by carl wilson

Christine Fellows:
'They're Just Letting in a Little Light'

Prelims: Today's me-interview on CBC's "Q" should land somewhere 'round here.

Yesterday, I had a feature profile of Christine Fellows in the Globe & Mail. (Transcript to come, Canuckistan-stylee.) Tonight, Christine plays a show at the Music Gallery, showcasing her lovely new album with a title that's one of the ear-ticklingest, bitterest-sweet words in English, Nevertheless. (Borrowed gently from a Marianne Moore poem.) Her voice, ukulele, piano and cetera will be supported by cellist Leanne Zacharias and hand-animated visual projections by the amazing Shary Boyle (who's also collaborated with Feist, Jens Lekman and others). Rather like this:


A songwriter gets intimate with solitude
12/13/07 The Globe and Mail
CARL WILSON

Intimacy is a slippery thing. When it begins it's so hard to be sure of, and when it goes -- worn out by routine, dispersed by separation, brought to a full stop by mortality -- only unreliable memory can vouch it existed, since its traces lie by definition in territory unreachable by any outsider. And the price this most precious human experience exacts is to invent a new kind of emptiness you know you'll plunge into when its tethers break. It's funny that more people don't simply opt out. The ones who do -- the reclusive eccentrics, confirmed bachelors and maiden aunts among us -- seem to be keeping another sort of secret.

The gregarious and thoughtful Winnipeg musician Christine Fellows is, by her own testimony, happily married to John K. Samson, her sounding board and sometime collaborator, as well as the lead singer of flagship 'Peg rock band the Weakerthans. On her superb 2005 album Paper Anniversary -- which led celebrated U.S. songwriter John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats to invite her on tour last year, proclaiming, "Christine Fellows is writing better songs than anybody else. Everybody else is actually quite pathetic next to her" -- partnership and family were conspicuous themes.

She is following up with a set of musical portraits of lives marked by intimacy's apparent banishment.

"At the end of the day you are alone with yourself," she said in a backstage interview when she opened for her husband's band at the Opera House in Toronto in early November. "Yourself is inescapable. Even with Paper Anniversary -- and I know this is kind of a bad way to be -- I had just gotten married but I was thinking, 'What do I do when he dies?' I read Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking," a wrenching chronicle of sudden widowhood, "and I felt like, 'Oh my god, I can't bear the thought.' So I wrote a little sketch of my family coming home after my grandmother's husband, my grandfather, had died." It became that album's gorgeous centrepiece, Vertebrae. "I had to go to that dark place even though I was totally jubilant."

The new album, Fellows' fourth, Nevertheless, began with a commission from Toronto-based dancer and choreographer Susie Burpee, who wanted music for a one-woman show about the concept of the spinster, the solitary woman. She asked not just for an instrumental score of the sort Fellows has composed for many dancers, filmmakers and other cross-disciplinary collaborators, but for a song cycle. Fellows quickly decided to base an album on the same material.

Though the spur may have been a standard feminist inquiry into a scorned stereotype, Fellows' research -- "because I have my own weird little way" -- led her to a "male spinster," American collage-box artist Joseph Cornell (1903-72): "It turned out he lived with his mother his entire life, and was really shy, and fascinated with ballerinas, these archetypes of the female. He's not a bachelor, right? He's a spinster." Next she discovered Cornell's correspondent Marianne Moore, in some ways his opposite number -- though apparently celibate, and renowned for her brainy and unsentimental nature poems, she was a flamboyant presence on the New York literary scene, often clad in a black cape, squiring Paris Review editor George Plimpton to baseball games and known to have a pet alligator in her bathtub.

"I fell in love instantly," Fellows said. "But I wanted to get inside the idea of why her life was that way. Did she ever have relationships? I spent a long time trying to figure out if she was gay, and so on. And why did I want to know? I wanted to know where her passion lay. And finally I realized that her passion was in poetry. It absolutely was her work, and her way of looking at the world. ... I started out trying to figure out why she was alone and then realized there was no need for that."

Much of Nevertheless was written in dialogue with Moore's verses of singularity and resilience (it takes its title from one). It also portrays Cornell-like figures as well as a retired boxer named Cruel Jim, an old lady keeping chickens in the country and a Winnipeg spinster named Betty (based loosely on a clipped-out obituary Fellows rediscovered in the pocket of her winter coat one day) whose pets are a mated pair of Parlour Roller pigeons, a bizarre evolutionary-dead-end breed of racing bird that cannot fly but wildly flaps its wings and turns backward somersaults along the ground. (It's worth a YouTube search for this uncanny and, as the bird-loving Fellows said, "heartbreaking" sight.)

Clearly, all this is not in the usual ambit of a confessional singer-songwriter.

"At a certain point, all your previous life seems to be very inward-focused, directed towards yourself. Then at some point the focus goes outward," said Fellows, a wide-eyed 39-year-old with dramatically white-blonde hair. "That's part of why this poet was so interesting, because her focus was always outward. ... I sneak little bits of myself in -- that's unavoidable, right? ... But it's also, 'What's the rest of the world up to?' "

The effect is far from impersonal, thanks to Fellows' intricate and sensitive writing, "pushed up against" the melodic energy of her piano lines and chamber-string settings, with a few bouncy rock refrains and the occasional choral interlude. Her singing voice skips nimbly over off-rhythms to convey complex thoughts in a disarmingly chatty tone, as if in a phone call with a close friend. Which only makes the poignant twists, when they come, more pulverizing.

Combining commissions, arts grants and the support of her small label, Toronto's Six Shooter Records, she has found a neatly Canadian niche that helps her bypass an entertainment industry "that really has nothing to do with what I do, most of it." Unlike many female singers who aren't famous by their late 30s, she's at no risk of feeling like a music-business spinster. She was so busy last year that at one point she literally broke out in hives.

"I didn't even know that I could sing until I was 24. I went to jazz school when I was younger, but I never sang, I just thought [being a musician] would be a kind of cool job -- my grandfather had played in a big band. So I feel like I'm still kind of young with it."

The scattering of the Winnipeg scene Fellows settled into with early bands Helen and Special Fancy in the 1990s (she grew up mainly in British Columbia) has given her another sort of experience of solitude. Yet while Paper Anniversary was painstakingly patched together alone in a home studio, her suite about loners was recorded very sociably, with one ensemble in a restored 1912 opera house in the small rural town of Manitou and another band assembling in Winnipeg. But to do it, she had to fly most of the players back to Manitoba. Usually Fellows has to leave home now to see musical friends, whether on tours like the one that brings her to Toronto's Music Gallery on Friday, or trips to collaborate with people such as visual artist Shary Boyle, whose magical hand-animated projections were used for the album artwork and will accompany Friday's show.

In Winnipeg, Fellows has a sense of living "a bit off the grid," as she and Samson spend their time mostly on their own, writing. "Both of us have really made an effort to stay there, because everyone leaves. For him it's family, and for me it's a place I chose. So I want to make it work even though technically it doesn't work."

For all the album's empathy for spinsterhood, the earthy Fellows, ever quick with a curious-fact digression or a joke at her own expense, seems unlikely ever to embrace such an ascetic choice. Her heart ultimately is with the pigeons -- awkward, perhaps ill-fated, but paired for life. In the final song, the bluegrass-tinged What Are Years?, she turns a famous Marianne Moore quote into a question: "Is solitude indeed the cure for loneliness?"

And she answers: "Oh, I don't think so: I'd miss you too much."

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Friday, December 14 at 3:04 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

COMMENTS

Thanks for the review links - I enjoyed the weekend feature re:your pilgrimage to Vegas to investigate whether Ms Dion is really a replicant(- well, you know what I mean). - Sure to be on her 'usband's shit list, the piece was more personal and gritty than one might expect for an article about someone of her, um, stature(!?), in a National newspaper to boot, kudos to the Globe for obviously appreciating your sensibilities - Well done Carl! Hope they will be sending you to check out Anne Murray next.

Posted by mdintotonto on December 18, 2007 6:46 AM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson