Friday, August 18, 2006

Stephen Fearing (Dirty Linen, late 1997)

From Dirty Linen #73 (Dec '97/Jan '98).

On more than one occasion, I've heard Stephen tell a story onstage that relates to the very night of our interview. He was opening for John Wesley Harding, who was then given an opening slot for Cracker at the 9:30 Club. Or--whatever; I don't know all the technicalities of who's "opening" versus "co-billed" and all of that. What I do know is that Stephen ended up playing first on a bill of four artists, with what seemed like 17 people in the audience. It was an instance that really brought home to me how thankless a job a touring musician can feel like he has sometimes.

Anyway, we cut out early, went over to the Brickskeller for the interview, and we missed some kind of rock-star moment with Cracker, during which someone smacked someone else in the face with a bass, or something. I haven't seen Stephen in years; you ask him about it when you see him (because you should see him).

The bit at the end was a sidebar--it's all in Stephen's words.

Stephen Fearing
Messages From Home
by Pamela Murray Winters

Home, turn the headlights off, close my eyes
And let go of the wheel...”

Stephen Fearing, “Home,” 1997

Stephen Fearing has to be the most patient interview subject ever — putting up with inane questions, apologizing for “talking your ear off,” allowing a writer to drive him through darkest Washington in search of a parking space without pointing out that maybe it would help if the headlights were on.

He’s a man at peace with his life, a man who has been on welfare and watched a 10-year relationship crack in two, a man with many fathers, a man who has struggled to find home. Industrial Lullaby, his fourth solo album, reveals that man, easing into his 30s with a wealth of worldly experience, reaching out and finding something better than the innocence he’s lost.

Connect the dots on a map of the places Fearing has lived, and you’re left looking at a strange constellation: a bent arrow. He was born, to an Irish mother and English father, just outside Vancouver in a place called Horseshoe Bay. Six years later, when his family traveled to Ireland for his uncle’s wedding, his mother fell in love with the best man. A year later, his stepfather-to-be came to Vancouver and took Fearing’s mother and her children back to Dublin.

Fearing spent the next 11 years in Ireland, where his interest in music began. (Some of his schoolmates at Mount Temple Comprehensive were similarly inclined; they later became The Stars of Heaven and U2.) At 18 he met a fellow outsider, an American exchange student, and traveled back to Minneapolis with him. After two years in the United States, he returned to British Columbia, where his sisters lived, then to Alberta, and then back to Vancouver. Now he’s in Guelph, Ontario, midway between the extremes.

It’s no surprise, then, that so many of his songs were written on the road. His pursuit of classical and acoustic guitar skill and his rich baritone come more naturally to him than songwriting, and he recalled an early attempt: “I remember when I left Minneapolis, my friends and I took this trip — we hopped freight trains from Minneapolis to Seattle, except we ended up in Portland by mistake. I came back to Minneapolis and did some more playing, and then I caught a bus out west. I remember sitting on the bus and just going through hell trying to write this song and wondering if it was good or bad. And that was the start... I don’t know how many years later, I’m still wondering if it’s good or bad.”

It’s also not surprising how much of his history makes its way into his songs. “The Longest Road,” from The Assassin’s Apprentice, details the conflicted feelings of a young nomad: “Canada/The first country of my youth/My heart was ever drawn to you like a tongue to a broken tooth.”

I first met Fearing as The Assassin’s Apprentice, a set of tales of people on the move, had just crossed the border into the United States. It was no longer a new album (Fearing had already begun the Blackie and the Rodeo Kings project) and he was able to reflect on it.

It is, musically for the listener and personally for Fearing, an album of turning points. “None of the songs on it were consciously about breaking up a 10-year relationship, but I listened to it four months later and realized that it’s all over the record.”

Poet Angela Hryniuk was his companion for a decade. In 1988, the couple was living on welfare in a downtrodden section of Vancouver. They met an accountant named Gary Nixon, who, Fearing remembered wryly, “took great pleasure in the fact that my girlfriend’s typewriter cost more than our car.” Impressed with Fearing’s talent as a singer and guitarist, Nixon put up the money for the album Out to Sea.

That album won Fearing a reputation: “For a while I was the young up-and-coming political songwriter.” You can hear authentic pain in the mournful melody and acute lyrics of “Welfare Wednesday,” based on Fearing’s firsthand observation of his neighborhood. “It was very real for me. The thing that struck me at the time was the fact that I was living in a neighborhood of people most [of whom] were on welfare. I knew that wasn’t my lot. I was lucky enough to be raised white, middle-class, male, and I was just doing some time there and was going to move on. But there were people there, they’d been living that life for a long time, and they’d probably live it the rest of their life.”

Indeed, Fearing moved on and up. Blue Line was produced by Clive Gregson and featured such luminaries as BJ Cole on pedal steel and Christine Collister on backing vocals. Many, including Fearing, consider it the weakest of his albums, but it builds on his social-critic reputation with songs like “Turn Out the Lights,” an adult’s recollection of childhood abuse. It came out just before its label, New Roots, went bankrupt. “In 1990,” said Fearing, “I found myself with no record label, no manager, and no voice because I got singer’s nodes.”

Another three years passed. “I put records out about every three years,” Fearing noted. Along came a new manager, Bernie Finkelstein, and a new record. The Assassin’s Apprentice was the one that looked like a starmaker, with guest spots by Sarah McLachlan and Richard Thompson, production by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, and the strongest set of Fearing’s compositions and vocals to date.

The album produced no hits, no major publicity, no burst of radio airplay on either side of the Canadian border. His relationship with Hryniuk ended, and he left Vancouver once more. A less stubborn man would have quit by now, gone back to bus driving in the Rockies or back on welfare. Fearing was saved by his own persistence, maybe a little luck, and the influence of a new crowd.

There’s a songwriter in Canada... I started off by being a very long-distance fan of his; when I was living in Ireland, my sister gave me a copy of one of his records. His name’s Willie P. Bennett, and I’d be very surprised if you’d heard of him.

When I moved back to Canada, I met him and was star struck, and we became friends slowly, and now he’s one of my real close friends.

So when I moved out east to where I live now, outside Toronto, I felt the need to get in touch with some of the musicians I knew there. I phoned up a fellow called Colin Linden, who’s a blues prodigy — there’s a picture of him at the age of 13 with Howlin’ Wolf. I said we should get together, and we did and had a great time, and I realized that he’s a very busy guy and it wouldn’t be possible to get together with him that frequently — unless I could come up with a really good idea.

Something I’d been thinking about for a couple of years was to do an album of Willie’s stuff. I e-mailed Colin and he basically freaked out because he’d been talking about exactly the same thing with his wife that day, when he got my e-mail. That was in November, and we were in the studio by January [1996] with a third vocalist named Tom Wilson. And basically we did it as a band. We put a band together with three vocalists, three very different styles. Tom plays in a band called Junkhouse, very heavy-duty hardcore rocking music from an industrial town, Hamilton. Colin’s a blues player, and I’m the sensitive singer-songwriter guy. So it was three different takes, and it took three of us to cover the material.

The studio process was the antithesis of everything I’ve done in the studio; we had five days to record 15 songs. We were literally counting in songs, the tape rolling, I wasn’t sure where the chord changes were, and Colin’s going ‘One! Two! Three!’ and I’m freaking out and following him as we’re recording. And there’s a spontaneity to the record that I’ve never gotten onto a record before. There’s a vibe and an energy. And there’s a lot of mistakes. But there’s something very lovely about it, and it was really good for me. Colin really made me look at the idea of flying by the seat of your pants. So I’m hoping that next time I make a record it’ll have that sort of spontaneity about it.”

Blackie and the Rodeo Kings spurred a tour that was a lot of fun for all concerned. “With Blackie,” said Colin Linden, “that was just Stephen and I and Tom Wilson getting to know each other. We had no idea, when we did the Blackie album, that we would really turn into a band. And further to that, we had no idea we’d become such close friends. And I really feel like I love those guys — they’re two of my closest friends in the world. All that happened, really, since we made the record. Making the record was great, but when we actually went on the road with it we just had so much fun.”

When Linden became the producer of Fearing’s fourth solo album, Industrial Lullaby, he used the Blackie experience to help move Fearing into a new place, where instinct grabbed the reins from perfectionism. Linden said, “Stephen — he’s quite critical of himself, which is in some ways why he’s as good as he is, but I think this time he had a lot of support from his pals.”

On Industrial Lullaby, Fearing’s memories sprout new wings: The personal becomes universal in a new and powerful way. He worked as hard as usual, particularly on songwriting. “I deliberately tried, when I was writing my lyrics, to write a little bit less densely. So I was constantly throwing words out of sentences, getting rid of extraneous ‘ands’ and ‘the’s’ and what you end up with is maybe a little more poetic, but there’s certainly a little bit more room in it. That’s what I was trying to get, more space in the lyrics. They’re not so dense, and yet they don’t lose their bite or their depth. So I was trying to be simple and yet not be simplistic.”

But he also let spontaneity enter: “I don’t feel like I’m processing everything right down to crossing all my t’s and dotting all my i’s before I’ll write about it, in that I’m not necessarily trying to tie everything up as neatly. So I’m writing things that are a little bit more oblique and not necessarily trying to sort them all out.” The songs, by Fearing alone or with Wilson or Bennett, are still new to him: “‘Dog on a Chain’ is the last one I wrote — I basically wrote it on a Friday-Saturday and then went into the studio the following Thursday.”

Producer Linden is pleased with the result: “It kind of felt like the previous records might have been a little bit in color. This one, I kind of think of it as more black and white — less high-end glitzy sound, less of a crystal chamber, more of a cedar box. Woody tones, a bit of a grainier sound to it overall. And I thought that a lot of that was accomplished by what we chose to record with and where we chose to record, but a lot of it was recording it in a room where a lot of us played together.”

The affection of Fearing’s friends is easy to see. Fellow Canadian musician James Keelaghan enthused, “He’s one of my best buddies, and I think he’s a spectacular talent, and a largely underrated talent. I also think he’s a musician’s musician, an incredible guitar player and a great lyricist.”

Fearing’s married now; the song “Coryanna” on Industrial Lullaby, a gorgeous, unabashed toe-curler, is dedicated to his wife. He’s reached a state of serenity but not, never, complacency. “On the one hand, after three years my home life is very settled. It’s a real strong anchor for me. And I think after you get very introverted — introverted in the sense of ‘OK, this is my new home, this is my new situation’ — at some point, when you feel like your house is in order, literally, you start looking out again and it’s the same old world out there.”

I think people who have liked Stephen in the past can hear him having a good time on this record,” said Linden. “They can hear him evolving. So it’s not like, ‘Oh, now he’s doing what he should be doing’ or anything like that. It’s like, ‘Wow, this is cool, where he’s going’.”

So why isn’t Fearing as well known as many of his nominal peers? Could it be that some find his lyrics too dark? “I don’t find it easy to write funny or happy songs, per se, although for sure I try and find some happiness in my life, and it’s important to me to try to get it down,” said Fearing. “I guess I find it very difficult to write about that only. Even if I’m writing a love song, to my wife — “Coryanna” — the only reason that it’s positive and happy is because we had to go through the mill. And so I feel that it’s my job to write down both ends of it; otherwise, it doesn’t seem real to me. So a lot of my songs might have an overall dark subtext, but it’s part of the whole picture for me. And actually, a lot of times when people look at my material and think it’s very dark, I feel like they haven’t read it all the way through.”

Some of the best of Fearing’s songs feature lyrics about the loss of innocence. The theme was made crystal clear in “Turn Out the Lights”:

I have kept it secret
And denied my youth away
And my family is too frightened now
To look into my eyes
There’s a child behind the adult
They would surely recognize

In the wooden box of Industrial Lullaby, the pain is rougher still. “Man O’ War” couples a driving rock accompaniment to the images in the eyes of a young soldier:

The cheap, broken china of civilians
The anguish of a father breaking down...
And the eyes just dry out if you don’t close them
And the heart becomes immune to the sounds
I lost my religion to a rifle
I’ll talk to any deity now

The title track juxtaposes beautiful visions with ugly realities; the dense interplay of the Blackie band’s guitars echoes the hazy, deadly loveliness of the skyscape. The studios used for the recording added to the track’s resonance. “The whole record was done in places that were more environments than polished recording studios,” said Linden about Chemical Sound and the Gas Station. “We’d have to occasionally stop in the middle or something waiting for the drummer downstairs to stop practicing or for the truck that was delivering beer to the bar down the street to stop honking his horn.”

Fearing is eager to get the album heard and to get out before audiences once more. He thrives on the energy of live performance — it’s how he honed his craft in the early days. In his school days, “I was a guitar nerd. I played some sports, and I played my guitar and hung out with my buddies, and we’d have long nights drinking — we’d buy a six-pack illegally and go home to somebody’s house and play a Neil Young song 20 zillion times. And so it was the performing that I loved, and I still love.”

With Industrial Lullaby, Fearing the nomad becomes Fearing the traveler, with a home at his center. “Guelph is where my family is. It’s where a lot of my friends are. It’s a little community; you can wrap your brain around it pretty easily and know what’s going on there. I have a lot of very good friends there, very supportive.” But home seems to be within Fearing himself, and his messages from that place give us wings.

Writing Tips from Stephen Fearing

I lived with a writer for 10 years, a woman named Angela Hryniuk, who’s a wonderful poet. She sat me down one day after a concert and she said, “Y’know, the hard thing about your songs is that if you don’t have the record and you haven’t had a chance to listen to them over and over, there’s no repetition, so it’s like one image is stuck in your head and you’re just getting it and then there’s another five that come at you.” I took that to heart, and I’m trying to find a way to still have songs that are thick, that are dense, but at the same time there’s some space in them; they’re not clubbing you over the head with images and metaphors.

When I get a song I’d do anything — I’d wash the dishes, I’d clean the car rug first — as my manager told me one day, he said, “Stephen, I could put you in a room with nothing in it and you’d have to refinish the floors before you wrote a fucking song.” And he’s right. But once you’ve got a song, it’s like pulling threads that turn into a string that turns into a rope and then you know you’ve got it. I’ll sit up ’til the sun comes up and feel refreshed like nothing else. It’s weird. And there’s an immediate feeling of, almost, depression, because you know you’ve got to do it again.

Go back out and start pulling on threads, and they all break... it’s a very weird thing to do, I think, writing songs. I write in a journal every day. I play games with myself like sharpening two pencils and I’m not allowed to stop writing ’til they’re both blunt, or I have to write four pages a day, no matter what. I did that for the last 12 months, since I moved and settled into my new place. And at the end of it, I had piles of journals that were full of a lot of garbage. I’d finish a journal that’d take a couple of months to fill, four pages a day, and then I’d sit down and write a song in a day. And on the one hand it’s possible that you get more in shape, but a lot of the time I was writing about how much I hated writing! I sorta read it and go, “This is absolute crap, this is whining.” And I know that when I get hit by a song idea, if I follow it through...I have learned that if it’s late at night and I get a song idea, I gotta get up and write it down. That’s something I’ve learned because I’ve written a gazillion half-songs in my head that never make it to the page. But the actual writing for the sake of writing...I’m not sure if it really works for me. It’s a debate that I’m still having with myself.

Sometimes it’s fun to play games where you take somebody else’s melody and strip the lyrics away and try and write your own lyrics, and then strip the melody away and write your own melody to the lyrics you wrote, and you end up with your own song, but it’s directly related. [Stephen, have you done this on your latest album?] Um... yep, and I’m not going to tell you which ones, and I’m not going to tell you who I listened to. But yeah. I was playing games with myself all over the place to sorta edge this thing out and get this thing going. There’s any number of little outwitting-yourself games. It’s really quite fun to do.

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