Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Rollicking blues frontwoman

Tell Mama taps valley lesbian Shelley Montreuil

Shelley Montreuil is sharing the juicy stuff. And she knows it’s not being recorded.

It’s early, it’s cold and it’s a weekend. Somehow the singer is still looking bright-eyed and alert, as we sit in the window of a small town diner, despite the fact she’s been up late poring over the album art of her upcoming release.

She’s sharing her views on the divide between straight and gay communities and the stereotypes that are perpetuated in each. She hasn’t yet started on her first coffee, while I’m nursing my second and trying to remind Montreuil that the interview technically hasn’t yet started.
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“And we both know that you’re not writing this down,” laughs Montreuil wickedly. “So you can’t really use it!”

We both know I’ll try.

Montreuil is the lesbian front-woman of a jazz-funk-blues band called Tell Mama. With backing by Cam Gray on bass and Pat Grenier on drums, the band is really carried by the composition of guitarist, Franc van Oort, with Montreuil’s lyrics and voice.

Together, van Oort and Montreuil create the band’s dusky sound of bar-blues and smoky jazz.  Their 2008 debut, She’s Right, is at times a nod to memories, other times gentle, lingering and introspective. But most often, the disc is a swinging, bawdy celebration of small-town life. With solidly crafted guitar lines and the expressive punctuation of Tim Roberts on sax, the album’s only clear shortcoming is that it has been so long in the making.

Montreuil’s voice is a standout — a voice that is not perfect, nor boasts an expansive range – but nevertheless tugs at heartstrings with a husky sincerity.

Montreuil fixes me with clear blue eyes and smiles, cutting through these thoughts.

“You know it’s really something to be the front-woman of an all-male band. I’m really proud of that!”

Montreuil is a small-town girl, born and raised. She grew up in the Ottawa Valley army town of Pembroke. It was when she moved away to Toronto for her diploma in social work that she began exploring the queer scene. In fact, Montreuil was one of many waitresses at the legendary lesbian bar, The Rose.

When Montreuil headed back to her old stompin’ grounds it was the small town of Perth, outside of Ottawa, that she made her home. Montreuil and her partner at the time opened up a live music joint called Tiannakeems.

It’s no secret that we, as a community, are generally wary of small towns.  Outside of the homey camp of bed-and-breakfasts, small hunting and farming towns aren’t exactly known for embracing queer values.  Some would go so far as to say they do not feel safe outside of our more liberal cities. Not so for Montreuil.

“That is where I got to grow. It was hard to find the time to play. But with Tiannakeems, I was able to bring the music to me.  I surrounded myself with all these supportive, talented musicians and I really learned!  Because it’s one thing to know how to play, but another thing to really know how to perform.”

When Montreuil’s relationship soured, aside from supplying the pained creative fodder that artists tend to appreciate, it also provided her with a new perspective on small towns.

“I was always careful. I never hid the fact that my relationship was with a woman, but I didn’t flaunt it either. But when we broke up, I was devastated. And I slowly realized that people knew. They were being so kind and supportive.”

Tiannakeems closed, but Montreuil continued to focus on playing, developing the band that is now Tell Mama.

“It may be a small town, but this community is so great. I was surrounded by friends and musicians. I just felt this incredible warmth; a feeling that this is home. “

It’s been seven years since — a period that has included a new relationship, a new business venture focussed on marketing, design and communications, six years performing with Tell Mama and writing sonfs with van Oort — all of which is chronicled in Tell Mama’s first album, She’s Right.

“These songs start from my own experiences but quickly develop into storytelling. Many of these songs are about relationships. And I tend to keep it ambiguous. I just think you love who you love, whether it’s a man or a women. In the end, it’s the same— the pain is the pain.”