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Minuscule raises mighty voices

Laurel Minnes founded a choral ensemble that just keeps growing because so many people want to get in on the folky, feminist fun.

Laurel Minnes is making choral music cool. 

But she’s not doing it alone. She’s got a backing band. And a 30-piece all-female choir. 

“After every show, somebody comes up and says: ‘Are you taking more members? Can I do this with you?’” says Minnes, lead vocalist and ukuleleist for the group. “We've since had to stop (taking on more people) because we can't really all fit on stage. We’ve actually never all been on stage together.” 

The tongue-in-cheek-named Minuscule (also a play on Minne’s last name) is a true auditory delight: an ever-evolving chorus of women delivering raw, emotive harmony to support Minnes's striking vocals. 

“I really struggle with whether or not to use that word ‘choral’, knowing that it will come with a stigma. But at the same time, I am compelled to use it and use it hard so that it is reclaimed in a way that is inclusive of all kinds of music.” 

As we’ve moved away from being a church-going society, the opportunity for groups of people to sing together has been lost, says Minnes.

“I feel like the experience of hearing a bunch of bodies vibrating in a room singing used to be experienced a lot more. Now we have less opportunity to experience that because (choral music) was tagged as this whole gospel or religious (musical genre),” says Minnes. “But a group of people singing together is a choir – it doesn't matter what you're singing about. And for some reason, as soon as religion was removed from that, we did that less. And I think that's sad because it is a religious experience in a different way. It is spiritual.” 

Minnes grew up in Grimsby in a home brimming with musical energy. Her father (who plays keyboard for Minuscule) and mother both played in bands and her sister (also a backup singer in Minuscule), sings alto. As kids, the sisters would often don tap shoes to perform for family friends, and singing and acting were also a formative part of their childhood. 

After discovering that her voice was the instrument she really wanted to use, Minnes began recording herself singing, then using GarageBand to loop and layer the recordings. She fell in love with the medium and how easy it was to create interweaving melodies while also having a dialogue that represented the various conversations going on in her head. 

In 2018, Minnes decided to apply to the In the Soil Arts Festival. Now in its 15th year, the festival is a week-long multi-arts program in downtown St. Catharines featuring performance, music, digital art, theatre and interactive experiences.

Miniscule is an ever-evolving group of choral performers. Photos: Lauren Garbutt

She enlisted the help of her high-school barbershop chorus, The Bobby Pins, and Minuscule – initially made up of just eight members – was born. 

Miniscule is an ever-evolving entity, with members coming and going depending on their availability and where the group is performing. What’s so special about this collective, and perhaps what sets it apart from other folk acts, is its ability to draw in new members, almost calling them to join in the chorus. 

“Total strangers literally come up to me at shows and ask to join the group. And I feel compelled to honour that courage,” says Minnes. “I think that's why we've grown as large as we have. We don't need to be 30 people. But if anybody comes up to me and says, ‘I want to do this, and I think I can,’ then I want them to do it. (Minuscule) is an opportunity to give people a stage who maybe wouldn't otherwise do it on their own. And now, some of them have started to pursue their own musical things or be reinvigorated to visit their own musical personalities. And that is so inspiring and so precious to me.”

In 2019, Minuscule released a debut album, Great. Minnes and her partner Taylor Hulley (who also plays drums for the group) recorded the album themselves, investing in equipment and studio space to give the group the time and creative control to record the album the way they wanted. Minnes and Taylor also make up Laurel & Hulley, a cover band that performs across the Niagara Region.   

Though Minnes is opening doors for many aspiring female singers, she also has a number of mentors whom she says have helped shape her musical career. Among them is Danno O’Shea of My Son the Hurricane, and guitarist and vocalist KW Campol, from Hamilton’s Vile Creature. 

But no one has given Minuscule the opportunity to share their music with the world more than Tony Dekker, lead singer of Canadian indie folk band Great Lake Swimmers. 

The group, which has been on the Canadian music scene for over 20 years, has released eight studio albums and been nominated for a Juno award, Canadian Folk Music award and shortlisted for a Polaris Prize. 

Dekker was recording the band’s latest album, Uncertain Country, at Wow Studios in St. Catharines. He wanted to feature a choir on some of the tracks, and studio owner Joe Lapinski said he knew just the group. Together, Great Lake Swimmers and Minuscule collaborated on two songs on the new album: “Moonlight, Stay Above” and “Respect For All Living Things,” and recorded them at a church in Ball’s Falls. 

“Tony has been one of those people that I just am so thankful for. We had coffee a couple of months ago, and he just said, ‘I believe in you, and I believe in your project. How can I support you?’ I said, ‘Give me your coattails. And let me hang on for dear life.’ (Great Lake Swimmers) have built such a beautiful community and a beautiful following over the last 20 years. And their fans, I think, are our fans, so (our collaboration) makes a lot of sense.”

Minuscule opened for the Great Lake Swimmers on the East Coast leg of their recent Canadian tour, hitting up Fredericton, St. John, Halifax, Charlottetown and finally, Quebec City. They also performed the songs they collaborated on for Uncertain Country.

While Minuscule’s exact musical genre is hard to pin down, it has been referred to as a new form of feminist pop music, and that’s a badge Minnes wears proudly.

Laurel Minnes is a champion for women but the themes of Minuscule’s music are intended to resonate with everyone.  

“People have said, ‘Oh, don't say feminist, you're gonna scare off a certain subset of the population.’ And I say, ‘Well, then it's their loss.’ I can't be everything to everyone. Feminism is not about women ruling the world, it is about them having a seat at the table and being even with everybody.”

Minnes is a talented lyricist, and each of her original songs exudes a refreshing honesty and captivating rawness. And though she is a champion for women, the themes of Minuscule’s music are intended to resonate with everyone.  

“(Minuscule) is not meant to be a girl band. And the music is not meant to be (just) for women,” says Minnes. “I want to be as authentic as possible. And I think a lot of what we sing about is totally universal about addiction and grief and loss and embarrassment and empowerment. And those are all themes that everybody can get on board with. The purpose is to make people not feel alone. I am compelled to just be as vulnerable as possible. I feel like that is my role so that others feel like they are allowed to be as well.”

That openness and vulnerability is clear in every Minuscule performance, but perhaps what is even more palpable is the chemistry of the group. The camaraderie and connection, the group of bodies vibrating together. It’s what drives Minnes – and leaves no room for ego. 

“I don't think that I ever want to do this alone. It's not meant to be alone,” says Minnes. “It's meant to be a shared catharsis. It just feels so much like a community, and I treasure every member. I'm so happy to have them. We have members come and go, at every age, every life stage – it's non-discriminatory in that regard. But once you're in it, you're never out.”