– Story by Sean McIntyre Photography by Lia Crowe
Sometimes the decisions we make on a daily basis are determined by our surroundings. Weather affects our mood, people influence our perspective and lifestyle dictates our health and wellbeing.
As much as we may be subject to the whims of our surroundings, the inspiring homesteading journey of singer-songwriter Genevieve Charbonneau is a reminder that, in the end, it’s us who ultimately hold the power to shape the people and places that surround us.
When she isn’t on tour, chauffeuring three kids to and from school or working part-time at a local winery, Genevieve is at home, writing the next chapter of her life at the Twisted Vine Homestead in the Cowichan Valley.
“We’ve built this kind of authentic, organic, unintentional community,” she says during an interview at Duncan’s lively and eclectic Coffee on the Moon.
The journey began nearly 15 years ago when Genevieve and her partner, pregnant with their first child, returned to Victoria after a nine-month van trip to Mexico had morphed into two years aboard a yacht that took them around the world. The couple knew they weren’t interested in city life but weren’t quite ready to take the plunge and go completely off-grid in the British Columbia wilderness. A short journey over the Malahat to the Cowichan Valley, it turned out, offered the perfect compromise.
Whether it was the trails of Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park, the crashing waves along Dallas Road or summers spent camping with her mom and siblings up island, Genevieve has long had an appreciation for wild spaces.
Genevieve and her partner teamed up with her sister-in-law and spouse to buy a 10-acre piece of forestland near the Kinsol River. A blog post from the homestead’s early days recounts a three-month battle to clear broom amid towering cedar and fir trees.
“When we weren’t out getting soggy with loppers in hand, we were scheming in the relative dryness of our trailers,” she writes. “As the winter gave way to spring, our first buildings began to crop up: a rustic outdoor kitchen and a woodshed.”
Genevieve’s first-born has just turned 14, and she also has an 11- and nine-year-old. The homestead is ripe with fruits and vegetables and building is pretty much done, although perpetually unfinished.
“We were all involved in the building process and that was super empowering in a way that was unexpected to me,” she says. “I always knew that I could do something like that, but to actually have done it was a really great feeling. I felt really fuelled.”
When construction of the main house was complete, a giant creative space in Genevieve’s mind opened up. Time and space that had been devoted to imagining, planning and building her home suddenly became available for other creative pursuits. That’s when, in 2014, she began to really channel into the writing process.
“We didn’t have TV or high-speed internet so we never entertained ourselves that way. Every night we’d have a campfire or, if it was cold outside, hang out inside around the fire, and we jammed a lot,” she says. “I was just sort of inspired by our life. By the community, by the friends that we had, the people who were growing food, and everyone searching for deeper meaning and trying to find connection.”
Her latest album produced from her journey at the homestead is Heart is a Tower, Genevieve’s second full-length solo album. The folk roots sound is ripe with notes bred through time spent enjoying the natural world and reflections on a life without regret.
The album began as a collection of B-sides that Genevieve played for fellow songwriter Jack Connolly. Jakc suggested re-recording the vocals in a state-of-the-art studio at nearby Shawnigan Lake School. Once that was done, they redid the guitar tracks and a new album emerged with assistance from Steve Smith, a Seattle-based, Grammy Award-winning sound engineer, who works part-time with students at Shawnigan Lake School.
“We ended up redoing the whole thing,” she says.
The result is an album rooted in folk and old-time country with bluegrass rhythms, Americana and a tinge of pop. Songs turn effortlessly from insightful love ballads to rollicking political hootenannies. As a trained actress, dancer and long-time member of the multi-award-winning Balkan Babes, Genevieve is an accomplished singer with strong stage presence.
“My songs are pretty lyric driven, and I’m really drawn to folk music because it’s really accessible and creates a platform for the lyrics to be heard. Other genres are more about the music itself,” she says. “I love the music, and I want the music to fit my lyrics and convey a message, but I’m definitely message-driven, hopefully without being preachy.”
First and foremost, however, is the sense of satisfaction and gratefulness she receives from listeners who’ve connected with her music. Receiving news from people inspired by her journey and empowered to embrace the unknown is what makes it all worthwhile, and offers welcome reassurance that she’s made the right choices along the way.
“I think the idea for any songwriter is to have someone recognize something from what you’re saying and have that resonate with them, move them emotionally or open their mind just a little bit to another possibility, or even just to make someone a little bit happier.”
Genevieve Charbonneau’s Heart is a Tower is available now. Visit her website, genevievecharbonneau.wordpress.com, for more information about the album, tour dates and some valuable homesteading tips.