Ten months ago, Halifax was the scene of a dream come true for Vancouver's Madeline Merlo.
The vivacious singer's first visit to the East Coast in September coincided with her debut as a Canadian Country Music Award nominee, in the Rising Star category. She went on to claim the prize as her own on the strength of singles like Honey Jack and Sinking Like a Stone.
On Wednesday she returned to the city to lend an assist to the CCMA, announcing the first category for the 2016 awards live on Global News Morning Halifax. As an added bonus, the album of the year list included a Maritime favourite, I Got This by Pictou County's George Canyon, while Nova Scotia's Dean Brody was tied for most nominations with Brett Kissel once all the categories had been announced.
Performing the task brought back a flood of memories from Merlo's own win last fall. Backstage at the awards gala in Scotiabank Centre, she was genuinely flabbergasted by the award, and chalked it up to perseverance and keeping her eyes on the prize of a music career. Nearly a year later with her debut album Free Soul on the charts, she can see the wisdom in those off-the-cuff remarks.
"People always say they didn't know they were going to win, they don't have anything prepared to say; that's literally what everyone says," Merlo says over coffee at The Nook on Gottingen Street after her early-morning TV appearance. "But it was really the case in my situation. I'd never been to the awards before, I'd never been nominated or walked the green carpet, it was a whole night of new experiences for me.
"There were eight people in my category, there was no way I thought I was going to win. I think what you witnessed was a lot of overwhelming emotion; it's such a crazy award and really great people have won it in the past and gone on to do really wonderful things."
This year, Merlo will return to the CCMAs in London, Ont., as a female artist of the year nominee, which she takes as a sign that she's "moving forward, and improving at what I do."
But as she makes the move from B.C. to Toronto, and spends more time writing and recording in Nashville, Merlo says there's a great deal of pressure involved when you're trying to make music that's commercial while maintaining your own personal voice and vision.
"I feel it a lot," she sighs. "I think when you're talking about a debut record that was two years in the making, there were moments where we felt like it was finished, but then we didn't put it out because there was something we felt we had to fix.
"I'm a perfectionist, and even when we had everything done, I had a song that came up a week before it was due, and I was saying, 'We need to put this song on the album!' And my team was like, 'Madeline, we need to put a stake in this and move on. It can go on the next one.' And I get all dramatic, 'No, but it HAS to go on this one!' But I've learned that you're never done, you're never fully satisfied."
In a sense, Free Soul charts the course Merlo has been following since high school, starting with Holding on to Freedom, which she first wrote at 17, culminating in the newest song War Paint, which chronicles a friend's struggle with mental illness.
"(Holding on to Freedom) is kind of like Dolly Parton's story, it was at the end of high school and everyone walked up on stage and said what they were going to do when they graduated, like go to university and so on," she recalls. "And I stood up on stage and said I wanted to make country music, and everybody started doing the slow clap.
"She had a similar story, telling everyone in school she was going to be a big star, and everyone just looked at each other, like, 'What?' But it was a really scary moment of my life, where I didn't know if I knew what I was doing, or if music was going to work out, and I really felt (what you hear in Holding on to Freedom). Maybe it's not my best-written song, but it was really important that it go on the record as well."
Following a few more promotional duties during her day in Halifax, Merlo was heading to Ottawa to perform at Bluesfest on Wednesday night, followed by a Thursday trip to the Calgary Stampede. She's also eager to see the reaction to her first feature film role when the Sudbury-shot Country Crush is released later this year.
She regrets that she hasn't had an opportunity to perform in Atlantic Canada since Canadian Country Music Week, but predicts it won't be long before Free Soul brings her back to the East Coast.
"It definitely wasn't long enough, because there was so much CCMA stuff going on, but we were able to get down to the ocean, so I could finally see 'the other ocean', which was pretty cool.
"There was amazing food too, but I feel like I didn't really get a proper taste of the culture, or a sense of the world out here, but what I saw was gorgeous, the people were so friendly, and it seems like a nice place to live."