Reporter’s Notebook: Woodstove Festival connects community, activism and art

I spent the weekend in Cumberland at the Woodstove Music & Arts Festival, which contrary to popular belief is not a festival where you can buy wood stoves.

The festival ran from Nov. 3 to 5 in downtown Cumberland and featured music, poetry, workshops, plays, stand up comedy and dance. As a community reporter for the Comox Valley, it was important for me to be there.

My reporting is focused on local environmental issues, and at The Discourse we understand that activism, community and art are intertwined. For me, reporting on the environment through the lens of community gathering and celebration is as important as investigating local conflicts over land and water. The festival included dozens of local performers, many of whom explicitly address environmental themes in their art.

On Saturday, I met up with my colleagues Lauren Kaljur and Jacqueline Ronson at Alley Cuts in Cumberland for a small journalism meet and greet. I was happy to see that there were a few people who showed up to chat about community journalism, and what stories need to be told.

We also had a moment to try out Tameet Food Truck, the Comox Valley’s source for delicious Eritrean and Ethiopian cuisine. (11/10!)

At noon, I met Nanaimo singer-songwriter Elise Boulanger at Laneway Coffee and Kitchen to chat about why she centers environmental activism within her music.

Boulanger’s song “It Started in the Garden” raises awareness about biodiversity loss related to climate change and other human impacts on the environment. She uses her classical music background and hauntingly beautiful voice to speak to the importance of biodiversity and inspire action to protect it.

The song explores the dangers of invasive species — specifically English ivy — and she uses the song as a platform to share information about how to remove it to make room for native species, including wild roses, in the Pacific Northwest.

“I feel like a frightened animal, is the underlying truth of it,” she said when I asked her why she chose environmentalism to talk about in her music.

Boulanger isn’t afraid to be bold and lean into dramaticism in her art, which sometimes includes waving around a giant piece of ivy on stage.

“I think it’s good to push borders and make people a little bit uncomfortable, for good reason — to make them think and feel.”

Her boldness shows through in the performance. For this one, she wore a sequin floor-length coat and sung into a microphone draped in flowers.

Boulanger told me the Woodstove Festival is special to her because it marks her band’s fourth anniversary together.

“This is the first show that we played as a band four years ago in 2019.”

Next for Boulanger is a new EP that will be released in 2024.

“I’m tapering down my performing to work more on recording,” she said.

Boulanger’s music can be found on all the main streaming services, as well as on her website.

I went to Alley Cuts to catch a set by Norbury & Finch, a duo from the Comox Valley whose friendship clearly shines through in their music. Joanna Norbury and Judy Finch have been making music together for decades, along with an insane amount of other community advocacy work, including advocacy for people with disabilities.

My favourite song was Judy Norbury’s revenge song to a teacher she had in school, who didn’t let her perform music on stage because her wheelchair “wouldn’t look good.”

“Look at me now, Mr. Bradley!” she sang.

The rest of my evening I got to catch the beginning of Sheila Vitoff’s act, a drag queen from Youbou who leans into the 1950’s housewife aesthetic to share comedy and music. I was able to meet her later and have a much-needed chat about the importance of learning from and listening to queer performers.

After that I caught the second half of a DJ set by LadyK, a Comox Valley local who is also a pole performer. I have many memories of dancing to LadyK’s sets over the years, and I felt like I was reconnecting with a past self while hearing her mixing.

Then I briefly popped into Alley Cuts again to see what was happening there, and found myself captivated by Zoubi’s voice and guitar. I was unfamiliar with Zoubi beforehand, and found myself Googling them to find out more. Turns out they are from Hornby Island, and now are living in Nelson where they are continuing to study music production and perform. I’m glad I popped into the set so I know to check to see when they are performing for when I am next in the Kootenays!

I ended the night (early morning, really!) crammed in a tiny shed with a bunch of musicians jamming to old-time and bluegrass tunes. It made up for the fact that I tragically missed the yodeling workshop earlier that day.

Madeline Dunnett, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse