Canandaigua folk chanteuse Maria Gillard captures spirit of being human
By John Addyman
People ambled into the Downstairs Cabaret Theatre in Rochester quietly, smiling and expectant.
Every other man or woman who stepped into the dim lighting of the theater had a fiddle, guitar or banjo with them.
They settled into comfortable seats, most within 10 feet from the stage. It’s an intimate venue.
Onstage, Maria Gillard was placing her water bottle and the microphone in preparation for the set. The members of her trio — Perry Cleaveland (fiddle, mandolin) and Doug Henrie (bass) — were tuning and running through song riffs.
Then came some introductory songs from cabaret owner Bill Destler, the former president of Rochester Institute of Technology, and finally, showtime: The Maria Gillard Trio was the featured act for the night.
A folk singer, Gillard stepped into the first song.
She is slim and diminutive — the guitar looks like a large instrument in her hands. She sings the song “Steady Woman,” the first cut on her second CD, “Bound to Happen.” She sings about someone who will open all your doors — the one you’ve been looking for, a steady woman who is headstrong but also a “burning light of genuine love” — a woman to treasure.
The song has a honky-tonk feel to it and provides space for Cleaveland and Henrie to swim into the groove to add their own expert flavors. For a little more than an hour, the group does 15 songs, most of them written by Gillard. The audience knows her and her music. They sing along with “Tear Down These Walls,” about a woman trying to break away from the confinements and frustrations of her life.
“Queen of the Highway” closes the night and everybody is singing the chorus, “Drop ’em off! Pick ‘em up!” If you’ve had kids and a van, you can identify with the lyrics.
“Little Rose,” a song about a young girl Gillard met on a trip to New Mexico, brought singer Dana Fine out of the audience to help build the harmony, and again, the audience joined in. If audiences have a favorite, it’s “Little Rose.”
“I like people to feel when I sing,” she said. “When I’m on stage, I want people to listen to me. My songs are catchy and easy to sing along with. I think people can relate to them on a visceral level. They have felt the emotions I sing about — happiness, sadness, regret, frustration, love.”
Passion for folk music art form
Gillard, 62, of Canandaigua, has been singing folk music for 33 years. She was raised in Fulton, has lived in the Rochester area, and spent time in Massachusetts following the folk scene. She has traveled to Africa, teaches vocal music at Finger Lakes Community College, and is an avid student of the folk music art form, attending workshops and seminars in Texas, Tennessee, West Virginia and New England.
She is tuned to introspective vibes. If a group of women, say a bridal party getting together before a wedding, relaxed in a Finger Lakes location and played Gillard’s music for hours, they’d find that she hits every note on love, separation, loss of parents, struggling to be the woman they want to be, family relationships, parenting, personal tragedy, hope and fulfillment.
There is such gentle urge and understanding in her voice, such joy and empathy in the lyrics, it’s not hard for someone to think, ‘This is my sister singing about something we both feel.’”
But as “Steady Woman,” she is also singing directly to males, young adults and those who have lost both parents.
Her dad was a high school vice principal who died in a car accident when she was 7. Her mom was a first-grade teacher who raised Gillard and her five siblings. After high school, Gillard walked a meandering path to end up in folk music.
She got her degree in music education from SUNY Potsdam and did spend time at the Rochester School of the Deaf where she lived on campus and immersed in that environment.
“I absolutely loved that. I almost went back to school to get a degree in sign language,” she said. Instead, she took a job in a grade school in Canandaigua.
It took her two and a half years to find out being an elementary music teacher didn’t hit her right chords.
“I was the only music teacher for 900 kids. I like kids, but I was going insane. After that I said to myself, ‘If I don’t see another kid for 10 years, I’m good,’” she said.
To make ends meet, she started a home business, teaching guitar and piano.
And the call to folk music snuck up on her.
“I started playing music with another teacher, Frank Meyer. He found out I played the guitar. He invited me over for a jam and I sang some harmony. He told me, ‘You’re a great harmony singer, why don’t you come play with me?’” she said.
Meyer was an English teacher and blind. “We played in Irish bars — McGee’s Pub, McGinnity’s Pub. He had been part of an Irish band, so we played the things Irish bands play,” Gillard said.
“We became really good friends and we played almost every weekend. I met the Dady brothers and more musicians by going to open mike nights with Frank,” she added.
Still underemployed, Gillard auditioned at a dance company as a mandolin player, using skills she had learned from Meyer, and she got the job.
“Then they said, ‘Well, we can’t pay you, but you could take free dance lessons.’ I told them, ‘I can’t join the company because I don’t have a job. Can’t you pay me?’” she said.
She ended up as an administrative assistant for the better part of a year, and learned how to book gigs for the dancers. She moved on to a job at The Little Theatre in Rochester, and her horizons broadened.
“I met a lot of people, and I got involved with the Golden Link Folk-Singing Society,” she said. The organization has been around for 45 years, gathering people who love folk music, bluegrass, blues and roots. Tuesday night sing-arounds introduce ingénues to veterans. The group welcomed her like an old friend.
Off and running
And Gillard got the folk song bug. She went to workshops for songwriters and performers in West Virginia and took classes with John McCutcheon, who achieved fame in the world of traveling folk musicians.
She had decided what she really wanted to do, which was to become a touring singer, relying on her own songs.
“I got into a core group from Golden Link. We started a little song-writing group. We’d play songs to one another and it was an incentive to write songs. Joe LeMay, one of the Golden Link guys, decided to start his own record company, Local Folkel,” she said.
Gillard had started writing songs in 1984. Now it was 1987. “I had enough songs to have my own record, and I asked Joe if I could be on his label,” she said.
What emerged was “Snapshots,” which is only available on cassette and LP formats. And there aren’t many of them left.
“For some godforsaken reason I recorded it in Connecticut. There was a lot of angst in the whole thing,” she said. “It was a long way to go to do it, and I was by myself.”
But she was doing what she really wanted to do — traveling and singing.
But Gillard wasn’t really ready. The record had good songs, but she had a lot to learn about making music that was at least a little commercial.
She ended up moving to Massachusetts, which was a hotbed of folk music at the time. But she learned a hard lesson.
“I felt like I had pulled the plug out from under myself. I lost my whole support system. I ended up moving back to Rochester,” she said. But she also did some short tours to Wisconsin, Maryland and Virginia with LeMay, who wanted to circulate the records on his label.
Was she making money?
“No, but I was living with this guy who had a good job as an electrical engineer,” she said. Her mom had died in 1987, and she had some money from her inheritance. She got along.
She helped form the Black Turtle Band with John Stevens, Paul and Wendy Swiatek, Marshall Smith and Mike Reeves. “We did some of my original songs and some upbeat folk songs,” she said. The band played at Susan Plunkett’s Jazzberry’s club with many other folk musicians and was together and tight for a couple of years, then unraveled.
Gillard did some work booking music talent for the Sunken Room Coffee House in Rochester, then got a job at Borders Bookstore in Henrietta, doing the same thing, and learned a lot more about the music industry. “It changed my life,” she said. “I was super-lucky.”
She managed to arrange a Borders Bookstore tour for herself in Colorado and New Mexico, and on the road, wrote more songs. She had gone to the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas with Stevens and LeMay many times and entered two of her songs in the annual contest. She penned “Little Rose” on the western tour.
And she found out something about herself and that dream she had.
“I didn’t want to be on the road,” she said. “Once I did a couple of little tours I found out it’s lonely when you’re singing by yourself. If I had been part of a band, I think it would be been different,” she said. “When you’re driving by yourself, eating by yourself, singing by yourself, doing everything by yourself, I longed for home.”
Winds of change
In 1997, Gillard got a job as a vocal music instructor at FLCC and left the bookstore. Her voice teacher, Cathy Kamm, was the touchstone for the job. When Gillard was teaching elementary kids in Canandaigua right out of college, she had lost her voice three times. Kamm trained her to sing in the proper range.
But Gillard was restless. “My heart wanted to write and perform songs. That was my passion,” she said.
As a result, she recorded “Bound to Happen” that year, with “Steady Woman” as the first song. It had been almost 10 years since her first recording and her subject matter had broadened.
Scott Regan, a fellow Golden Link songwriting and performing buddy, has some perspective on what Gillard was developing into.
“When she sings, it’s like she puts a smile in each person’s heart,” he said. “A little hard to describe, but after playing with and watching her over the last 30 to 35 years, she is like a fine wine that just keeps getting better.
“Her songs are about everyday experiences — relationships, mourning a friend, love of family. Her lack of cynicism is disarming, real, and emotionally true. It’s that truth that people respond to, I think. She is totally herself when she sings. No pretension whatsoever. People relate to that.”
Three years later, Gillard went all out on her next album, “Little Rose,” in 2000.
She hired the Rayni Arbo’s Salamander Crossing band. I love her fiddle playing, I know her bass player. We played for three days and picked the best songs out of the bunch. They were already tight with their band. The production was really quick and it was really good,” she said.
“Little Rose” was a hit, selling some 2,000 copies. “Tear Down These Walls” was on this disc.
Gillard got ready for her next album in 2008, but now there was an obstacle in her path: She had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had started treatment.
“I was out for a year,” she said. “I lost all my hair. During that time, WXXI got a grant from the state Council of the Arts to feature a concert. A CD would follow.
“I applied for it and was chosen, and right that after I was diagnosed with cancer.”
Gillard feared she couldn’t make the concert or the CD. The recording was pushed back to November but even then, Gillard confided to Regan: “What am I going to do, Scott? I’m so weak.”
“Put a band together that knows your music,” he advised.
So she chose old friends Cleaveland, Brian Williams, and the late Joe Dady.
Live OnStage was the product, with “Queen of the Highway” and “Just Ain’t Right” featured tunes, plus a forthright and empathetic tale of her discomfort and image-bending year of treatment, “I’m Bald.”
A song that she and Regan wrote, “Broken World,” appeared on her next album with an apt title, “Mending,” in 2012. How that song got developed demonstrates the genesis of the vast cooperative creativity and liquidity in the folk-singing ranks.
“Scott, John, Steve Piper and I got together every couple of weeks to give each other lines, to see if each of us could come up with a song,” she said. “Scott came over one day and told me, ‘I have this thought that’s going through my mind, that keeps coming back to me — who’s going to mend this broken world?”
Mending a broken world
As Regan explained, “We had been writing songs together for a while when I heard, maybe we each heard, an NPR segment on a peace worker having been killed. She was there helping people less fortunate and rebels took her down. Without getting into historical details, the idea of a woman in some poor, remote, war-ravaged village being shot down as she tried to help those who needed it most struck us in a devastating way. She was not a warrior. Those she was helping were not warriors. The senseless lack of humanity is stunning. Is this how we treat each other, how we treat our world?
“I asked Maria to remember that radio segment; maybe we could write something about it. I completely forgot about it months later, but she reminded me. Our generation hasn’t made things much better, so we pass it on to the next. Who’s gonna mend this broken world? It’s a question with no answer.“
Two years after, “Broken World” was written and put on the “Mending” album. Gillard and Regan teamed up for the newest release in 2014 of “A Little Luck,” and re-recorded the song. The album itself is a shared gift.
And Gillard found comfort in her life. She had a good job and a loving anchor: in 2006, Joe Conte came to one of her performances. Then they met in a yoga class. In 2016, they married.
“He is a warm, friendly and honest guy. We have similar interests in music — folk, jazz and Pavarotti! He also was really interested in family. I have a huge Irish family and he has a big Italian family and that was really important to both of us. When we met each other’s families, we both loved each other’s and they all loved us, so that was a big deal,” she said.
And there is so much more to Gillard. She has been to Africa on a musician’s mission to build a home. Her poem, “A Special Angel,” about her best friend’s mom is in the book, “365 Days of Angel Prayers.” She teaches journaling at Writers & Books in Rochester. She wrote and directed a song, “We are the Peacekeepers” with the Mount Hope World Singers.
“I’m learning how to put the feeling of my music into the lyric,” she said. “I’m learning how to think emotionally. The thing that makes me happiest is for people to listen to one of my songs and tell me how much it means to them, or challenges them, or makes them feel very happy,” she said.
“One of my colleagues says he puts on the ‘Mending’ CD when he cleans his house. He said, ‘It’s just so great — it’s like you’re in the house with me.’ That comment made my whole day,” she said.
To check a complete calendar of Maria Gillard’s concerts, visit