Thursday, February 15, 2007

Evalyn Parry

First, a tangent: My report on the Brampton Indie Arts Festival this week starts with today's CBC Radio 3 blog entry here. I'll be posting a review there after every night of this event, which is well worth the drive to Brampton--and how often do you get to say that? Tonight's line-up includes Final Fantasy, Marc Ribot, Polmo Polpo and others.

Today's Eye Weekly has a brief Q&A I conducted with Toronto singer/spoken word artist/ playwright/ actor Evalyn Parry. Space consideration only allowed for two brief questions; here is the full text of our lengthy conversation, which was one of my favourites in a while. Not because I'm the biggest fan of her music--I much prefer the sound art she uses to accompany her Meryn Cadell-ish spoken word pieces--but because she's thoughtful, funny and sharp, with her writing offering plenty of food for conversation. She's also the sister of Richard Reed Parry, one of my favourite people from my time in Montreal, who shares all the same qualities.

Evalyn Parry's new album, her third, is called Small Theatres. Her Toronto release show is this Sunday, February 18 at the Gladstone. Other dates can be found here.

Evalyn Parry
February 11, 2007
locale: phone interview from her home in Toronto

Which came first—were you performing songs before theatre?
I went to Concordia in Montreal for theatre school. When I graduated I moved to Toronto, and I had just barely started doing spoken word and songs. It was the kind of thing I’d do occasionally at a cabaret. When I moved to Toronto I started looking for acting work and figured out that I didn’t really want to audition for people, that I wanted to make my own work.
I started some theatre projects with people I’d gone to school with who were interested in similar stuff. That original project involved Anna Chatterton, and now we have a company together. We were working with poetry as our text, and doing unconventional physical theatre stuff. At the same time, I was starting to play out more on open stages.
The spoken word and the music started simultaneously, and I still feel they are these parallel forms. My live shows are always a mix of the two. Even when I’m doing a spoken word festival, I manage to throw in a few songs. And vice-versa, at a music show. Both forms allow different ways of expressing.

You separate the “songs” from the “spoken word” pieces on two discs here, but there are pieces on each disc that could go either way. There are some that are predominantly spoken and then break into a chorus at the end, and there are some that are more developed and arranged musically which have a spoken cadence to them.
It’s true.

Did you always want to separate the two?
On my previous two albums, I’ve mixed in a couple of spoken word tracks with the music. When it comes to other artists, I feel like I listen to music and spoken word quite differently. Even my own recordings, I feel like the spoken word tracks are the ones I want to skip over when listening to the whole record. I wanted to be able to make one record that you would listen to over and over, and have a musical experience, though there are obviously elements of storytelling that cross over there. I wanted to be able to approach the spoken word parts however I wanted, to make each piece work in their own way. It turned out many of them turned out quite musical. Some of the pieces are more novelty pieces that you might only want to hear a couple of times, not over and over again.

Do the spoken word pieces allow you to write more directly? There are certainly direct lyrics in the “songs,” but how do you balance the abstract and the direct?
Spoken word as a form allows you to be more direct, in a way that it would make me cringe if I tried to put it into a song. Which is not to say I don’t stand behind the words of the spoken word pieces, but that form allows a different kind of political expression.

Normally directly political writing doesn’t do it for me, but the topics you focus on here are often topics that I don’t feel are being discussed, are not part of a larger discourse. It’s not like: here’s the headline, here’s the song. With a song like “Bottle This,” I’m appalled that I don’t really read about the politics of bottled water and the larger ramifications of that anywhere in the media.
That’s kind of it. Partly it’s the rage—or outrage—about certain things that there’s a directness to how I feel about it, or how I’m relating to the information, and to my sense of urgency. That piece is a case in point: if I tried to make that into a song, it would be terrible. I think. Maybe it wouldn’t. To rap it out is way more palatable somehow.
It’s interesting performing that piece—it’s relatively new—and it gets a big audience reaction. I don’t know whether I can articulate yet what it is about the form of spoken word, but I guess it translates some of my passion for the subject, and allows me a way of addressing the audience where there’s very little between me and the audience and the subject. It feels like a very potent way to talk about something—and better than giving a lecture.

I have heard it done well before. I’m thinking of Sarah Jones—do you know that woman?
Yeah, she’s great.

There’s the piece she did with DJ Vadim, “This Revolution,” which was not rapping so much as it was a spoken word poem set to music. There were other touchstones I thought of when listening to this. I was a huge fan of Meryn Cadell’s work in the 90s.
She was definitely a big influence from an early age on me.

You grew up in Toronto, at least partially, didn’t you?

Did you ever see her?
No, never! I’ve never seen her—or him, now—live. But definitely the early albums, the first two, were in constant rotation in my cassette player.

You take a very similar approach to sound art as a backdrop for the piece, which is something she did very well. And John Switzer produces here, and there are other moments here that remind me of his work with Jane Siberry.
I definitely had a really fun time approaching the spoken word pieces. There was a real freedom and excitement over the production, thinking, ‘How will we do this?’

Was his work with Siberry any influence on why you hired him to do this?
Not directly. I do love Siberry’s early work and the stuff he produced with her. I was looking for the right producer, and kept asking people who they would recommend. I was originally going to work with [her younger brother] Richard [Reed Parry of Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre], actually, but his life got a bit too crazy. John’s name kept coming up over and over, so I figured we should meet. I was familiar with a bunch of his work, including his more recent stuff like Nathan, this band from Winnipeg that I really love. We met and it was a sympatico situation. It was a long process of recording, partly because we were making two separate things, and partly because all my theatre stuff was happening at the same time. We’d work in chunks and then take time off and come back to it. It was probably the most patient project I’ve ever worked on. It required patience to allow it to take the time it needed to take.

How long are we talking, from inception to conclusion?
About a year. Maybe a little more.

Compared to…
Oh, my last one I did in two weeks. It was a much faster job.

One of the most striking pieces here is the December 6 song [about the 1989 anti-feminist Montreal massacre]. When I first heard it, admittedly my first thought was, wow, wasn’t that, what, 17 years ago? One the one hand, it seemed like an old historic topic, yet as you point out in the piece, so little has changed. The song is self-explanatory from that standpoint, but what I’m wondering is what reaction do you get from younger audiences who might not even remember the actual event? I don’t know, outside my political circle, how commemorated or remembered the event is.
That was in fact part of my reason for recording it. In younger circles, it is something that is relatively forgotten. I had this experience last year of going in to Guelph University to be a speaker in Sky Gilbert’s first year theatre class. Anna Chatterton and I were there to talk about feminist theatre. We asked the class—of about 40 people, and mostly women, maybe 30—how many of them identified as feminists. One girl slowly, sheepishly raised her hand.

Both of us were so taken aback. I don’t know how representative that is, but it made me think that I don’t know what university would have been for my own experience without a really deep analysis around gender politics and queer studies and women’s studies and all that stuff. That’s just one example of encountering a different generational approach to some of those issues. I originally wrote it for a December 6 ceremony at Ryerson University, where I was invited to do something.

For what year?
It was two years ago. I wrote it for that and then re-wrote it significantly for the album. In a way, my primary motivation for working on the piece is how personally affected I was by that event, and continue to be, and continue to feel this connection to the reality of gender politics in the world. There was a secondary sense of wanting to keep some awareness alive about how that event is a very significant date in Canadian history, and so controversial. People don’t want to touch it with a ten foot pole. The reaction around it is very polarized. It was a scary piece to put out. I’m still intrigued to see what the response will be. It’s not a piece I perform very often. I performed it at a bunch of December 6 events. And unlike a lot of my work, it was a piece that I couldn’t approach with humour. That’s kind of a scary thing.

You don’t have that defense.
You can’t be sly and sarcastic about it.

When it happened in 1989, it was such a different time culturally. I can’t help but think what would happen today, what kind of reaction there would be to the language of that event—especially when only one woman in a theatre class at the University of Guelph, of all places, will call herself a feminist.
It was interesting while we were recording that piece—we were mixing it the week of the Dawson College shooting. It was wild to suddenly have more attention placed on that date again, because there were all these parallels with what the police response had been, and how they based it on what had happened at Ecole Polytechnique. It was obviously a different context, but I too wonder what would happen if it was the same.

One of the lines I quite enjoy here is, “ignoring the facts doesn’t make them less true.” Which I think a lot of people would take issue with.

We live in a time rife with revisionist history, and several administrations have proven that if you ignore the facts that that actually does make them less true. What were thinking when you wrote that line?
I guess it goes along with the sense for me that is often connected to writing more impassioned political spoken word pieces. The outrage of what the facts are. As you say, the administration has proven that—or have they just made fools of everybody for buying into it?

But do people care anymore if they’ve been played for a fool?
I think a lot of people care. In the United States, I perform there a fair bit. I’m mostly preaching to the converted, but the sense of people’s shame and wanting to distance themselves from what the other half of that country’s politics is, is pretty intense. It’s weird times we live in! (laughs)

I’m curious about the differences on either side of the border. I grew up proud of the country I live in, but the older I get I find that we as a country are incredibly smug about who we think we are. I find that when you go the States and you talk to activist people there, they’re far more vigilant about it—because they have to be.
They’re living it, they are the empire and have this sense of responsibility. Whereas Canadians find it easier to distance themselves from it.

We’re happy to shuffle off responsibility.
Absolutely, I agree.

We’ll never have to defend ourselves…
Yeah, except we might—for our water!

True. How do you see the political culture of both countries in your audiences?
People tend to react in equal measure to the more out-there political pieces. Those tend to elicit a response in kind in both countries. It’s interesting—I have a piece that’s not on the CD about the war in Iraq and the colour coding system of alerts, that I wrote while I was travelling in the south a couple of years ago. I started the piece when I was down there, and first performed it in Canada when I got home. It got a really great response, but I was really nervous about playing it in the States. I thought it was too risky, too critical of the whole country. But people looooove it there! It gets an even bigger response there. It was insane, and much more intense.

You might suspect that even if they were sympathetic, there would still be this sense of, ‘Well, who does she think she is, walking in here and telling us what to do?’
In that piece I do acknowledge my own position in it, as I tend to do in a lot of the pieces I write. Especially the more overt pieces where I’m making an opinionated statement. I think it’s part of my post-modern whatever that I do try and position myself outside as both an observer and the writer acknowledging the perspective I’m coming from, like in the “Blue Moon” piece. Maybe I’m doing that as a defense, maybe it’s a way to build a bridge between me and the audience.

I suspect the latter.
I do too. Erase that first comment!

In “Once In a Blue Moon,” it’s a very frank portrayal of a writer’s relationship to her artistic inspiration. Which is rare. Most singer-songwriters with guitars don’t write about Bob Dylan. Most cock rockers don’t write about Led Zeppelin. It’s taboo—“don’t tell them that’s what made you pick up a guitar. Put a lid on it!” What went into writing that piece? Is it partially a way of addressing the albatross that Ani DiFranco can be for women doing spoken word with acoustic guitars?
In a way, I think. It’s unavoidable for my generation of girls with guitars.

Of 90s post-modern feminist queer…
University educated, etc., yeah! (laughs) That piece is not a fictional narrative; it unfolded as I wrote it. There was such an irony to me, reflecting on that albatross as you call it. I don’t know if I’d call it an albatross, though. That might be going a bit far. But there is the phenomenon that Ani DiFranco is and she kind of coined a new genre in a way.

Yet as you say, “Everybody’s hoping not to be compared.” I know a lot of people—in any genre—if there’s one name at the top of influences on a certain genre, then they really don’t want to talk about it. It comes up in every single article, because that’s how music journalism works—let’s relate it to something people already know.
It’s funny because I definitely acknowledge Ani as a major inspiration as an 18-year old discovering her. And, as that piece alludes to, I haven’t really followed her career in recent years. I don’t own any albums after Little Plastic Castle.

That’s probably a good place to drop off anyway. But that coincides with you picking up a guitar yourself, doesn’t it? That’s quite telling.
Sure. Absolutely. The way she mingles the personal and the political—I don’t feel my music is all that derivative of her muscial style, but there’s definitely something in the identity politic and the independence that undoubtedly have been pretty influential on me and many of my colleagues…

The Girls With Glasses? [a touring songwriters' revue Parry takes part in]
Sure, but all of us of this age that grew up… I don’t know, post-Ani?

There’s a scene in your piece where you’re eavesdropping on “Ms. Orange Hair and Ms. Blue Hair,” and it’s a very funny moment for any thirtysomething person: sitting in a university coffee shop and listening to the next generation discover the same debates and believe they’re the first person to make bold statements like “gender is a fluid thing.” I also wanted to talk about the song “Radio,” and the line, “Losing another hero to love.” If I’m reading the lyrics correctly, it’s about hearing a once-favourite political singer sell out with love songs to get on the radio.

Are love songs not in your future?
I’m in a really great, happy relationship, so I don’t tend to write love songs. It’s not where my anxiety is. It’s around other things that motivate me to write. I’m not going to mention who that song is about… [off the record reveals all. Contrary to my assumption, it’s not about Kinnie Starr.]

I have to tell you that I, like most music nerds, was obsessed with love songs while my personal life was in turmoil, but ever since being in a solid relationship, that’s kind of disappeared.
Interesting, eh?

My relationship with all those Magnetic Fields songs just vanished. I still like them, but they certainly don’t ache like they used to. But, uh, tell me about the song “The Stars.”
I was on a little tour out west on Vancouver Island, when the Arcade Fire played in New York and David Bowie came. I think it was also around the same time as the Time Magazine article and all the craziness. I was talking with my brother and hearing about all this. I went for a walk one day when I had a day off and wrote that little song. The refrain came to me as this sweet little double entendre. There’s that strange connect/disconnect of being far apart from the people that you love, and then the added layer of the surreal world that my brother and his band found themselves in.

Knowing your history and your family, do you think it was inevitable that you’d both end up on the stage?
I guess so. I don’t know. Our parents didn’t push us to be on the stage.

What about the Parry family Christmas shows at the Tranzac?
(laughs) Yeah, okay, there was that! That was once a year and it was always a stressful event. Nice, but stressful. We were encouraged there, for sure. I think both of us liked performing from a pretty early age. Maybe it was inevitable. I don’t know, how do you know these things?

How close were you to really being Anne of Green Gables? [one piece on the album mentions that she auditioned for the 1985 television adaptation, losing out to my high school crush, Megan Follows]
Not close enough! (laughs) But that’s a true story. I did audition, but they auditioned a lot of people. In my heart, I was very close. I did get a call-back!

What brought you to the Yukon a few weeks ago?
That was the theatre show I co-wrote with my theatre colleague Anna Chatterton. We have an independent company together called Independent Aunties, and the show is Clean Irene and Dirty Maxine. It’s been touring for a couple of years. We had a big production of it at Buddies in Bad Times last spring. We went up to a comedy festival in Whitehorse, and got to do it in Dawson as well.

Is that show three or four years old now?
About that. The new incarnation—which keeps changing—has been at least three years.

How many of those theatre projects do you have on the go at any given time? Do you have several pieces in repertoire?
That’s the main one that’s toured. We have a couple of things in the works that we hope will be more of a repertoire that will tour. At the moment we have two different projects in progress. One will be produced in 2008 at the Theatre Centre, and one of which is a small-scale family theatre piece that will run in the Dufferin Grove park in the summer, at a festival there. Those are new projects in development. Clean Irene is going off to London… Ontario, in March. In between I’m doing some more shows with Girls With Glasses, which is a songwriters-in-the-round travelling show. And I’m going out to the Calgary Spoken Word Festival in April. I don’t usually try to wear all my hats at once, but I am right now.

You express a fear in “Once in a Blue Moon” of returning to waitressing, but it doesn’t sound like that’s going to happen any time soon.
No, I guess not. I wrote it a couple of years ago and I feel I have a bit more of a foothold at this point.


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