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Northumberland Music Studio

Photography by Daniel Vaughan

A harmonious oasis

Brighton’s coolest recording nook, Northumberland Music Studio, is easy to overlook while driving by on County Road 30. Just like its owner-in-residence, Andy Thompson, who packs a skill set comprised of composer, arranger, producer, engineer, and performer, the musicians’ retreat is unassuming and welcoming.

The century home is tucked into a small retreat of tall trees, surrounded by an almost fairy tale forest, and the sweeping pastures are defined by distant timber land.

The old barn can’t be spotted until a visitor turns down a cozy country lane past a mailbox resembling a birdhouse. Seclusion is part of Andy’s business, the element that makes his studio so magnetic. While there is peace and quiet outside in the lap of Mother Nature, there is sweet music resonating inside that barn.

There is no sign out on the road, because musicians who want to play amongst the studio’s toys know where it is. At first glance, the barn is not what it appears to be. The stairs are lined with vintage pictures of Andy’s 1970s performing years; his musical journey has led to this place in time.

Andy was born in Bolton, England, and came to Toronto at age three. He stayed until 1979, at age 24, long enough for the die of his fate to be cast.

“While I was in grade two, a representative of St. Michael’s Choir School came by and asked if there were any students showing leanings toward music. I was pointed out, and my grades were good. Three kids were chosen but only my parents agreed to enrol me at the music school, as they figured that I could handle the one-hour daily trip from our home downtown – two buses, a street car, and a subway. I started grade three at seven years old and remained first soprano for the longest time. Did I want to go? I don’t remember, but I didn’t enjoy the regimentation of school.” The nature of going against the grain would forever pervade his being.

In retrospect, he was fortunate the personal yellow brick road was chosen for him. “I should have been an engineer. In grade 11, I won a science award for designing a model hovercraft powered by a gas engine. The principal put me in touch with the Dean of Engineering at University of Toronto, and he took me on a tour of the department. The dean told my principal if I could get through high school I would breeze through university.” It turned out to be a big if.

That very year, he won an award for most promising piano student, and thus he came to a crossroad in his life. “My piano teacher sensed I wasn’t into the straight ahead classical stuff, and she gave me a 19-page piece by Debussy to play, and my nerves kicked in. My parents wanted me to go into engineering; I wanted music. Luckily, the matter was settled by an independent vocational counsellor who asked me what I wanted and then advised me to follow my heart and choose music.”

His 10 years at St. Michael’s Choir School came to a brusque end. “For my grade 12 recital, I performed a progressive rock concerto by a heady group of the day. I started to play the unconventional piece and the whole front row of adjudicators stood up and walked out. Anyway, my grades were lousy which sealed their decision to throw me out of the choir school. I was 18 at the time.” Andy completed grade 12 in Toronto’s Midland College, and never looked back.

He then formed a successful ’70’s dance band called Shadowfax and toured Ontario and Quebec. He wrote and performed original music. In 1976, Andy wrote a 26-minute piece called Time Machine. “It went through every time signature known to man,” he said, and won CHUM FM’s Battle of the Bands. “My parents were very supportive and let me convert one of their rooms at the house into a rehearsal space. The timpani drum wouldn’t fit through the door, so Dad cut a section out,” he laughed.

In 1972, he set up a music studio in a rented downtown apartment and started scoring films. His first contract was one of many documentaries for TV Ontario, entitled A Seal Song. Excerpts from this film, along with the musical score, continually show up in nature films worldwide.

Having acquired the first Moog synthesizer in Toronto, Andy wrote film music while continuing to tour with the busy band. His first full length feature came in 1987, and his portfolio eventually grew to more than 300 scores for made-for-television dramatic series and informational films.

His on-going musical odyssey includes an eclectic list of clients:

Chetwynd Films: The Mythmakers. A documentary about the invention of the automobile, its growth, and metamorphosis, hosted by William Shatner.

ABC Films: The Sea Is at Her Gates. A co-production with NATO and the Canadian Navy, documenting Canada’s naval contribution during all the major wars of the 20th century. Hosted by Raymond Burr.

MTO: Andy was the Ministry of Transportation’s go-to composer for over a decade and produced musical scores and sound effects for dozens of film and animated productions including the complete Drivesave and Trucksave series.

SOMA Film Producers: For more than 15 years, Andy was the exclusive composer for this prolific film company with the majority of contracts commissioned by TVO and The Knowledge Network; close to 100 instructive and entertainment films were produced with Andy’s musical affectations, including Kite Crazy, Beer, Set Your Sails, and The Green Earth.

Mobius Media: Andy’s long-term relationship with producers Marilyn Belec (past President of the Atlantic Film Board) and Roman Bittman (former Executive Producer for The National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation) produced dozens of dramatic shorts, TV ads, and major features. Bittman’s recommendation drew Andy’s film talents to the attention of the 2005/2006 NAAF awards who recognized his sensitivity and ability to deliver and adapt on a moment’s notice to changes of plan.

Atlantic Media Works: CBC dramatic film scores included 101 Fire Hydrants, Paradise Siding, and The Dance.

SC Entertainment: Andy delivered several award-winning documentaries, also composing music for full length Canadian features like Into the Fire (with Susan Anspach and Art Hindle), Friends Lovers and Lunatics (Daniel Stern and Sheila McCarthy), The Secret Ingredient (Catherine Hicks and Sam Wannamaker.)

Microtainment/Global: He scored the 13-part series Daring and Grace, “requiring a Smashing Pumpkins alternative approach.”

Environment Canada: For over a decade, he created all the radio ads including music, sound effects and voice-overs (courtesy of long-time friend Roy Bonisteel) for EC’s Ontario Parks division.

Shadowfax disbanded in 1979, and Andy moved to Brighton to set up the present studio. “My Mum found this place because she thought it would be nice to live in the country. I immediately set up an electronic music studio in the house, and then personally renovated the old barn to accommodate the new venue. You sort of have to be handy.”

Andy continues to produce CDs for many local recording artists such as country singers Lorne Buck and George Fox (with whom he tours as the musical director). “What puts a smile on my face is a really good musical performance. When I perform on stage, I enjoy when the audience gives back. In most cases with all the bands I put together, I love the chemistry between the musicians and artists. The audience pays homage to the feature artist, and that makes me proud.”

When he is not touring, he holes up in the barn’s elevated control room gazing down on the recording studio made in heaven. “The allure of my country studio is the lack of distraction. It’s relaxing. The Fade Kings just recorded their 25th anniversary CD, live off the floor. They were amazing.”

Andy’s early introduction to electronic music, effects, plus a background in classical music, rock, impressionistic, jazz, country, and bluegrass made him a pioneer in musical innovation, a reality not lost with film producers needing scores and soundscapes for their productions. Andy endures as a much sought-after session player, writer, composer, arranger, engineer, and producer. For the last two years, he has also been the audio tech for Westben Theatre.

In conversation, Andy is no different form his working persona. He is patient, measured in speech, generous in spirit, and fosters a genuine down-home interest in his work. He is equally open-hearted with both new and established artists.

Northumberland Music Studio, in every respect, is a true musical oasis.