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Pushing the comfort zone

A large hole will be left in Whistler's musical community this week as Karen Thirlwall prepares to move on to other parts of the country.

A large hole will be left in Whistler's musical community this week as Karen Thirlwall prepares to move on to other parts of the country.

Thirlwall has been a staple in the flourishing local music scene in the more than five years since she arrived in the resort from London, Ontario. Like most of us, it was the call of the mountains that lured Thirlwall west, but she recalls it wasn't long before she was exploring her musical callings.

"When I first arrived here, I had wanted to be close to Vancouver, but heard that there was work to be had in Whistler," says Thirlwall. "I was working at Dusty's. JJ Belanger was the manager at the time and wanted me to sing, even though he'd never heard me. The GLC had just opened... and he asked if I wanted to play Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday of the following week. I had to scramble to get songs together! I only knew about 30 and that wasn't nearly enough. I had a bunch of originals as well as covers and well, I wasn't that good!" she laughs.

Perhaps The Beatles' With a Little Help Form My Friends was on the set list that night. Thirlwall may have sung just a shade out of tune, but thanks in large part to two other pioneers on the scene, bar managers continued to flood her with gigs.

"I remember hearing about Pete and Chad playing at the Cinnamon Bear, and I was thinking 'That's what I want to do, that would be the best! If I can get into the Cinnamon Bear then I know I'm getting better.’

"And it was actually Chad who really helped me with vocal techniques, learning new songs. My ability to play guitar really wasn't very developed yet because I had just started playing. Chad was so supportive and really helped me with who to talk to, what to do and what my goals should be. Pete also helped me a ton over the next few months."

Thirlwall also owes Chad big for one particular night about four years ago when she attempted to do a Garf’s gig with laryngitis. Half way through her first set her voice decided to quit entirely and the microphone was silent. Chad just happened to finishing his show upstairs at La Brasserie, and without hesitiation, came to Thirlwall’s rescue, filling in for her on vocals for the rest of the evening.

Since then Thirlwall's sultry vocals have graced every live music venue in town, sometimes 10-15 times a week in peak periods. She recorded her first CD locally in Robbie D's studio. And her talents and career have continued to improve as Whistler has rapidly expanded in size and tourist numbers in just a few short years. She says she'll take a lot of positive lessons from such a challenging time in the country's fastest growing municipality.

"For those of us who've been here for a while, it can be really overwhelming, the number of people that come and the level of service you have to constantly turn out. We used to have such a lull in January so you could catch your breath and then continue on with the rest of the winter. But I think now people are completely worn out by the time they get to mid-February.

"But the good thing is that you meet a lot of interesting people here from all over the world. It's pretty incredible on a day-to-day basis. I feel like I learn a lot every time I play a gig and someone comes up to me and talks to me because they're so open. They share things with you because you've shared your music with them."

Thirlwall is striking off for Calgary, where she'll be hoping for a few of those same courtesies shown her early on in Whistler. Many musicians agree, Whistler is a fantastic podium from which to launch a career, with no shortage of work and a supportive local community. And for Thirlwall, now is the time to make that leap.

And she's decided to take a larger leap than most, skipping over Vancouver for a destination further east. In Vancouver, she says, she would still face the temptation of falling back on Whistler. In Calgary, she hopes to challenge her comfort zone and push on with a serious musical career.

"I really just want to get on the road and play for different audiences and learn things from that... I have some interesting contacts happening right now. In Calgary I have the opportunity to speak with people that have helped other artists and could possibly help shape my career a bit. Just recently, I had an audition with a cover band that plays throughout the world in different resorts and five star hotels. I don't know if I got that, but opportunities like that are starting to happen."

Beyond Calgary, Thirlwall says she'll always be content to follow where the musical winds may take her, saying it's something that just won't let go. Sometimes your career chooses you and Thirlwall says hers is always tapping her on the back, giving that gentle nudge when necessary.

Whistler now becomes another stop on Thirlwall's journey, but the people will not be forgotten. She sends big thank-yous to friends and local musicians who have helped her to learn, particularly Bestsellers, Whistler Music, Esound and local media for their consistently positive promotion. And wherever she goes, Thirlwall will take a little piece of Whistler, the place, with her.

"One of my very favourite things is being on top of the mountain and singing. It's just the most beautiful experience!"