There's an unending debate about who gets to call themselves a Northerner. Some argue it takes four years of living North of 60 to earn the title, and the staunchest gatekeepers will quickly revoke that status should the Northerner head south. All of which is to say, the North is guarded about who it opens its heart to.
It didn't take long for singer-songwriter Sarah MacDougall to fall in love with the Yukon when she arrived for the first time several years ago. But what was really special, she says, was the affection with which the North welcomed her to what became a new home.
"The community embraced me from the minute I got there," she says. "It's part of why I decided to move there and stay. Everyone was like, ‘You should stay here.' I wasn't really planning on it being that long."
A decade later, the singer-songwriter has won two Western Canadian Music Awards and played the Canada 150 stage in Ottawa. She was also chosen as one of the artists to represent the Yukon at 2013's Northern Scene Festival in Ottawa.
Her fourth studio album, All The Hours I have Left To Tell You Anything, was released last fall to rave reviews and ended up taking home two Independent Music Awards during Canadian Music Week. MacDougall worked on the record with Marcus Paquin, the Montreal-based producer who's previously shepherded records for groups like Stars, The National, and Arcade Fire. Currently, she can be found touring across Canada and Europe, while working on a new record she plans to produce herself.
Born and raised in southern Sweden, MacDougall moved to Canada at the age of 21 to attend university in British Columbia. She came North on tour and "got stuck."
"I just fell in love with the nature," she says. "I think it reminded me of Sweden. I felt at home." The vastness of the territory has inspired her canon. "Empire," her latest album's lead single, was forged in an abandoned silver mine at the Keno City Music and Art Workshop. The song, both epic and intimate at the same time, deals with the death of her grandfather and romantic heartbreak.
"And in the North, the mountains stand steady for you," she writes on her 2011 album, The Greatest Ones Alive.
"When you're so close to nature as you are in the North, you realize that you're small," she says. "Which is really comforting in a strange way. You realize that the small things in life don't actually matter that much and we're just little blips of life."
It's a touch melancholic, perhaps, but MacDougall finds the North's nature comforting. "We are born and then we die," she writes, "and in between we are alive."
Home, for MacDougall, could be the dark Swedish vistas she grew up in. It could be the London, Ontario house she inherited from her grandmother. Or the land she and her partner recently bought in Atlin, British Columbia, where they're building a house just over the Yukon border. But it will also always be the North.
"I definitely feel at home when I'm up North," she says. "It's a really hard place to not stay in."