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Collaboration: New Brunswick roots connect musical cousins living worlds apart

Eddie Leighton & Cindy L. Spear

New Brunswick-born poet and lyric writer Cindy Spear has travelled a lot in her life, stretching out all over the world from her family home at Seeleys Cove, in Charlotte County. She's been to Ireland to trace her roots, and currently lives in Wollongong, Australia. She has written songs for top-selling international artists, and become fast friends with famous rock stars. But to accomplish her latest writing project, the one she calls the most satisfying, the lure of family connections and New Brunswick was key.

Spear, 49, is back home for an extended visit from Australia, spending time with her mother and family and enjoying her beloved Atlantic ocean. The Spear and Leighton families have roots in the area, and family means the world to her. Yet the world's call proved too strong to keep her here. Eleven years ago, she moved with her husband to Wollongong, about 90 minutes from Sydney. There, they have a successful business making fishing rods. It's just one of several careers Spear has had over the years. She's a poet with two books to her credit, the first one released in 1980. She was a University of New Brunswick student and graduate, mentored by the late Fred Cogswell, who encouraged her and published her work in the renowned Fiddlehead Poetry Books.

Writing became her passion and, along the way, her poetry was noticed by musicians. The Irish group Iona, one of the world's top traditional folk groups, took an interest in her Irish writing and roots, and she became friends with the group. Her poems became lyrics and her songs were used on two of the group's top sellers. This connection led to other writing opportunities and more friendships, including one with American songwriter Kerry Livgren. But after years near a different ocean, she drifted away from the music world.

The Internet changed the way we think about distance. That was the portal that brought Spear back into the music scene.

"Two years ago my son said, 'Mom, get on Myspace.' I said 'Well, I don't know.' And he said, 'Come on, a lot of people would remember you.' And actually, he set my page up and I was stunned. I put the Iona stuff on my page, and all of the Iona people came over, and they have a large following, and they said, 'We love you, so glad to have you back. And then next thing, a lot of artists came on, that I didn't even know liked me, and said, 'Hey, would you write for me?' that sort of thing. I've been working with other people too - too many to talk about, in Spain, England, Ireland. I do tend to gravitate to people in the prog (progressive) rock scene, that's my kind of my style, I guess, because of the kind of poetry and lyrics I write."

Back in the lyrics game, Spear accepted offers to work with British band Mermaid Kiss and Italian-American artist named Enrico, whose album comes out soon. But another name kept coming up - not from her music contacts, but from her family back in New Brunswick. Although her family is close, there was a musician cousin Spear had never met. He lived in Detroit, where a branch of the family on her mother's side, the Leightons, had moved decades before. A rock 'n' roll guitar player, Eddie Leighton is a popular fixture in Michigan, an award-winner with his band Leighton, and owner of a recording studio.

Eddie Leighton and Enrico with Cindy L. Spear

He was hearing her name from family, too. "I looked up her website, and saw all the beautiful poetry she had written, and I was blown away by it."

Leighton asked Spear to write with him and together they worked on a song called Beyond The Door.

Leighton is here in the province as well, visiting relatives and spending time getting to know Spear in person. They have only now met face to face, after spending the past year working together via e-mail. Leighton spent his whole life in Michigan, but figures his career in music comes straight from Charlotte County.

"My dad moved to Michigan (in the '40s) when he was 18 years old, for a job. I was raised in Michigan, or else I'd be from New Brunswick, because all the family's here," he says. "My (New Brunswick) relatives, they'd come to the house in the summer, and bring their guitars, and play country, all these old songs."

Somehow, in all those family trips, Spear and Leighton missed each other. So when they started working together there was some miscommunication, says Spear. "He didn't know that I was into other kinds of music."

Eddie says he sent Spear all of his country pickin' material thinking she was a country music fanatic like the rest of their relatives. She was cool to it, prompting Leighton to ask what kind of music she was into. Her answer was rock.

"You're a rock 'n' roller? No way! I like rock too. What kind of stuff?" recalls Eddie. "She says Kansas, all this stuff, and she tells me these people she knows, and I go, 'You gotta be kidding me. Throw that stuff I gave you away! ' "

Leighton's group, Leighton, already had its second CD wrapped up around the time the cousins started writing. Instead of releasing that version, Leighton got excited about the songs rushing from the new collaboration.

He says he's always been a rock 'n' roller but Spear's poetry truly inspired him.
"Her lyrics, seriously, I wrote those songs as quick as I was reading the lyrics. They came through. Nothing like I had ever written before. It changed my style. Her lyrics really pull something out of me that I've never experienced before. I've never had lyrics do that."

Leighton scrapped five of the 10 cuts already recorded for his new album, replaced them with the new ones, and renamed the disc after their first collaboration, Beyond The Door. It's available for purchase online. They have already started writing new songs together. Spear has had some talented people work with her words before, but she agrees this family connection is a special project.

"I went, 'Where have you been all my life?' Seriously, I think we've really connected. I think his music complements my words really well. He looks at the words and creates the great sounds that go with it. I'm really happy."

Leighton soon heads back to Michigan and Cindy to Australia. They may live worlds apart, but their new partnership is rooted in Charlotte County.

SOURCE: The New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal (Saint John, NB) - May 31, 2008.

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