Tale of two MacLellans is story of mental health and music

Strengthening Mental Health Services -

The last thing that legendary songwriter Gene MacLellan told his then-14-year-old daughter Catherine was that she would have to be brave for a while.

The elder MacLellan took his own life at the family’s Summerside home in 1995 after a lifetime struggle with depression and anxiety. Some of his songs – like Snowbird, Put Your Hand in the Hand, Hard As I Try, The Call, and Thorn In My Shoe – are anthems covered by the likes of Joan Baez, Bing Crosby, and Elvis Presley.

Now 37, Catherine MacLellan is showing some of the bravery her father asked of her as she steps on stage to sold-out crowds nightly to perform her new show “If It's Alright With You – The Life and Music of My Father, Gene MacLellan." It shares the most painful and beautiful details of her father’s – and her own – experiences with mental illness and making music.

“I try to invoke him, ‘please be with me tonight,’” the soft-spoken singer-songwriter explains.

 “Writing music helped me process the grief of losing my dad.”

Now an award-winning musician herself, Catherine has followed in her father’s path with her musical life. The show based on her father – which is playing at the PEI Brewing Company for the summer -- is part theatre, part Island music history lesson, and part mental-health awareness campaign. All of it is an loving treatment of the Gene MacLellan songbook.

As historic photos of her father’s life scroll by, MacLellan walks us through his rise to musical fame and the mental illness that eventually took his life.

The reclusive Gene MacLellan’s life was a mystery to many of his fans. Now, in her own words and his songs, Catherine tells the very personal story. How did he first don that iconic velvet eye patch? What was happening backstage before his legendary performances on Don Messer’s Jubilee?

“It’s his story, I wouldn’t be able to understand or share his story without understanding his mental illness,” Catherine explains.

The show features MacLellan and her incredible band, interpreting her father’s beloved classic and also rare, unreleased songs. She also shares her own experience with depression and anxiety.

“One in four people suffer some sort of mental illness," she says. "It’s about building a bridge.”

MacLellan was one of the Island artists awarded a creation grant from the Prince Edward Island Government this year. The money let her slow down and focus on writing the show.

“As an artist it’s really important to be able to find the time to create, often time is the hardest commodity to come by. The creation grant took the pressure off,” she said.

The show has met much praise from audiences. Members regularly greet her to share their own stories about her dad.

She hopes to take the show on tour this fall. It passed her mother Judy’s scrutiny, and she thinks her father would approve as well.

“I would kill to be able to ask him.”

“If It's Alright With You – The Life and Music of My Father, Gene MacLellan” runs every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday from July to September.

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