People, Our Creativity

We Get By: An Interview with Rob McLaren

Curated by Lauren Chang
Storyteller: Rob McLaren
November 14, 2021

Based in Smith Falls in Eastern Ontario, Rob McLaren is a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and music teacher whose music occupies “a cozy nook between old-time, honky-tonk, and newgrass.” Rob and I met over Zoom to talk music, small towns, and how we all get by nowadays.


Rob McLaren playing guitar

LAUREN: How did you get into music?


ROB: I was raised in a pretty musical family, my siblings and I all played instruments. And I decided I wanted to study music. I really started out playing classical violin and learning symphonic wind instruments. And then I got into electric guitar and progressed through blues and rock to jazz. And it wasn't until I was in my 20s that I became really immersed in the folk and bluegrass and country scene, mostly in Toronto, where I attended Humber College for music. And that's where I spent a good 10 years meeting all of my musical friends and collaborators before we decided to move out to Smiths Falls.


LAUREN: Where were you born?


ROB: Alberta. I was born in Red Deer.


LAUREN: So you were born in Alberta, but you didn’t get into country music until coming to Toronto?


ROB: At the time, I think because I was in Alberta, and I considered myself kind of a countercultural type of kid, I didn't like country music. You know, I thought it was too mainstream. And it took until I moved to Toronto to start appreciating it.


LAUREN: That’s such a roundabout way of getting to country music.


ROB: Yeah, I started playing the banjo. And I got really into bluegrass. I think bluegrass is kind of the gateway music towards country because, especially as a jazz kid, there's a lot of technical virtuosity and soloing and improvising. It's like bluegrass is like the jazz music of country music. So, I kind of got into country music through that. Toronto is such a multicultural and diverse city that anything that you get into there has a large scene. My wife is a fiddle player. And we were involved in this Appalachian, Kentucky, and West Virginia old time fiddle community. There are also big communities that love different traditional fiddle styles from Ireland and Scotland. Whatever niche thing you get into, you can find people that are out there that are willing to get into it with you. So that's kind of what happened with me.


LAUREN: Fascinating. In our emails, you talked about this idea of rural escapism that is very popular among folk musicians.


ROB: I don't know if it's been studied at all, but a lot of folk musicians have this dream of escaping the city. Especially if they weren't born in the city. I think when you're living in Toronto, in my experience, it's a beautiful city, there's lots of communities, but the rent is very high and everyone has to hustle quite a bit and it's a very busy lifestyle. I think that people who want to sit and write songs have this fantasy of ‘if I could just get out and be surrounded by nature and have a really calm way of life then I wouldn't worry so much, just sit and write songs all day.’ And I think part of that goes back to The Band when they moved to Woodstock after touring with Bob Dylan and they recorded their first album, Music from Big Pink. I think it started this fantasy of going and living in the woods and making music every day and creating this great art. You can trace a through line from The Band and Robbie Robertson through to Bon Iver, you know, he recorded one of his albums all by himself in a cabin in total isolation. There's definitely a creative fantasy about getting into nature and finding your creative voice. But also, I think that when you live in the city for a while, you get to the point where you need to get out of it, you need to have a change of scenery. All my friends in Toronto would have these fantasies about getting out of the city and like living on a farm and growing vegetables and stuff. But of course, none of us have the skills necessary to do that.


LAUREN: You recently moved to Smiths Falls, so you’re living the dream!

ROB: The funny thing is [all the members of the Barrel Boys, a 5-piece string band that Rob plays in] actually embodied the concept because all five of us met in Toronto, we started our band in Toronto, and that's where we cut our teeth and played all of our gigs. And then one by one, we all moved away. Three of us are in Smiths Falls now, which is hilarious. And one of us is in Hamilton, and one of us is in Fergus.


LAUREN: So what is the reality like, now that you’ve actually escaped the city?


ROB: It's definitely a quieter pace of life. Of course, I'm not having the fantasy of creative isolation because we have kids now. So, my life is a lot more beholden to the schedule of having small children. But I would say it's definitely slowed. It’s allowed us to be more content and not be hustling all the time. We obviously miss our community and our friends in Toronto, but until COVID happened it was still very easy to just go and visit them. I found that in the city, like you would go a year without seeing friends of yours, because everybody was just so busy all the time. And here, we're just not very busy. We have lots more time to reflect and have family time. That was one of the good things about COVID, ironically, was that we really got to spend a lot of time just with immediate family. I'm definitely embodying some of those fantasies. I have a garden now, and I'm doing very poorly at it. But it's something that I enjoy failing at, you know, it's just another thing that I can put some energy into and try to see those results come through and not have a lot of pressure on it, I suppose. And yeah, we've still been pretty creative. I've done a lot of writing and a little bit of recording; you have to be a little bit more self sufficient, because you don't have as many people that you can, that you can bounce ideas off of. You kind of have to do everything by yourself. But I would say it's kind of lived up to the expectation.


LAUREN: Your song I Get By, the Barrel Boys version, is about the realities of living in the city, but the version on your new album Rob McLaren II is the same song but from a different perspective. What inspired this version?


ROB: My solo album is called Rob McLaren II because it was the second release that I had done, but also all the men in my family have been named Rob. And I'm Rob the fifth. My great-grandfather, who owned the farm, was Rob the second. The picture on the front of my album is of my great grandfather and me as a baby. I was really interested in preserving the memories associated with the experiences of what being on the farm was like, so I interviewed my grandfather, and I sat down and recorded an interview with him just asking him about his experiences of growing up on the farm, and how they made their living and what their days were like and what they did. And I took some of those stories and I've turned that into the last track on my album, which is called I Get By reprise. It's the same song as I Get By on the Barrel Boys album, but the Barrel Boys version is about me being a musician in the city and kind of what my days are like. And the version on my album is a different arrangement, but the same melody and the lyrics are all about what my grandfather's life was like and what his days were like growing up on the farm. There’s some details in there about when they had to re-shingle the roof of the barn, and it was the war time, so you couldn't get nails because everything was rationed. It was a mixed farm, he told me about how they kept sheep and cows and horses and a garden. And they basically didn't need money at all. They just grew everything, or they traded for it with other people. I thought that was a cool detail. I really thought it was cool to listen to him talk about all the differences that happened in just two generations, it wasn’t a long time between when he was growing up and when I was growing up and things have changed so drastically between those two generations.


LAUREN: I suppose at the end of the day, we’re all just getting by, wherever we are.



I Get By - Barrel Boys version



CHORUS:

I’m not perfect, but I try

It’s not easy, but I get by

I never learned a single thing that wasn’t on the fly

And it helps me to get by

You gotta hustle in the city just to stay alive

We got by

Raccoons tipped my garbage bin, the rent is too damn high

But I get by

A friend of mine smiles at the lady at the till

We get by

He usually gets a number and he always gets a deal

We get by

[CHORUS]

Sunny Sunday morning, catching up with friends

We get by

Go and flip the record, tell me how long has it been?

We get by

You know, we should get together sometime and pick some tunes

We get by

We’ve been saying that for years, but we never do

We get by

[CHORUS]

Everybody loves to hear that old time sound

We get by

Youtube views are up, but album sales are down

Spotify

[CHORUS]



I Get By (Reprise) - Rob McLaren version


CHORUS:

I’m not perfect, but I try

It’s not easy, but I get by

I never learned a single thing that wasn’t on the fly

And it helps me to get by

Sell the pigs to make the farm payment every year

We got by

Sell the cream for groceries, for taxes sell the steers

We got by

We had thirty sheep, but the coyotes took a share

We got by

But a coyote pelt is fifteen dollars if you get him snared

We got by

[CHORUS]

You couldn’t get new nails, it was just after the war

We got by

Said won’t you let me know if you get some at your store

We got by

New nails and cedar shingles, a barn roof built to last

We got by

They were still shedding water when fifty years had passed

We got by

[CHORUS]

We built a little icehouse, a place to store the meat

We got by

On Sundays we made ice cream, and that was the big treat

We got by

Frost was on the cupboards when the winter nights got cold

We got by

So grab your clothes, run downstairs, and get dressed by the stove

And we’ll get by

[CHORUS]

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