The Man Who Married Music - Stephen Fearing Returns to Rossland
Travelling the long and winding road of the Canadian musician, traversing the country from east to west and back again, one could imagine that, interspaced between bursts of adoration from groups of fans, the dark roads of the Canadian Hinterland could be lonely. On the other hand, if you’ve been at it for 20 years there must be an innate love to seeing the country as only the travelling musician can, developing an intimate relationship with the ins and outs of our vast country’s music venues. In this day and age, developing and growing any sort of relationship for 20 years seems a rarity. Singer, songwriter and all around troubadour Stephen Fearing has lived this life and throughout a lifetime of entertaining has met, courted, fell in love with, and ultimately been married to the music.
As he makes his way west once again, Fearing will be coming through Rossland the day after Valentine’s Day, performing songs at the Miner’s Hall from his latest, aptly titled album, “The Man who Married Music: The Best of Stephen Fearing”. Catching up with Stephen over the phone this week before he went on stage in Toronto, I got the chance to dig into the brain and soul of a true Canadian singer-songwriter.
I’m fairly familiar with your work, but have yet to see one of your shows. What can we expect when you swing through Rossland this time?
Well it`s going to be myself and Dave Gunning is travelling with me. He`s an East Coast singer-songwriter so it will be the two of us. He`s opening the show. Basically they’re going to see two singer songwriters performing their songs. (Laughs) I’ve got some dancing ponies and I think Dave`s bringing elephants. No it`s just two guys with guitars doing our thing.
Being a musician myself it’s always hard to describe your sound, if you had to make a stab at it for people maybe unfamiliar with your music what would you tell them?
It’s probably the hardest question to answer. People say what kind of music do you play and I’m like, oh God, I don’t’ know. You say folk music and some people think of traditional stuff and others think of James Taylor and neither of them are very accurate. Roots music is kind of a very nebulous title.
I was born on the west coast of Canada but I grew up in Ireland, so there’s an element of both. You know what, I’m not even going to go there. (Laughs) They are going to hear a contemporary Canadian singer songwriter and that’s what I do. I really have a hard time describing the genre. I’m hoping that the people that are coming will have some kind of idea. I‘ve played in Rossland before and I have been at this for a while so usually people have a vague idea as to what I do.
You’ve got a new album out. What was the inspiration behind putting out a ‘best of’ at this stage of your career?
It’s a collection of the last eight records and a lot of people think of a ‘best of’ as being a retrospective. I’m not really that comfortable with that idea. It’s not like I’m slowly packing it in or anything. It’s much more kind of an ending of a chapter for me. My label, True North, was sold before Christmas and so it’s really the end of an era for me. That’s why it seemed like a good idea. The label had been pestering me to put out a best of for quite a while so I thought, well, this is a pretty good time to do it.
There’re two new songs on the album. Was that a message to people to let them know that you’re not done just yet?
I recorded two new songs because I was kind of uncomfortable with that idea. I thought I’d record a couple of new songs on it to give people a bit of an idea on where I’m still going.
You seem as a storyteller as much as songwriter, tell me a bit about the inspiration behind the two new tunes.
The new songs… One of them was written with, I’m not sure if your familiar or not Louis P. Bennett, a great Canadian songwriter and a great friend and mentor of mine. Louis passed away very suddenly, so there’s been a lot of death around me. My father died, my step-father died, one of my very, very sweet friends and band mates, Richard Bell from the Rodeo Kings, passed away and on and on and on. So definitely it was a time for me to think about that and write something about it.
Above my father’s desk on the day he died was a Mark Twain quote which is “Life ain’t no dress rehearsal” and I thought that that was kind of an appropriate thing to have over your desk on the day you died so I wrote a tune about it.
The other new song is called “The Big East West” and the idea behind that is that typically Canadian musicians’ tours go in this long line that stretches east-west and runs parallel to the border. You might go north a little bit but you typically just point your car east or west and put it on cruise control and stop and see buildings and that’s how you see Canada.. So I was writing a song about the east-west.
You’ve had a great career for what 20 years now? What have been some of the highlights of touring and playing music over that time?
Well I got to do 13 shows opening for Merle Haggard with Blacky and the Rodeo Kings and that was a real highlight for me. I think like most musicians I’m a fan of music too and in particular songwriters are fascinating to me. To be able to tour with one of the pioneers of that genre was really a treat and we got to do 13 shows with him so we spent a lot of time with him and watching him and his band sound check and rehearse. That was really special.
I’m just lucky that I get to do this. People often think of success as getting to bank a lot of money and fame and fortune, but I’m lucky enough to have had a long career and it’s not going to go away because it’s really built on doing exactly what I’m doing right now which is playing music and driving. I love to see this country and I never get tired of driving across and seeing all of the little communities. I was in Rossland last year and I used to live in Nelson. I remember coming up to Rossland when I was going to music school and it’s just kind of a chance to reacquaint yourself with these little parts of Canada and it’s a very pretty country with a lot of great people in it and I really enjoy doing what I do. The real highlight for me is just to be able to continue to do this.
What’s next for you down the road?
After this tour I’m coming back to Nelson for a while. I’m going to do a sort of residency there. I’m going to teach at the music school and do a couple of little Two hour classes and then do a concert on the 25th of February at the Studio 80, I think it’s called, up at the college.
That must be a whole different kind of feedback from performing to teaching?
It really is. The hard thing is trying to articulate it. I’m not sure you can actually teach this stuff. It’s something that nine times out of ten you walk into a classroom with a bunch of students and it’s very obvious that one or two of them have got something and the rest of them love it and are passionate about it but they are writing the same song over and over and over. Mostly what I’m doing is to encourage people to step outside of their comfort zone and get excited about it. The hardest thing is to grow as a writer when you’re not forced to make a living at it. It is one of those things that the more you do it the better you get.
You strike me as someone who will keep performing until they die? Any thoughts on what you’ll do in the future?
Oh just keep doing it. There are no plans to retire. I’m only 46. I read a really great interview with Lucinda Williams, a musician I really admire. She grew up around poets because her father, Miller Williams, is a pretty famous poet. She was saying that in the literary world nobody would suggest that as you get older you lose the fire or become a lesser poet. In the poetry world and to some degree in the fiction world you’re considered to be a better writer as you get older. It’s only in the music world and particularly in rock and pop that people think you have your peak when you’re 20.
I never thought that way either. I always thought I was getting better. It’s true that it’s harder to get press because you’re no longer the sweet young thing, and, let’s face it, the media is very wrapped up in the pop scene and youth. As far as your skills are concerned and as far as your understanding of this thing called song writing it just gets deeper and deeper until either no one else wants to see me anymore or I just can’t do it anymore. There’s no pension plan for musicians, you know. You just keep playing until people stop listening.
Tickets to Stephen Fearing’s concert at the Miners Hall on Sunday February 15th are available at Rouge and going fast.