From 1994 to 2016, The Vinyl Cafe took listeners along for the ride across Canada and the U.S., with writer and host Stuart McLean. During a series of concerts, McLean collected stories about real people in the real places they lived, mostly focused around McLean’s fictional character Dave, owner of a second hand record store called “The Vinyl Cafe.”
In Summer 2020, just as we were all craving a bit of adventure, The Vinyl Cafe returned to the airwaves — without the late McLean, who died in 2017.
Producer Jess Milton, who spent 15 years on the road with McLean, reflects on the stories they told, and the experience of exploring the country.
On how she ended up with The Vinyl Cafe
I went to school for journalism and I was always interested in being a foreign correspondent. I guess I kind of became a national correspondent. We were sending these postcards from Canada back to Canadians. Wherever we were recording from, we’d arrive a full week beforehand and we’d spend every single day on the ground, reporting and learning about the people. Each place was never exactly what you expected, that’s for sure.
On the producing process
The best example of this is from planning to record in Prince Edward County. It was right when Prince Edward County was changing, becoming a place of wineries and whatnot and we set out to tell that story. So we booked a theatre to perform in and we went to learn about farming practices and then the story turned from about wineries to about farming practices. Stuart and I would take this research and study it independently and come back together and slowly, the real truth, the story would emerge. It took us a long time to get there, but when we did, it was awesome.
On exploring Canada with the show
I was quite young when I started producing the show and I had travelled all over the world, to Africa and Asia and Europe — but I’d never been to very many places in Canada. I think there are a lot of kids from [western Canada] who have never been to eastern Canada and vice versa. I remember when someone said ‘Why have you never been to Vancouver’ and I said well the plane ticket to Vancouver is $600 and the plane ticket to Europe is $400. It was more exotic and seemed quite interesting, but that was because I never really explored Canada.
Once I started exploring Canada I realised being here, exploring here, is like discovering your own identity, discovering what makes you who you are. That’s what’s more interesting. You start to understand who we are as a country. Sure, you notice the differences but you also notice the similarities.
My goal with the show was to reflect the country back to itself and tell the stories that we heard.