Northeastern Ontario’s most famous music export is Shania Twain. It’s not really up for debate - she’s sold over 100 million records and is the best-selling female country artist of all time. Yet there are dozens of other unique and influential artists that hail from across the region. You might know some of them, you might not - but what unites these seven talented people is that they’re all from northeastern Ontario!
Valerie Anne Poxleitner may not be a household name, but that’s the name on her birth certificate. Place of birth? Timmins, Ontario. Her parents were missionaries, which led Valerie and her family across the globe. She spent a large part of her youth in Chesley, ON before making her way to Toronto to start her music career. That’s when Poxleitner adopted the stage name Lights - say her last name out loud, if you’re curious to know where the nickname came from. Lights’ debut album, The Listening, was released in 2009, and that same year she nabbed the Juno Award for New Artist of the Year. Since then, Lights has shown great diversity, leaning into pop music as well as more experimental fare, and her popularity continues to grow.
Cory Marks started to bang out classic rock on the drums at the age of 10, growing up in his hometown of North Bay. His parents’ love of country music also entered his musical bloodstream, leading to the rock/country sounds the songwriter creates today. In fact, his 2019 single “Outlaws & Outsiders” features Ivan Moody (Five Finger Death Punch), Travis Tritt, and Mick Mars (Motley Crue), which sounds like a pretty good country/rock pedigree to us. Marks could have gone in several different directions other than music. He was both a serious hockey player (like his older brother Matt, who plays professionally) and a student in pilot school. He got his pilot license in 2021 – the same year “Outlaws and Outsiders” officially went gold, reaching more than 33 million streams worldwide.
G.R. Gritt is an Anishinaabe and Métis musician. Together with Tiffany Ayalik, they are part of the musical duo Quantum Tangle, whose album Tiny Hands won the Juno award for Indigenous Music Album of the Year in 2017. The Two Spirit artist spent many years in Yellowknife but has recently returned to Sudbury (they were born in Warren). Their most recent full-length album, Ancestors, was released in April this year.
Country and blues sensation Crystal Shawanda grew up on Wikwemikong on Manitoulin Island. Taught how to sing and play by her parents, and introduced to the blues by her oldest brother, she started performing when she was six and was a professional musician by the age of 10. She has spent plenty of time in Nashville, where she has relocated several times, the first when she was only 16. Shawanda made a deal with Scott Hendricks (Blake Shelton, Brooks & Dunn) and her first album, Dawn of a New Day, was released in 2008. Her first single, “You Can Let Go,” shot up the charts. Much of Shawanda’s music is inspired by her Wikwemikong roots, which she considers extremely important. She remains in touch with her community; only last year, she helped start a letter-writing campaign to save a local nursing home. "Those are my roots and I still very much care about what happens there and on Manitoulin Island," she told CTV news.
Born Larry Barriault in Sudbury, Ontario, Larry Berrio has proven himself a robust presence on the Canadian country music scene. His 2009 debut, RPM, was produced with Gil Grand and Brady Seals, as well as members from Jason Aldean's band, in Nashville – not a bad way to begin a recording career. Now, after performing for 20 years, Berrio is well-known across the country. Folks in the Sudbury area might not be shocked to learn Berrio’s origins, we admit, as the singer works closely with the community he loves. In partnership with Tourism Ontario, he hosts an annual concert, Berrio on the Sandbanks, at Wanapitei Provincial Park. You might also see him indulging in his outdoor hobbies, riding motorcycles, ATVs or snowmobiles on Ontario trails.
Anyone who was around in the ‘80s (or has every had a thing for ‘80s music) knows the Scottish band Big Country – usually for the smash single of similar name, "In A Big Country". What most don’t know is that guitarist Bruce William Watson was born in Timmins. He moved with his family to Scotland as a toddler. He was in several bands in Fife before joining Big Country, with whom he played guitar and also mandolin. Watson has been in the band for the duration, playing guitar and contributing songwriting to every Big Country album; though the group disbanded in 2000, they have reunited several times over the years. Watson has also shared the stage with his son Jamie, most recently in the side-project WKW, who released the album Men of Steel in 2019.
Jaymz Bee (James Terrence Shamus O'Malley Lyola Doyle – don’t ask us where the “Bee” comes from!) was born and raised in North Bay. He found his calling at young age, when he formed the alternative band the Look People in 1985; the wacky, funky group eventually became the house band on the CBC’s Friday Night With Ralph Benmergui. Bee, also known as a poet and author, is a jazz enthusiast and for many years was a host on Toronto’s JAZZ FM. Bee’s distinctive musical tastes and flamboyant fashion sense developed at a young age. Describing his childhood in northeastern Ontario, he once told FYI Music News, “Life was about being creative and being bullied for being creative… I don’t know if I was confident back then or pretending to be or faking it. I was like king of the nerds.”
Bonus: Stompin’ Tom Connors
Okay, yes, Stompin’ Tom was very famously a Maritimer, having grown up in Saint John, N.B. and Skinner’s Pond, P.E.I. However, as the story goes, it was in Timmins that he went from Charles Thomas Connors to Stompin’ Tom. Supposedly, in the 1960s, the future chronicler of all things Canadian found himself a nickel short for a beer at the suitably-named Maple Leaf Hotel. He was told that if he played some music, he could have that drink – and then he stayed around for over a year. It may be an apocryphal tale, but even if it’s not exactly the truth, he still deserves a tip of the hat for writing Sudbury Saturday Night. Stompin’ Tom passed away in in 2013 at the age of 77.