Sarah Skinner remembers the moment she knew Canada was meant to be her new home.
She and her husband Rob had just finished a 12-date tour in 2015, performing as the Red Dirt Skinners, during an 18-day stint on Canadian soil. Between the warmth of the people, the gorgeous scenery, and what Sarah says were 12 shows filled with “soul sparkling” audiences, something happened.
“We returned to Pearson airport (in Toronto) feeling like our world had been turned upside down,” she recalled. She and Rob were on their way home to the United Kingdom, but this time it didn’t feel right.
“As the plane took off, we both burst into tears and said that for the first time in our lives we were feeling homesick. Not for England, but for Canada.”
That moment was the beginning of a journey that would lead Rob and Sarah back to Canada. In 2017, they became permanent residents under the “Performers of a World Class” category, settling in Marmora and Lake.
“The decision to move to Marmora was based solely on the specific house that we viewed,” Sarah said. “The fact that Marmora is such a welcoming and inclusive community is a huge bonus. We have a solid support and friendship network here and couldn’t ask for a better home.”
With them, the duo brought a wealth of musical talent and a diverse portfolio of musical achievements and awards. Together, they have been performing for more than a decade now, their songs built from Sarah’s knack for late-night writing, and Rob’s talent for adding a melody to her words.
“Somewhere in England is a desk with orange Sharpie lyrics written across it because Sarah got up in the middle of the night to write a song and thought there was a paper on the desk,” Rob joked. “That song became the opening track on our second album!”
They often also write over a morning cup of coffee, Sarah said.
“I have hundreds of videos on my phone of Rob in his housecoat, coffee beside him and a guitar in hand.”
The story of how the Red Dirt Skinners came to be is one of chance. Sarah put out a call for musicians to audition for a band she was forming back in 2009. Rob happened to answer that call.
“We worked together for six months on a couple of projects, but none of the other guys we were working with wanted to be full-time musicians, so we decided to start working
on a duo act,” Sarah said. “It was at this time that we realised that there was a romantic connection as well as the immediate musical connection.
Initially, the pair began by covering popular hits by other artists, but eventually began writing their own music and playing ticketed shows in 2012.
Since then, it’s been full steam ahead for the Red Dirt Skinners. In just over 10 years, Sarah and Rob have released six albums and are currently working on their seventh. Their music is never stagnant, always evolving with each album. Their 2018 album Under Utopian Skies won Alternative Album of the Year, while their 2016 album Behind the Wheel won Folk Roots album of the Year (both UK awards). They also won Instrumentalist of the Year at the British Blues Awards and People’s choice at the British Country Music Awards.
As demonstrated in their many award nominations in a variety of categories, Red Dirt Skinners doesn’t quite fit into a single genre, which Sarah and Rob prefer. They both play a diverse range of instruments and perform vocals together.
“I made the decision to get reasonably good on guitar, bass, drums and keys,” Rob said, “whilst Sarah made the decision to really master the saxophone and plays other instruments well enough to be able to pass ideas on to me to run with.”
“There are simply two kinds of music; good music and the other kind! We do our best to play good music,” they joked. “We’re always trying to improve ourselves and our music and we like to break through boundaries. All we ever ask is that each album, show, or whatever, is better than the last. We’ve always had this attitude and look to stay positive.”
That same positivity and drive to keep creating has helped during COVID-19, as Red Dirt Skinners’ live performances have all been cancelled, and Rob and Sarah have had to find different avenues to reach their audience. Living in a rural community, inconsistent internet has been a challenge, along with the isolation of the pandemic.
“We miss our audiences. We’ve been forced to diversify and find other ways to stay connected to our fans,” they said. “We have a pretty active community on our Facebook page and we’ve recently set up a Patreon page where superfans can connect with us and gain exclusive content. Sadly, the idea of live streaming is out of the question for the time being. Ninety percent of our household income is from ticket sales, so it’s been a tough time, but we are nonetheless grateful to live here and are very focussed on staying positive.”
In the meantime, Rob and Sarah have been working on Red Dirt Skinners’ seventh album – one they feel is their best work yet.
“There are songs about people we’ve met since we moved here, together with songs about our feelings about situations we’ve found ourselves in, and our philosophies on life,” Sarah said. “One of the new songs is entitled ‘Brighter Days Ahead’. (It) isn’t actually about COVID, it’s about finding the positives in challenges that are thrown at us.”
While the past 12 months have been challenging, the year provided an opportunity for creativity.
“We are lucky that when we have been isolating, we have each other, and we have much to work on from home. We have amazing friends we have spent time with whenever we’re allowed, and it’s honestly been a surprisingly positive and inspiring time.”
Once they are given the green light, Red Dirt Skinners will be prepared to once again take the show on the road.
“We chose this line of work because we love it, and yes, we desperately miss the energy of live shows; there is simply nothing like it. We just hope we can remember how to do it when the time comes.”
For any young entrepreneurial couple considering a relocation, the message is clear: Join the many artists and business-minded folks within Hastings County and watch your creativity blossom into a meaningful venture.
“We love having this area as a base and have found it to be a very warm, welcoming and caring community,” Sarah said. “We’d encourage anyone thinking of making the leap to move to the area if they want to (be) a part of something really special.”