This Cozy Summer Island is Still Upstate New York's Best Kept Secret.
posted 05 Sep 2021 by Krister Axel
Nestled along the western coast of Wellesley Island, Thousand Island Park has been putting a spotlight on community since 1890. Tonight we enjoyed performances from Jay Nash and Emilie Cardinaux.

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It's a little bit out of the way, which only adds to the excitement of getting there. Just off of New York State Route 12 about a 20 minute drive from Clayton, the Town of Orleans on Wellesley Island boasts some top-tier golf courses, a gorgeous 2600 acre state park, and one of the oldest summer resort communities in the country. But on this magical night, I visited the Tabernacle with my family just to enjoy some live music. It was a perfect evening of intimate songs, river jokes, and easy laughter with old friends.

Most of the best roots and folk songwriting simply meshes friendly storytelling with a few guitar chords, as artists from Randy Newman to Joni Mitchell and Josh Ritter will attest: if it feels forced, you're doing it wrong. Inspiration is the thing.

At this wizened, white painted-wood house of worship that has stood for 6 generations, all were welcome to enjoy a lively performance from two local stars. And they were both deeply inspired by the massive river flowing behind them — just out of sight, but never out of mind. The music was authentic, heartfelt, and perfectly matched to the rustic beauty that surrounded us.

Anyone that has grown up in the Thousand Islands region of New York will tell you: there's nothing else like it in the world. The family homes that abound in this region are handed down over many generations, with friendships and marriages and businesses that thrive across bloodlines in a way that is nothing short of impressive. There is a way of talking — a love of shared experience and of boating culture — that provides ample common ground for infinite back-and-forth discussions about the best swimming, private beaches, and fishing in the region. Enjoying the river is the sport of choice. Kayaks, sailboats, motor boats, canoes, it doesn't matter how you do it. Just go, and you'll probably want to bring a few friends, some sunscreen, and a couple of six-packs.

I've got a bat-sign bungalow where New York meets Ontario
Fade away, here we go, through the archipelago — lyrics by Emilie Cardinaux

But it wouldn't be fair to say that river culture is simply a well-funded adjunct to the classic party mindset. Many would argue that the secret sauce is really a combination of discovery and adventure, savoring the possibility of stumbling into a place that no one has found before and above all enjoying the experience with a few of your best friends. It's about catching the perfect sunset, and feeling close to nature in whatever way feels most comfortable. It's about stretching out on a lawn chair to listen to someone pour their heart out on stage and finding those fleeting nuggets of common understanding that are so valuable and so rare.

Thousand Island Park has been a community for at least a portion of three different centuries, and the gentle force of social cohesion here is very strong. The benefit tonight was for River Take Me Home which helped raise more than $4000 for Gwen's Food Pantry of Lafargeville, NY. Emilie Cardinaux took the first set, and was joined by Jay Nash for her last song.

Emilie's story is as unlikely as it is inspiring. Taking refuge from a NYC music scene that was at turns both kind and excruciating, she broke from the city grind to enjoy a slowed-down pace of life in Clayton, NY. She started making jewelry for friends and friends of friends. She opened up a shop called The Golden Cleat. She bought a house. You could do that then — like the rest of the country, the real estate market in Jefferson County is growing a bit too quickly for the locals. But this was years ago, before the secret had started getting out. The real estate boom that is sweeping the country is taking its toll here as well, but arguably it's still affordable by comparison. That probably won't last for much longer.

The music of Emilie Cardinaux is full of the kind of locational references that will feel like home to someone from Thousand Islands. The song above, for example, features a rapid-fire succession of call-outs to beaches and bays and islands that resonate as an inspired, river-minded stream-of-consciousness. Calumet Island, Picnic Point, Buck Bay — there exists here a secret language of geography that binds everyone from Cape Vincent all the way to Massena in a tapestry of glittering moonlight and orange sherbet dusk that cannot be taken out of context. Beyond these hallowed shores, the same magic simply does not exist.

Jay learned the craft of performing for a crowd in the basement of the Wellesley Island Hotel more than 20 years ago. A student at SUNY Binghamton, and then the University of Vermont, young Jay would visit his family in Clayton on the shores of the Saint Lawrence river every summer, and borrow the family boat to shuttle to his performances in the area: from Wellesley Island to Alexandria Bay and everywhere in between. He had a few hundred cover songs ready to go, and he learned quickly how to make the energy of the crowd work for him. That was the mid 90s, and Jay has been perfecting his stage persona and adding to his list of contacts ever since. His writing style borrows equally from Folk and Rock while his booming growl of a baritone voice and beer-buddy demeanor put him right in the line of succession for fans of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. He is lovable, engaging, and a fantastic performer. His music shoots from the hip and transforms the energy of an acoustic guitar and a gritty vocal delivery into the mirror image of a humanity that we all share. Common folk themes of nostalgia and self-reflection commingle with an abiding love of simple pleasures to present a roots-flavored aesthetic that feels both effortless and familiar.

His latest projects include "Night Songs," a 4-song EP that was almost entirely self produced — along with some help from Bill Lefler — which includes Dave Eggar on cello and guest vocals from Amber Rubarth, mixed by Andrew Oedel.

"Daydreams" is another short EP that in my view presents his best work yet, set for release later in the year. It finds Nash expanding the boundaries of his comfort zone in terms of style and I found two of the tracks ("Mulholland" and "Spinning On") enticingly similar to some of the more mid-tempo, rock-fueled offerings from personal favorite The Paper Kites. Additionally, stand-out track "I Saw Ladybird" captures a wistful moment of childhood reminiscence coupled with a country flavor that feels both classic and modern — as a fantastic lap-steel track matches up with acoustic guitar and piano in a way that reminds me just a bit of The Wallflowers. Keep an eye out for the release of "Daydreams" on October 29th.

Daydreams by Jay Nash

Production: Bill Lefler
Bass: Jon Flaugher
Guitar: Val Maccalum
Vocals: Jay Nash, Tony Lucca, Matt Duke, Josh Day
All other instruments by Jay Nash and Bill Lefler
Mixed by Andrew Oedel
Mastered by Hand Dekline

Cover art by Robby Rose

EDITOR'S NOTE: Jay Nash and I were part of the history of Los Angeles and its thriving independent music scene through primarily two live music venues: Room 5, once called Farfalla II, was a legendary music venue near the corner of La Brea and Melrose Avenue which has since shut down; and much of the talent from that series of open mics and weekend performances transitioned to what was once a single room club in Hollywood called the Hotel Café (now significantly expanded). Artists from Katy Perry, Meiko, and Sara Bareilles to Joe Purdy and Tyrone Wells got their start on that stage. The Hotel Café has gone on to be a cornerstone of the Los Angeles scene — no longer just for the up-and-comers — but its roots will always lie in that thriving brew of hungry songwriters and session musicians that has given the world some of the West Coast's best music in the past few decades.

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About the Author


Krister Bjornson Axel

Ogdensburg, New York

Paris, France. Madison, Wisconsin. Los Angeles. Ashland, Oregon. Ottawa. I write music, I write about music, and I write code. See also: photography, prose, podcasting. I have 1 gorgeous wife, 2 amazing kids, and many interests.

Recent Awards: 2020 ND (Photo) Honorable Mention, 2020 Accenti Writing Contest Finalist