Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Kate Fenner

There are few female voices I find as luxurious as that of Kate Fenner's, and yet while that's what immediately commands most people's attention, that's only one of her many gifts.

For much of her 20-year career, she's been breathing life into the lyrics of her inseparable collaborator Chris Brown. That is no small feat—Brown is an incisive poet who addresses issues of community and justice at every turn, both metaphorically and directly, and only a master interpreter like Fenner can truly make heady words such as his sing with the clarity and emotional resonance they deserve. Though Brown is no vocal slouch himself, he's been blessed to have Fenner at his side since they were both Leaside teenagers in the eight-piece soul revue Bourbon Tabernacle Choir. (Who, by the way, may be reuniting for this year's Hillside Festival--details are being finalized.)

Fenner's association with such a prolific writer as Brown meant that her own songwriting muse was slow to develop—though, it should be noted, not because of any lack of support and encouragement from all those around her, including Brown. Fenner finally stepped up to the plate on 2003's Horses and Burning Cars, recorded with Tony Scherr. It was a tentative first step, though the new album Magnet—written and recorded while pregnant with her firstborn—is a much more mature and realized effort, with lush and sympathetic soft-pop orchestration colouring her lyrically vivid and melodically strong tracks like "Autumn Trees," "Old Man" and "Shopgirl." Scherr covers the latter on his new album.

Fenner and Brown also nurture a social nexus of Central Canada's music scene—everybody knows these two, from the Barenaked Ladies to Broken Social Scene, from Propagandhi to Sarah Harmer—and both have worked hard to build bridges between Toronto and their adopted town of New York City (they moved there as a duo in 1997 following the dissolution of the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir).

Since Fenner put out her solo record (and Brown followed suit), they've been performing less as a duo; her pregnancy factored in to that (contrary to popular perception, they are not a couple), and Brown formed the Citizens' Band with Tony Scherr and Anton Fier, with whom Fenner sits in when she can. The ties still run deep, however; Brown produced Magnet and wrote three of its songs.

I first met them when my terrible rock band opened for the Bourbons at the Commercial Tavern in Maryhill, Ontario sometime around 1991. We—or my competitive bandmates, anyway—were cocky and wanted to "blow off the stage" anyone we played with. Not only were we laughably unable to do that beside such a powerhouse band, but they were the most generous and genuine group of people imaginable, who not only taught me lessons about how I wanted to play music, but about what kind of person I wanted to be as a musician.

I'm still humbled by their talent and generosity; they actually drove up from NYC to play a 20-minute set for free at my book launch in 2001, where they stole the show beside the likes of Blurtonia and Neko Case. I'm eternally in debt to them for that alone, never mind the canon of powerful songs and performances that have soundtracked much of my life. Fenner once covered Mary Margaret O'Hara's "Help Me Lift You Up"; both she and Brown have been doing that for me and many of those closest to me for years.

So yeah, I'm hardly objective.

For a great piece on Chris Brown, read my co-author Jason Schneider's Exclaim piece here.

Kate Fenner and her band play the Rivoli in Toronto on Wednesday, March 19.

Kate Fenner
March 16, 2008
Locale: phone conversation from her West Village home

How often do you play these days?

Not as often as I’d like to. But [son] Lucien’s in a pre-school program now. It’s been tricky: the baby thing with the music thing. I do sporadic gigs in the city and a couple of gigs in London, England. And now we’re actually promoting the album, which hasn’t happened yet. Before I was trying to figure out what to do with it and what my plan was. I didn’t even hit my mailing list.

It’s been five years, correct?

Yes. Three of those were baby, and I did what I could with the last one. This period of my life is so fruitful and great and beautiful in all the ways that kids bring, but as a mother, I can’t be the person that I thought I was. I can’t be wandering around schlepping poetry books, drinking too much wine and smoking. Your whole life changes. But that was the person who wrote from pain and was perpetually brokenhearted. So how do I find the next writer in me? That part is really hard and challenging.

When you look at people who struggle with addictions and then they write a clean record, they often find it challenging to write under totally different conditions and processes, and it’s tough to adapt.

Those parallels are fine with me. From the moment I was 13, I knew I was going to be the kind of person who was going to write poetry and drinks their coffee black (laughs). I had it all set up and worked towards it. I also find that being around a new person, it’s hard to take yourself so seriously. It’s 90 per cent about them all the time, so to plumb my inner thoughts and turn it into something is harder than I thought.

Hearing other new parents talk about this time, many struggle with it in different ways. Some say that it actually makes them compartmentalize, and because that time alone is so important to them, they’re actually more productive because they know they only have a couple of hours here and there.

That’s the practice I need. But for me, it’s anti-cynicism and anti-irony to have a child. In some ways, the ways I got used to thinking are not available to me anymore. I can’t say, ‘Oh, global warming—we deserve it, we did it to ourselves.’ I have to think about a hopeful way about the future. Before, you could find me the saddest movie, the saddest poem and I would love it. Now, I can’t take the knock. I can’t go there. I need the energy to do this other thing, which is this constant propping up and being an enthusiasm machine that you have to be as a parent of a toddler. People used to say, ‘I can’t believe you read all this stuff—it’s so depressing!’ And I’d say, ‘Depressing? It’s not depressing!’ Now I don’t fault it for being what it is, but the nerve is too raw. I can’t go there and then turn around and go to the park and jump around like a lunatic.

That requires a whole other level of compartmentalization.

Yeah, and that’s the one that’s kicking my ass.

But you were speaking of not being able to be cynical or ironic—and those aren’t two words I ever associated with your work before.

Those might be the wrong words. Hmmm.

If anything, it was the opposite, and that’s what I always enjoyed about what you and Chris did. Things were written with a knowledge of the shit of the world, and it was knowing there are no ideal solutions, but let’s at least start to talk to each other about solutions. There was always that optimism, or at least demanding that the listener consider optimism.

That was largely due to Chris. He has a lot of hopeful energy. I can go along with that, and I can be the thing that adds a sadness to that, just because of the quality of my voice. When we work together, it’s easy to go between the two worlds, because singing a lot of stuff that Chris writes is about finding the love for humanity. Left to myself, however, (laughs) I’m not really sure!

It’s all "Autumn Trees" and no spring flowers, eh? I’ve enjoyed this record more since I first heard it and processed it and wrote about it. I think it’s a big step up from the first one, where you could hear an artist beginning and taking first steps. I know that first one was a very heavy record to make. Was this one easier?

Definitely. A lot of it was made when I was either pregnant or had a newborn. I could look at it more clearly. The first one, I was very addled and in the middle of having all these feelings. Later, when I could reach back and look at it, I was horrified that I was so raw. I feel like I left myself hanging out there.

This one, I was trying a different kind of writing. ‘Shopgirl’ I wrote for and about Tony [Scherr]. We both had trouble writing a couple of winters ago. We spent this day together, and I went to visit his ex-girlfriend with him, who works at a hardware store. We were talking about my mom and some stuff on the way home, and we went to separate and I said, ‘I’m going to try to write a song for you.’ He said the same thing. So I went to pick up some groceries, came home, and he had left a song called ‘Black Sheep’ on my answering maching. I thought, shit, so I sat down and wrote ‘Shopgirl’ in an hour and left it on his answering machine. It was so thrilling to know I could write that way. You could really use your empathy and your other gifts and have it be a story. I hadn’t done that before; I had only ever talked about myself.

And that’s such a narrative song, with a clearly male protagonist—or a lesbian one.

Well, she is hot! And they are currently living together; I don’t know if it’s because of that song (laughs). So now, I’d like to explore that kind of thing. It’s growing up a bit and getting away from yourself, using your experiences to look at larger thing. Chris is obviously a much more practiced songwriter in the way he can be invisible yet very personal at the same time in a single song. That’s what you want.

I’d have to think about his songbook, but I don’t know if I know a lot of narrative songs there.

Not narrative; his subject is always himself, and if he’s in there it’s because he’s sad about something… for everyone.

When we last spoke on the record, in 2003, you told me that you work very quickly, and Chris can ruminate forever on something.

That’s still true. I don’t have the confidence to take something that seriously for too long. That’s another way I need to grow up. Most of the songs that are mine on that first album, were written out of fear. The new one, too. ‘Old Man,’ on the new record—that was written as I was walking out the door listening to Rufus Wainwright’s Want One. There’s a song on there about his dad. I literally had my coat on, and I started wondering what a song I wrote about my dad would be like. In ten or fifteen minutes, I had written all the lyrics, found a guitar and used the same four chords I always play, and there it was. I still feel like I’ve never learned the craft.

It’s so self-deprecating to say, ‘Oh, one day I’ll grow up and learn how to do that.’ But so many great songs come out of this process rather than ones that are belaboured and are more of an exercise. It’s certainly possible for someone certainly overcook a song.

That’s true. I’m interested in changing—that’s what I’m saying. A song like ‘Autumn Trees’ comes from going to the museum a couple of times that week and walking in the park. That song was also a challenge. Eric, Lucien’s dad, suggested that I write a song about Egon Schiele. So I did some research, I had some books in the house, and found out he was really an asshole, so I started focusing on the bits about his wife.

But to go back to what I was saying, before I had so much time to fill the coffers with other people’s thoughts and visions of beauty. Now I’m much more trained on my son and getting him to the park and getting him down for a nap and getting greens into him. Now is when I’m going to need a better system, because I don’t have that kind of freedom.

There’s a line on the album: “Don’t let them see how hard it is.”

That line is actually about Chris. It’s something he says. He told me, ‘It will be clear that it is important. You don’t have to show it’s important.’ I guess I’m all about: ‘Is everyone getting this?’ Subtlety is not my strong suit.

I do think ‘Old Man’ is a great song, especially lyrically, and encapsulates a lot of conflicted feelings people have about people close to them.

Thanks. Now I just need 20 more like that and I’ll feel like a human being.

You only need 10 for an album, though.

We only scraped by with nine on this one; one’s a cover.

Why that Paul Simon song? [“Some Folks Lives Roll Easy”]

I just love it. I’d worked with Jason Moran on this beautiful piece called The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things by Joan Jonas, who is a seminal video performance artist from the 70s. We’re about to go to Berlin to perform it, but it started at the Dia Theater upstate. I loved working with him; he’s such a beautiful player. I knew I wanted to do a Paul Simon song—I’m a bit of a fanatic—and that was the one that was most amenable to his playing. He did such a beautiful job that I want to take my voice out of it!

On your first record, you were quite explicit about the fact you were referencing Alice Munro, Joni Mitchell, John Berryman. As your writing grows, do you feel like it’s less important to point that out?

I did that partially because I was either quoting them directly—and I couldn’t get away with not saying that—but it was also a lack of subtlety thing again. ‘Do you know what I’m talking about?’ It was a case of taking myself too seriously. I got a little blurb in the Voice that called me a schoolmarm or something, a little dig at little miss poetry girl, which was embarrassing. I was sufficiently humbled.

Last time we spoke on the record, in 2003, you told me the following: “When I got off the Hip tour at the beginning of 2001 [she and Brown toured as auxiliary members of The Tragically Hip that year], I just wanted to stop singing. I thought, I’m done. It had never occurred to me that I didn’t have to do it if I didn’t want to. I’ve always felt that I had an obligation, that I started it and I have to finish it; I’ll keep singing until I fall over. But at that point I thought, I don’t want to do it. And as soon as I said that, I thought, I can’t stop yet. There are couple of things I have to do first: one, I have to write something, and I’ve always wanted to do an album of standards – well, not standards, but older music. Once the songs started to come, I thought, oh, here’s part of the job that has to get done.”

What struck me was that realization in a person’s life that they don’t have to do this forever, even if it’s been your whole life up to that point, and yet you’re still not ready to let go just yet.

And I feel like I’m in that exact same state still. I actually just thought that the other day, because I was nervous about this gig in Toronto. When I think of the artists I admire, they just keep making shit no matter what’s going on in the world. The fact that I don’t do that made me think I’ve been wrong all this time: maybe I’m not actually an artist, I should get a job, be a normal person, be a good mom and a good friend to people. Is that the worst thing in the world? Then I think: kind of, it is the worst thing in the world! I need to have really tried. And after all these years of ups and downs with success and recognition—usually somewhere in the middle—I still feel like I haven’t tried hard enough.

I would hope that any artist always feels that way—not in a defeatist way, but if you aren’t always trying harder, then really, what are you doing? You’re resting on laurels or you’re lazy.

Going back to Joan Jonas, it was so interesting to watch her work. I had known her for many years. My friend was her assistant. Here’s this woman who was a pioneer not only in her field but as a woman artist. She’s in her 70s. She never married, never had children. She was part of the whole New York scene and dated Richard Serra for years. She is still driven by this ponderousness: ‘I wonder what would happen if I put this thing next to this thing.’ She does this at rehearsals, which can last eight hours. The first time we did it I was pregnant and I thought I was going to die.

But it’s a character thing to always be asking questions, these beautiful questions. I’m blown away by that. It’s not something you can learn to do. I just wish I had that disconnect from other people and [worrying about] their reaction. When she initially asked me to do this piece, I had to tell her that I was pregnant and that I would be quite pregnant by the time of the performance. She said, ‘Oh, um, okay, well, we’ll see, maybe it will work.’ Then when the Dia asked us to reprise it last year, she said, ‘Can we get you pregnant again? Because that ended up really working out.’ (laughs).

One of my favourite lines of Chris’s is on this record, which is that “the curious do not get old.”

Yes. There’s that old adage about being liberal in your youth and conservative when you’re older. And when you have a family you start battening down the hatches and thinking, ‘What’s good for us?’

Maintaining that curiosity takes a lot of work and mental energy, and yet it’s so vital.

O my god, yes.


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