

With a 500 square foot balcony and the main floor in front of the stage, they could accommodate approximately 60 people comfortably. Then they decided to invite other artists to come by on their way to the west coast. And come they do.

“There are these musicians who get paid $5,000-$7,000 a show at times, but they come here,” Mr. Stairs explains. As an example of the caliber of talent that is willing to play Citadel House, he mentions Sherman Downey & The Silver Lining have played at the venue and then have gone on to do work with Majumder Manor, Shaun Majumder’s show on W Network.

“We have had full houses and we have had artists literally playing for the supper,” Mr. Stairs says, “but they come back. They enjoy the intimacy of the place. They enjoy being here.”

Mr. Stairs is one half of the team behind this endeavor. His wife Stevie plays a very important role as well he is quick to point out. As host of the event she is in charge of all of the publicity, social media, mailing lists, invitations, posters and works in the manufacturing part of the recording studio in the basement, helping with the design and customization of the products they develop and she is in charge of standards and quality all the while co-parenting their large, active family. 

What started out as an experiment has snowballed into a series of music events that are moving outward from the main locale in Lewisporte. The idea is to find hosts for the artists in other towns in the area. Most recently The Joey Smallwood Interpretation Centre played host to Ian Foster the evening after his Lewisporte show. He was in the area for the Citadel House show and it works for artists to have several shows while around Mr. Stairs explains. They are actively looking for hosts. One needs to simply provide a venue, a place for the artist to spend the evening and provide their meals and stir up an audience looking for a high caliber of performer in an intimate setting.  Something that is quite easy to do in an area both rich in and hungry for music.  Newfoundlanders are open to such arrangements, being the hospitable people they are and it’s sure to succeed.

“I feel like a prospector,” Mr. Stairs says. “This area is rich with the most incredible pool of talent I have ever seen in one place.”

He goes on to say that the area also is full of music lovers and supporters that might not want to drive to St. John’s or other larger centres, and might not want to spend their evenings in the bar setting. The small venue idea is something that appeals to both the musician and the audience. The goal is to find hosts and venues all over the area over time and have artists perform perhaps six shows in seven nights. 

Meanwhile the Citadel House is booked up until May 31 with a combination of local artists and traveling musicians. But Mr. Stairs is very clear that the local musicians are just as good as the ones who come from outside the area. There is a tendency for musicians of the province to believe they have to leave the Island to be successful.  That the ones who stay aren’t as good but often it’s just that they decide to stay. Mr. Stairs believes that providing small, intimate venues for tours through the province will change that and keep the musicians unwilling to leave employed in the music industry and in addition bring people to see those musicians from other places.

He also understands all too well the tribulations of being a musician and artist. He learned to play the ukele in 1969 and the guitar in 1976, then went on to eventually become a member of a very successful band that toured western Canada for six years.

When that eventually broke up, “I joined the Army,” he says. But his music career was far from over and that decision led to the other part of the Citadel House project, his cutting edge recording studio located beneath the music venue and house.

An accident in the Army branch of the Canadian Armed Forces forced Mr. Stairs into doing technical training and becoming a liaison to the United States Navy — it was a fortuitous beginning of a new life’s work. His experience with communication technology was easily transferable into his new life’s work as a music engineer who was, on the day I sat with him for a chat, nominated for an ECMA Industry award in the category of Studio Engineer of the Year. 

“I was working with sound waves and long range communications and audio transmission in the military,” he said. “That’s still what I am doing here but with music.” 

Cutting edge

When I arrived one of the older children led me downstairs through a maze of catacomb-like tunnels that opened up into a state of the art, cutting edge studio where Mr. Stairs provides artists around the world with what he describes as a “boutique manufacturing” service, customizing and producing small runs of CD’s that the larger studio’s cannot or will not provide.

He starts our meeting with a tour of the rooms where the artists record. There are three in total, with very specific purposes. The triangular shaped one “has no character to add to the recording” which makes for a very pure sound. The other rooms do add different sounds that would accentuate and add to the recording according to what the artist and the engineer, Mr. Stairs decide upon for the recording.

Then we look at his equipment. A board on a wall with switches, a computer to the right of the desk on the floor and several monitors that serve as the mixing board for the entire operation as opposed to the walls and rooms of equipment that were required for recording in the past.

Obviously a technology buff, Mr. Stairs says, “In the past recording/studio time and equipment was rented. Now expertise is purchased instead. This change is a bit difficult for the industry to adapt to, but with the Internet and the worldwide access to the musicians and vocalists needed, a top notch, world class recording can be made right here in Lewisporte.

The most exciting thing these days is that he is expecting some equipment that isn’t even available yet from Waves Audio in Belgium. It is in the experimental stage and Mr. Stairs is testing it for the company. 

Using the Internet and highly specialized audio equipment, Mr. Stairs has set himself up as a highly desirable expert and as such has tapped into and created relationships with other musicians and music engineers around the globe.

“In the past seven days for example,“he says, “I have worked on some mastering with a guy who works on Broadway. I have done some tracking with Terry Penney here in Lewisporte, acquiring some tracks from St. John’s and Nashville. When I need a musician with a specialized instruments such as a mandolin or Dobro, I can call a guy from France or New York or in the South to get the sound I’m looking for. ” He adds that Joe Wiseman on the west coast needed some back up vocals and Mr. Stairs himself sang and recorded them and sent them off to him.

And always within the technical part of it he comes back to the creative and artistic part of recording a song or an album. He may have two mandolin players from different areas and the one from France will have a more European sound while perhaps the musician from the Southern United States. 

“That’s where I will sit with the artist and decide which sound they would like for their project,” Mr. Stairs explains. The collaboration is ideally 80-20 per cent with 80 to the engineer. That is where his expertise comes in and his ability to be somewhat diplomatic. 

“However long it takes the musician to master an instrument, that’s how long it takes to master becoming a great engineer. It frees the artist up to do his art and to not have to worry about those details.”

Mr. Stairs has a vision without a ceiling. He talks of video recording performances, Disney working with Dan Bursey and his children’s music, film scoring and most of all working to refine and perfect the recordings of Newfoundland musicians and providing them the means to make a living creating their art within the province by continuing to offer the Citadel House shows here in Lewisporte and adding venues as he attracts hosts.

Of his ECMA Industry award nomination Mr. Stairs says, “I have always considered it a privilege to be a member of the ECMA's. Its a great honour to be nominated by such a prestigious organization.”   

Upcoming

Bring your sweetheart to the Citadel House on Valentine’s Day for a special performance by Terry Penney.

Other upcoming performances in the series are as follows. (All are at 7:30, admission at the door and children are welcome and admitted for free.) On Feb. 22 Rozalind MacPhail, classically trained flutist and multi instrumental looping artist (Looping workshop at 6:30 before the show; March 15, Dan Bursey, Children’s Performer and singer/songwriter stops by; March 29 Christian Artist Irene Bridger sings and entertains;  April 12 brings Dave Thomson singer/songwriter from Lewisporte to the stage; April 26 is an open mic night for all musicians and music lovers alike;  May 3 Lewisporte’s own Terry Penney entertains with his image-driven songs;  May 17 singer/songwriter Kent Hamilton from Corner Brook performs and on May 31 Lewisporte’s own brilliant pianist Andrew Gale entertains. 

carolynrparsons@gmail.com 

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