Making Music in the Forest: Wildlife Sanctuary Sound, a New Recording Studio in Grey County

“After being acclimatized to the city, it’s shocking how quiet it is here.  You can hear the ringing in your ears.  It’s easier to focus when there’s less noise–literal noise, as well as noise noise.”  These are the words of Andrew Collins, half of the Wildlife Sanctuary Sound team, alongside partner Lisa Conway.  Wildlife Sanctuary Sound is a new recording studio in Grey County, Ontario, just north of Durham.  I sat down with Lisa and Andrew in the studio a few weeks ago to get to know them better.  Between the pair, there’s quite an archive of projects and experiences to discuss!

 The tinkering hands of Conway and Collins

The tinkering hands of Conway and Collins

Lisa was raised in the Bulkley Valley, a musical area, in Northern BC, and started playing violin when she was very young.  As a teen, she taught herself guitar and her dad, an elementary school music teacher, showed her the basics of digital recording.  “I was really, really excited about over-dubbing,” she tells me, “because it seemed like you had infinite possibilities, and you could play so many things on a recording that you couldn’t actually play live.  [It was] so exciting to me that I could do everything.”  Andrew grew up in Guelph, ON, and was similarly intrigued by layered recordings from a young age: “I started recording stuff as a teenager on a cassette 4-track. … I really got into making layered recordings–well, as layered as it can be on a cassette 4-track.”  He earned his Audio Engineering diploma at the Ontario Institute of Audio Recording Technology in London, ON, before continuing on to York University for an Honours BFA in Music.  It was there where he met Lisa, who had been interested in York’s music program ever since studying with fiddler Oliver Schroer, a York alumnus (and former resident of Grey County).  “He was pretty rebellious and punk rock for fiddlers, like he would wear crazy clothes and he would play fiddle tunes that were in ⅞. … He had a mohawk, and [he] was a really great mentor,” Lisa says of Schroer.

After York, the pair continued to create new experiences and art together.  Lisa did a songwriting residency in New Brunswick, where she took advantage of a beautiful, old, run-down music hall that she’d been handed the keys to.  There, with birds’ nests and water damage in the ceilings, she wrote an album’s worth of songs, based on a book of short stories, in just two and a half weeks.  She also presented a unique performance: “I did a day of one-on-one performances where I would sing one person one song, and they could choose where they wanted to be in the space.  So some people sat beside me, which was really nice actually.  I’d never performed like that before, where we could enjoy the space together.  It was really intense when people would just sit in the middle.  Probably for them too.”

 Showing off the space at Wildlife Sanctuary Studio

Showing off the space at Wildlife Sanctuary Studio

Lisa is no stranger to collaborative and mixed-media projects.  She completed an MA in Sonic Arts abroad at Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland.  As a small program, she and her eight peers became a tight-knit group.  She reminisces about how great it was to be able to collaborate on projects with people coming from all different musical, educational, and cultural backgrounds.  Now, nearly two years since her graduation, she continues to work with those friends that she met abroad on projects, from songs and albums to performance art installations and short films.  You can see the numerous projects that Lisa has been and is currently involved with at www.lisaconwaymakesthings.com .

Andrew has his fair share of performance and recording history, too.  One of the most notable is his work as guitarist/vocalist/songwriter for The Skeletones Four, a psych/garage pop band from Toronto.  You can check out their laid back tunes and new takes on 1989 video game music at www.cargocollective.com/theskeletonesfour .  Coming from Guelph, ON, he knows how artistry and creativity tends to thrive in smaller cities and towns.  He notes that, “A lot of people making music in small towns aren’t trying to ‘make it’, for lack of a better term; they’re in it for the heart and they enjoy making music together.  I think that adds a lot to the music.”

 A peek into their workshop

A peek into their workshop

The first full record that Lisa and Andrew have created together is L CON’s new album, Moon Milk, mixed at Wildlife Sanctuary Sound, and to be released on October 7, 2016.  L CON is the music of Lisa Conway, and Moon Milk is comprised of 12 tracks: the songs she originally wrote during her residency in New Brunswick.  Andrew tells me, “The vocals were...the first thing that we did after doing the studio set up in November [2015].  And the rest of it was [pieced together] all over the place.” “At [Andrew’s] grandfather’s barn [in Mono, ON], at a studio in Toronto, at a church,” Lisa explains.  She continues, “It was great. … Especially in sessions, we’d both done things by ourselves before, but we noticed that we have really similar approaches. … It [also] makes things way faster and more relaxed when it’s not one person scrambling to make everything work.”  The amount of time that they put into the album–over two years since the songs were written–is audible.  The tracks are spacious, ethereal, at times controlled and meticulous, and at other times more relaxed and free.  Backgrounds in multi-layering, experimental and avant-garde work, and electronic minimalism are made obvious, and the overall sound is calming yet driving.  L CON's Moon Milk is available to preview and pre-order at https://lcon.bandcamp.com/album/moon-milk

So what prompted the move from the city to Grey County?  Lisa and Andrew moved back to a tiny apartment in Toronto after the year in Belfast.  At a homecoming party, they realized that neither their friends, nor the city, had changed.  Everything was as they had left it.  “It was just a nice reminder that the city, even if sometimes you feel like you’re missing out on all these things, the city will still be there, and the people will still be there.  That gave us some courage,” says Lisa.  This courage prompted the pair to branch beyond their tiny apartment/makeshift recording studio, and beyond the city.  Desiring more space and a noise-friendly place to record, they ended up in Grey County, where Wildlife Sanctuary Sound was born.  On peace and quiet, Andrew comments, “The cows are across the road, but that’s the main source of noise disruption.  … But it never pierces through the walls or anything, and they won’t complain about us making music late at night either.”

 Cables by the dozen

Cables by the dozen

The studio is a space where you feel like making music.  It’s warm, comfortable, and inviting, with lots of musical toys and instruments, and high, cathedral style ceilings, not to mention state of the art recording equipment and mics.  As a recording partnership, Lisa and Andrew work with artists in a way that’s, in Lisa’s words, “as involved or as not involved as each project calls for.”  Beyond working on their own projects there, they have had several other artists use the studio since opening last winter.  Sometimes, artists come in with their own recording engineers, for which Lisa and Andrew stay out of the way whilst making themselves available for any technical difficulties.  Other times, artists like to work with the pair in a more collaborative way, as was the case with Edward F. Butler, a friend from Ireland, who travelled overseas to record at WSS.  You can hear his music at www.edwardfbutler.bandcamp.com .  Lisa says, “I think something that we really pride ourselves in is being professional, but also relaxed and approachable.  Because I’ve been in a lot of studio situations...where you don’t feel comfortable; you feel nervous and uncomfortable and like you’re being judged.  I don’t think that’s a very good way to make music.”  It’s worth the drive to Grey County to work with Lisa Conway and Andrew Collins.  There’s nothing like having space and breathing room to make noise.  And, as Lisa puts it, “I think there’s a lot of romance for people in the city to be in the forest, or be in the country, making things.”  

Curious?  Explore more about Wildlife Sanctuary Sound, Lisa Conway, and Andrew Collins at www.wildlifesanctuarysound.com .

- story by Laura Conning
- photography by Jamie Onions