The Strange Valentines at home in River John

Arts & Entertainment Community Featured

Couple playing music, highlighting community halls

A delightful visit with David Farrell and Janet Mills is like sitting down with a delectable layered dessert: Each layer offers something unique and decadent by itself, and you know you’re going to love the entire sweet package as a whole.

The River John couple are gregarious, funny, engaging, entertaining and so in tune with each other’s thoughts they can finish the other’s sentences.

Each layer also offers insight into who they are, what they do and what makes them tick.

Bottom line: It’s all about music — playing it, writing it, and most importantly, sharing it.

The couple moved to River John about 18 months ago after having lived in many other places around the world. Farrell is originally from Australia, Mills from Melrose in Guysborough County. He had a professional music career as a guitarist on the rock scene in Australia, opening for bands such as INXS; she grew up surrounded by music in the house — a typical Maritime musical background. “I never played outside of churches,” before she met Farrell, laughs Mills.

Microbiologists by trade, and hailing from opposite ends of the globe, they met in Atlanta at a conference and began a long-distance relationship between Nova Scotia and England, where Farrell was living and working at that time.

“Long story short: We eventually get married and do music,” laughs Mills.

They lived apart the first four years into their marriage and Farrell lived in the UK for the first three of those years. “I crossed ‘the Pond’ every month,” he explains — a flight that was six hours in duration one way, seven on the return.

“I’d come for the weekend,” Farrell recalls. “I’d take Friday off and fly to Nova Scotia, then fly back on the Red Eye on Sunday nights.” He’d end up going right to work from the airport. “It was crazy but worth it,” he nods. They’ve now been married for a decade.

Frustrated by what they referred to as the “bureaucracy” of their careers as scientists, they were looking for a better life free from all of the trappings their scientific endeavours involved.

“I was working for Public Health in Ontario and in Saskatchewan Disease Control, and the very reason I left is because they wouldn’t listen to being prepared for things like what is happening now,” Farrell says.

“So we decided that if we sell what we’ve got, find a little place, we could probably survive. And we imagined that with our musical career we would be able to do that,” Mills laughs.

The Strange Valentines, as they are known, had a tour lined up for cross-Canada and the UK, but that was prior to the worldwide health pandemic. They both share in playing and writing their own songs with Mills doing more of the lead vocals. Their music is best described as Canadiana and folk, or as Mills explains, “Australian rock meets Maritime folk.”

They moved to River John just before COVID struck. And the time spent alone in their little house in the village has lent itself to a new musical project: delving into the history of community halls across the province. The Strange Valentines chose Community Strong as a series of short videos to showcase community centres in Nova Scotia. Each video gives a taste of local history and culture, followed by a song played in the hall by the duo. The videos can be enjoyed on their YouTube channel.

Mills explains, “Often at this time of the year we’re all over, playing at different places. But we haven’t been able to play.” The pandemic left them with more time on their hands.

“I think the seed of it came from being asked to play at the Seafoam community hall last Christmas for their pageant show — the communities here are all very musical,” Farrell lauds. Because The Strange Valentines were the last act of the evening, it gave the couple time to sit and enjoy the rest of the show: the fiddlers, the dancers, the skits, the kids, the storytelling… “It was packed.”

And they fell in love with what they experienced.

“It reminded me of the variety shows from when I was a kid,” Mills says. “I didn’t think that kind of thing happened anymore and it was such an amazing thing to have a community that has that.”

That was the spark of the idea.

Since their house doubles as a recording studio, it was a perfect fit for the couple. They do the filming and video editing, chat with those involved and play music.

“And as we drive around and visit these places, it shows us how important these community halls have been, and still are,” Farrell says. “And how important they are going to be.”

Mills says the history of these community halls is “incredible”.

“What’s been happening at these halls pre-Covid is pretty amazing but post-Covid and going forward there is a real opportunity at these halls.”

She notes that today, people are leaving cities and flocking to more rural areas — like Nova Scotia. “And all of these places that were forgotten by a lot of people … could have some resurgence and be venues for entertainment.”

Like the line from Field of Dreams, ‘If you build it they will come,’ The Strange Valentines are working hard to highlight rural community halls, their history and their locations as entertainment venues through their website, https://thestrangevalentines.com/home.

The other reason why the couple started featuring community halls on their YouTube channel was for their fans. Living in a rural area with spotty internet means The Strange Valentines can’t do livestreams of their music. So the Community Strong series is a way of them providing them with “interesting” content for their channel. “We have people from all over the world watching these community hall features — and they love them!” explains Mills. “Plus, we wanted to play in these community halls.”

She says she imagines what it would sound like if those walls could talk. “The halls were once filled with music and now here we are, with Covid. The halls are silent. But I think about all of the music that has filled the community halls over the years and imagine the music getting embedded into the walls, like memories…”

Farrell adds, “These places have held a lot of music over the years and now they’re not having any music, so we thought just having us play one of our songs in there is good for us and it’s good for them.”