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James Higgins talks music and open mic culture

Pop-punk singer-songwriter and Open Mic Master, James Higgins, sat down with me, for a coffee at The Trend while Motown and R&B played in the background.We chatted about his music, Peterborough as a music scene, and the open mic culture present in the community.

Okay, so I guess tell me a little bit about yourself?

I recently turned 30 years old and became a coffee drinker. That’s a good little segway.

That’s probably a good thing to put in an interview. So, are you from Peterborough?
More or less. In the developmental years as a musician, I would call Peterborough home. Bounced around a lot. I lived just outside of Peterborough in a little town called Millbrook and that’s where I got started playing music.  There really wasn’t that much to do in that town. I didn’t feel [like] a part of a community so I just kind of did my own thing. I started going to high school in Peterborough and that’s where I started playing music. I started playing in cover bands and was heavily influenced by Green Day, and then I started to find my own voice a little.

You travel obviously to play shows, so what does Peterborough have that makes it unique as a music scene?

Peterborough is very… Like, I talk about Millbrook as a small town but Peterborough seems, in comparison, you know, bigger. There’s a ton of people and tons going on in this town. Just, I guess, being able to walk into places, for better or for worse, someone knows my name. Just situations like that, it’s a comfort thing.  That’s actually part of what motivated me the past couple of years. I started playing where I’d get super drunk and I’d wander into an open mic, and, essentially, just try to take it over and make a show of it.

After a little while of playing open mics, [I started] playing at a place called Mexies that used to be open. A good friend of mine would let me take over his days and let me do my own thing.
It started getting [to the point] where I could play my own stuff, do some crowd-friendly cover songs, and then, when I was getting in control of nights, I could give people (who I had seen play before) a chance to get up and actually get things going on in front of people.  Or I’d get a nudge from a friend to get up and play some songs. For a couple years, I was doing an open mic at McThirsty’s and there was a strong connection with that crowd, as well as the people I was getting in touch with at Trent.

So, basically, you would just give people confidence or a boost to actually get up on-stage and do it?

Yeah, and I wasn’t going to set up all my gear and sit back for the night, then just wait to get paid at the end. I was getting really involved in promoting the nights and getting people to come out. People were coming out and letting me know ahead of time.  My view of those open mics is putting on more of a “showcase”, in quotations, less of like open mic or open stage, which gives people the impression at times that it’s just gonna be a free-for-all where that drunk guy gets up and is gonna play “Wonderwall”.

I think the preconception of an open mic is just an empty stage, a mic, and nobody hosting it…

We would get packed rooms for these nights. I would play at the beginning of the night, let some bodies get into the room, let people settle down and enjoy themselves. And once it was worthwhile for someone else to get up on the mic, I would make sure there was a good crowd for people to play, too.  I would be the opening act and the closing act of the night. I find especially with a lot of the Trent kids, – I say kids because I’m super old, – I find that they can get up and carry the room.

What are one or two places or venues you like to play in Peterborough?

Well, my home base for the last few beers is McThirsty’s on Charlotte Street where I used to host the open mic. I am always drawn back to McThirsty’s as an unofficial home base. As well, I really like Trent University up at the Ceilie. I started doing the occasional night there and then last year, they had me more on a schedule with open mics. So, the Ceilie is also a really good environment. The first-year [students] really blew me away.

James Higgins recently released a four-song, self-titled EP, which is a great sounding pop-punk album, as well as a music video for his song “Hearts” off the same album. Be sure to check out his acoustic punk styling in and around Peterborough, and all the way towards the GTA.

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