New Shelburne folk trio Ona Canoa uses friendship as musical foundation

  • Ona Canoa members, from left, Eliza Hollister on flute, Chelsie Field on baritone ukulele and Tess Burdick on guitar. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Ona Canoa members in Shelburne, from left, Chelsie Field on baritone ukulele, Tess Burdick on guitar and Elize Hollister on flute. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Vocal trio Ona Canoa performs for a packed house in January at The Root Cellar in Greenfield. From left, Eliza Hollister on flute, Tess Burdick on guitar and Chelsie Field on baritone ukulele. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Vocal trio Ona Canoa performs for a packed house in January at The Root Cellar in Greenfield. From left, Eliza Hollister on flute, Tess Burdick on guitar and Chelsie Field on baritone ukulele. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Vocal trio Ona Canoa performs for a packed house in January at The Root Cellar in Greenfield. From left, Eliza Hollister on flute, Tess Burdick on guitar and Chelsie Field on baritone ukulele. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Vocal trio Ona Canoa performs for a packed house in January at The Root Cellar in Greenfield. From left, Eliza Hollister on flute, Tess Burdick on guitar and Chelsie Field on baritone ukulele. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Ona Canoa vocalist and guitarist Tess Burdick, 22. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Ona Canoa vocalist and flute player Eliza Hollister, 26. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Ona Canoa vocalist and baritone ukulele player Chelsie Field, 26. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Ona Canoa members rehearse in Shelburne, from right, Chelsie Field on baritone ukulele, Tess Burdick on guitar and Eliza Hollister on flute. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Ona Canoa members rehearse in Shelburne, from right, Eliza Hollister on flute, Chelsie Field on baritone ukulele and Tess Burdick on guitar. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Ona Canoa members in Shelburne, from left, Chelsie Field on baritone ukulele, Tess Burdick on guitar and Eliza Hollister on flute. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Vocal trio Ona Canoa performs for a packed house in January at The Root Cellar in Greenfield. From left, Eliza Hollister on flute, Tess Burdick on guitar and Chelsie Field on baritone ukulele. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Vocal trio Ona Canoa performs for a packed house in January at The Root Cellar in Greenfield. From left, Eliza Hollister on flute, Tess Burdick on guitar and Chelsie Field on baritone ukulele. Staff Photo/Dan Little

Staff Writer
Published: 3/6/2019 5:08:47 PM

It was a beautiful summer evening in Shelburne, and three locals walked down the hilly landscape near Frank Williams Road to a small pond with a canoe at the water’s edge. The canoe was always there, unattended, and the three women got in and paddled out onto the water.

They had been friends since high school, and all three were naturally musical with similar interests in songwriting and the arts. Still, it was spontaneous when they started singing together, each hearing the power in their three-part harmony.

It was natural, and felt meant-to-be, as the three women of Ona Canoa gave their first performance, alone.

Ona Canoa is a new, western Massachusetts folk trio based out of Shelburne. The trio consists of three woman who have been friends since attending Mohawk Trail Regional School: flutist Eliza Hollister, 26, of Shelburne; baritone ukulele player Chelsie Field, 26, of Northampton; and guitarist Tess Burdick, 22, of Shelburne.

All three women sing, creating a cohesive, three-part harmony they describe as emblematic of their friendship and roots as a band.

“It was a beautiful evening,” said Hollister, describing that night out on the water, when Ona Canoa, “Spanglish for ‘on a canoe,’” Field said, was formed.

“It came together seamlessly,” Hollister added.

Since that summer night last year, Ona Canoa has become a featured folk trio at several Pioneer Valley shows, playing before hundreds of people at venues like The Root Cellar in Greenfield and Cottage Street Studios in Easthampton with other local acts like Pasty Clone, Sister Jawbone and Marlene Lavelle.

Continuing a tradition of folk music

The impressive part, the three said, is that they have almost no formal training, are self-taught musicians and have done little digital outreach to promote the band. They have relied on word-of-mouth, and people connecting with their songs and performances.

“The depth of our friendship really comes through in our music,” Hollister said. “It’s a wholesome, wonderful sound.”

Field recalled the fear she had when first getting up on stage, but that fear dissipated with her best friends by her side. She said she initially felt disadvantaged due to not having formal training like other musicians. However, the band’s grassroots, organic background matches perfectly with the folk music scene and soul.

“We’re constantly fighting feeling at a disadvantage,” Field said. “But just being on stage squished that fear down.”

Ona Canoa’s music is a wall of sound, a three-voice body spliced with flute solos, the strumming of guitar and the twang of ukulele.

“The three-part harmony is the foundation and our friendship is the foundation,” Burdick said. “It feels good, sounds good. It’s beautiful.”

They have taken inspiration from the area, and as Franklin County hilltown natives, recognize they are continuing a long tradition of western Massachusetts folk music.

“That’s so much of who we are,” Field said, describing the inspiration the group draws from western Massachusetts — small venues crowded with local artists and music lovers, surrounded by the calm wild of the forested hills. “That’s certainly part of our identity.”

“I think that there is an energy in his valley that’s so inclusive and supporting,” Burdick said. “It inspires creativity.”

From life to lyrics

Field described the band’s songwriting as “journalistic,” taking feelings and stories from the individual members’ lives and turning them into lyrics. They’ve also been trying more experimental approaches to songwriting — writing words on pieces of paper, placing them in a hat and pulling them out blindly to find their next subject matter.

Ona Canoa still plays cover music — “Wedding Song” by Anaïs Mitchell is a group favorite — but is increasingly blending covers with original material. The group has taken the entire month of February to write originals, rewrite old compositions and add their own flair to other songs before their upcoming shows.

According to Burdick, she and Field have been writing songs, alone, since high school. They’ve dug up old notebooks and scraps of paper with lyrics, bringing them to their friends for the first time. Playing years-old songs before a cheering crowd has been a “crazy feeling,” Burdick said, but altering the songs to play with two others have given them a new depth.

Burdick described how she used to feel, as a solo songwriter, she was “hitting a wall” in a sense, but that altering songs to be played by a trio has given them more color. Field, too, has been writing with a different approach now, imagining flute solos from Hollister breaking up her songs.

“It almost makes me feel like I’m a painter who has been painting only with primary colors, and just discovered green,” Burdick said.

This is where they are starting, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their sights on faraway places.

“We have big dreams,” Hollister said. “And we’re hoping to make it something special and big.”

The next step, according to Burdick, is trying to get gigs in Boston, sending demo tapes to Boston venues with hopes that people will listen to and love their music, just as locals have.

“I went in with no expectations at all,” Burdick said. “I’m just here to have fun and hang out with my best friends. It’s convenient that people like it, because I’d be doing it anyway.”

On Saturday at 9 p.m., Ona Canoa is performing at Bishop’s Lounge, 41 Strong Ave. in Northampton, opening “Lilith of the Valley: Power Forward,” a show featuring local femme bands Wishbone Zoe, Hot Dirt and Oroboro. Tickets are $5.

Then on April 14, at 7:30 p.m., Ona Canoa is performing at the Shea Theater Arts Center, 71 Avenue A in Turners Falls, as part of The Lobby Tapes Listening Series along with Izzy Heltai and Emma June Band. Tickets are $10.

Staff reporter David McLellan started working at the Greenfield Recorder in 2018. He covers Orange, New Salem and Wendell. He can be reached at: dmclellan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.




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