Interview: Blues singer/songwriter & actor Carolyn Fe

Carolyn Fe, Sugat Ko cover. Photo by litratista.com

 

Carolyn Fe is a multi-talented, award-winning actress, blues singer/songwriter and host of the online syndicated radio show Unsung and On the Side. I had the pleasure of getting to know her while she was in Toronto, performing in the Nightwood Theatre/Sulong Theatre co-production of the world premiere of Audrey Dwyer’s Calpurnia, presented at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre back in January/February. Fe won the 2018 Toronto Theatre Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress for her compelling, poignant and funny portrayal of the family’s housekeeper Precy.

Between 2009 and 2014, she released three award-winning self-produced blues CDs: 100%, Original Sin and Bad Taboo. After taking a hiatus from her music career, she’s back with a deeply personal recording of original songs in Sugat Ko (My Wound in Tagalog)—to be launched on August 1, 2018 on CD Baby. Sugat Ko features the music talents of the Collective: Ivan Garzon (guitar), Brandon Goodwin (drums, percussion, vocals), Jean-Francois Hamel (guitar) and Oisin Little (bass). Guest musicians include Frank Gallant (bass), Sam Robinson (bass) and Gabriel Tremblay (drums).

Full of passion, anger, compassion and candid observations, Sugat Ko is an authentic, moving, evocative collection of original songs—delivered with rich, smooth vocals that shift from mysterious to powerful to tender. I asked Carolyn Fe about the record—and the road that led her to create it.

Hi Carolyn. Thanks for taking some time out of your busy schedule to talk about Sugat Ko. This album is a major milestone for you: It marks your return to music after a four-year hiatus following the sudden loss of your friend and manager Barry Mell just before the release of Bad Taboo. You spoke about how things fell apart during that time, and how there was a significant shift within the band—and things were adrift for a while. Tell us about what brought you back. What was your inspiration to carry on and keep making music?

In all my endeavours, my approach is “do or die”. Making art; whether it be music, theatre, acting, writing, etc. equates to me breathing and feeling alive. There were times when I really wanted to throw in the towel, but I knew I had to keep going. The lyrics I had written meant a lot to me. I was hurting. I needed to keep writing; I needed to keep making music. I was feeling quite lost and alone. All those feelings of loss, pain and struggle kept me writing. Even though I was depressed, I was feeling alive (if you know what I mean). Words kept pouring out of me.

I met a lot of great musicians, but the connection/synergy wasn’t there until I found the ones who are with me right now: Jean-Francois Hamel (guitar), Ivan Garzon (guitar), Brandon Goodwin (drums & percussion), Oisin Little (bass, my muse who has been with me for 3 albums’ worth – Original Sin, Bad Taboo and now, Sugat Ko). When the five of us finally got together, my gut instincts told me that I can breathe with these gentlemen. They created a safe place for me to allow me to say and sing what I needed to say and sing. I also have Angie Arsenault who stuck by me through the tough times, she is a producer (prog rock and metal) – but first and foremost, she’s a friend who endured my whining through the tough times. She played all the instruments on “Prayer”.

This record is also a deeply personal reflection of your life and Philippine roots—a music offering that is profoundly soul-searching and revealing at the same time. And the songs on this record cover a broad emotional range, from pain, to passion, to playful and even prayerful. “Howzat” sounds like a wry Devil’s Advocate response to “Summertime”—a big contrast to the melancholy “Prayer”, the final track. What was the process of writing and recording like for you on this project?

For the longest time, since the creation of the debut EP 100% in 2008-2009, I was looking for a particular sound and it wasn’t a mainstream 12-bar blues sound. But I was also looking at my entrance to the music world from a business point of view. I needed to be careful in “instructing” the audience about what I was going to build (and also maybe I was chicken, insecure and afraid to assert myself, caring too much what “they” may think). So what I did was to “come in” with a standard blues-rock sound to get the auditors’ attention. You can hear the gradual evolution of where I wanted to be in a few songs as the new albums came out. The words/lyrics were true (you’ll note that there are religious connotations in most of my lyrics), but I was still reserved. It took life’s changes to finally find my footing and Sugat Ko is the result. Deep, deep lyrics from my heart, soul and essence of my being – all that, with no holds barred.

“Howzat” was the cacophony that was going on in my head during the four years that I had to keep a good face and smile at the world. I was dying on the inside; it was as if everything I touched went wrong. So yeah, this song talks about murdering and burying that mess, “she runs out into the garden with her Jimmy Choo’s sinking into the grass, cement, that’s all she can think of…cement, what a ride…oh baby hush now, don’t you cry, hush, hush baby, just give it a sigh”. Once buried, I moved on.

“Prayer” was me at my most desperate moments. It’s all about choice. We have choices and although on the surface it sounds like a call for help, it’s actually the complete opposite of asking for help. Prayer is a cry to die. It is also a song that is dedicated to a friend who passed away from cancer. She was in pain and there were moments when she wanted to end it. When I wrote this song, I wasn’t “intimate” enough with my new musicians, at least not yet. My friend, Angie Arsenault, and I were talking a lot of the difficult times. She had padded shoulders that I could lean on when I needed. Then it occurred to me to ask her to collaborate on the song as she knew exactly where my mindset was. She played all the instruments on “Prayer”.

Writing a song in an intimate process for me. There are times when I will already have the lyrics and will sit with only one of my musicians, who I call my Stage Husbands (because of the intimate process of writing). Other times, I would write the lyrics on the spot while they play along and understand the vibe of the tune. But for me, it is always a one on one process to create a song.

Sugat Ko draws on gospel and rock in a beautiful, moving fusion with the blues that complement the lyrics and take the listener on an emotional rollercoaster ride. Did you map out these arrangements ahead of time, on a song-by-song basis—or was it more of an organic process as you and the band worked together in the studio?

Actually, no. I treated each song as their own entity and let my gut instinct own the process, as well as organize it. Once the basic skeleton of the song is done after the one-on-one writing sessions with a stage hubby, then we would all get together and make the arrangement of the song. That’s the part where they all get technical while I listen to my gut feelings to make sure the vibe and soundscape is right.

You’ve been working on a 5th album, Cover My Bass, a collection of cover songs. What can you tell us about that record?

A while back, I saw Dalannah Gail Bowen and her bassist, Owen Owen Owen (nope, that’s not a repetitive keystroke error, that is his name) perform. They’re from British Columbia. I was so inspired!!! Here’s a woman pushing towards her 70s with this younger man on bass. It was an odd pair, but just her voice and his bass was music to my ears. Whenever we hear of duos, it’s mostly voice/guitar or voice/piano. I have never heard of voice and bass. I was hooked and inspired. It took me a long time to find a bass player who could jive with me. Frank Gallant was introduced to me by my drummer, Brandon Goodwin. Frank and I hit it off. He understood what I wanted to do.

I am not fond of doing cover songs. There are so many artists out there doing it, so I will leave it to them. BUT this 5th album (an EP actually) is already complete. TADA! I am just waiting for Sugat Ko to mature and establish itself before I take out Cover My Bass, which is a collection of old, old songs unfamiliar songs and we do it as a duet: voice and bass.

Anything else you want to shout out?

I want to talk about how special my stage husbands are. Aside from Oisin Little (bass), we’ve been together for about two and a half years now. I am so grateful for having them with me. They are instrumental in bringing my confidence back. I never considered myself a musician. Yeah, I write the lyrics and I sing the lyrics. When other players would just say, “Let her sing, we’ll do the music part”, these gentlemen, my stage hubbies, brought me to a place where I never knew I belonged. They stopped and asked what my lyrics were about, they played and played until they understood the soundscapes that I was looking for; and once we found it, they pushed it further. They created a safe space for me to explore. This is why Sugat Ko is so important for me because every song on that album is me in the raw. They created the space so I can allow me to be myself. Also, I want to give a shout out to my stage hubbies’ life partners who quietly stood by their side, at times rescheduling vacations and special occasions, so that we can create.

Now, for the fun part of the interview. I’d like to finish up with James Lipton’s Pivot questionnaire:

What’s your favourite word?

Yes

What’s your least favourite word?

Can’t

What turns you on?

Heart-full people that I resonate with. Pushing my envelope. Thinking, creating and doing things – not out of the box but – without a box. Challenges that make me feel alive. Doing. Pastries and sea food.

What turns you off?

Routine. Folks who don’t get out of their comfort zone and then whine about their regrets (HEY! It’s not too late, you can still do it). Folks who say, “It’s always been done that way”. Racism and discrimination really burns my butt.

What sound or noise do you love?

The inhale/exhale of satisfaction from a job well done.

What sound or noise do you hate?

It’s almost like a cartoon; the sound of screeching brakes in my head when fear overcomes me.

What is your favourite curse word?

I have too many, but the F-bomb usually starts it off, followed by other choice words (e.g., F’ing Toe Crud, F’ing butt cheese, etc.).

What profession other than your own would you like to pursue?

I’ve had and have many professions. In no particular order: Ballerina, Contemporary Dancer, Choreographer, Technical Recruiter & Human Resources Generalist, Marketing Specialist, Hair Stylist (which I still do and love – I went to school for it), Singer/Songwriter, Actor, Radio Host, Business owner, Corporate Consultant, Caregiver, etc.

What profession would you not like to do?

I tried, but I am not a good housekeeper.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Ha! The question doesn’t say “…finally arrive at the Pearly Gates”. So I think, this is what God would ask me: “Are you done yet or do you wanna go back again?”

Thanks, Carolyn!

Thank you – and the hugs I am saving in my back pocket for you are gathering compounded interest again.

 

Toronto theatre audiences fell in love with Carolyn Fe and her performance in Calpurnia—and the feeling is mutual. Fe and her husband are looking to move from Montreal to Toronto in the near future, where we’ll have even more chances to see her perform live.

You can keep up with Carolyn Fe on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Keep your eyes and ears out for Sugat Ko on CD Baby on August 1.

 

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Toronto Fringe: Art, longing & acceptance in the poetic, heart-wrenching, gender-bending The Bird Killer

Clockwise, from bottom left: Emerjade Simms, Tymika Tafari, Subhash Santosh, Mo Zeighami, Evan Mackenzie & Mike Ricci. Photo by Patrick J. Horan.

 

LET ME IN presents Justine Christensen’s poetic, heart-wrenching modern-day, gender-bending adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull with its Toronto Fringe production of The Bird Killer, directed by Patrick J. Horan and running in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace.

A group of artist friends grapple with the day-to-day challenges of artistic expression, and personal and professional fulfillment—all while maintaining their relationships and support network. Masha (Emerjade Simms) is a keen observer of her friends’ goings-on, and acts as a host/narrator when she’s not directly involved in a moment. Wearing black to mourn the state of her life, her sardonic sense of humour masks a broken heart: her unrequited love of the driven, tormented playwright Kostya (Mo Zeighami). Kostya is with the nervous emerging actor Nina (Even Mackenzie), who stars in her new contemporary theatre piece. Singer/songwriter Medvedenko (Mike Ricci, who also supplies original music for the production) is Kostya’s loyal, hard-working stage manager; and taken with Masha.

Kostya’s wise-cracking stand-up comic brother Arkadina (Subhash Santosh) brings his girlfriend, renowned playwright Trigorin (Tymika Tafari), to an invitation-only presentation of Kostya’s new work; setting off debates of artistry vs. celebrity, and changing the group dynamic. He’s unwittingly set in motion a significant ripple within the group—and things will never be the same.

Beautiful, moving work from the ensemble with a piece that cuts close to home for all artists. Each character longs for love and professional artistic fulfillment, but finds it difficult to achieve satisfaction. Does acknowledgement and accolades make one artist’s work more important than another’s? How does an artist navigate authenticity vs. marketability? And, most importantly, how does an artist accept him/herself?

The Bird Killer continues in the Tarragon Mainspace, with two more performances: tonight (July 13) at 9:15 pm and July 15 at 3:30 pm.

Want to check if the show you want to see is sold out? The Toronto Fringe folks have set up a page for sold-out shows, updated daily.

 

The impact of stories drawn from love & memory in TPM’s genuine, funny, haunting The Drawer Boy

Andrew Moodie, Craig Lauzon & Graham Conway. Set and costume design by Joanna Yu. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsay. Photo by Michael Cooper.
Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) opened its remount of Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy, directed by Factory Theatre AD Nina Lee Aquino, assisted by Cole Alvis, to a sold out house last night. Originally produced by TPM in 1999, Healey’s beloved hit returns to the TPM stage as the theatre celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Set in the early 70s in Southern Ontario, The Drawer Boy hearkens back to another famous TPM production: The Farm Show, created by Paul Thompson and a collective of artists who went down to live and work with area farmers as they created a play about the place and its people. Miles (Graham Conway) is one of these young Toronto actors, and he nervously arrives on the doorstep of Morgan (Andrew Moodie) and Angus’s (Craig Lauzon) farm house, looking for a place to stay, work and learn about farming so he can contribute to the writing and performance of the play.

An odd yet complementary couple of middle-aged bachelors, Morgan and Angus have been friends since childhood, serving together in WWII, finding wives in England and returning to their hometown to set up a farm together. The truly remarkable thing about their relationship is the organic dynamic of Morgan acting as Angus’s memory. Now living with an Acquired Brain Injury after surviving a shell explosion in London, Angus now lives entirely in the present, his memory a sieve; but he’s a wizard with numbers and takes care of the farm’s accounting. Morgan uses stories to remind Angus of their shared past: he is the Farmer and Angus is the Drawer Boy, and they met and fell in love with two tall English girls.

As hard as Miles struggles with farm work, including some hilarious mishaps with equipment and an eye-opening experience spending time with livestock (resulting in a gut-busting impression of a frightened cow), he struggles even harder to write stories for the play. Until he overhears Morgan telling Angus their life story—and he’s struck theatrical gold. When the two farmers attend an invited rehearsal, though, the reactions are markedly different: Angus is delighted and Morgan is infuriated.

Terrified of not having something good to contribute to the play and fearing he’ll be cut from the collective, Miles’ drive and ambition to get a good story puts him in the position of becoming the unwitting catalyst for, and witness to, emerging memories and revised storytelling for Morgan and Angus. Their shared story is not as fairy tale as Morgan originally painted. And the impact of the true story is both revelatory and devastating; highlighting how the choices we make as we create our own life stories touch the lives of others, particularly the ones we love the most, in positive and negative ways.

Lovely, nuanced work from these three actors in this moving, haunting and revealing tale of love, memory and the impact of the stories people tell. Lauzon brings a delightfully child-like sense of wonder to the star counting math wizard Angus; and yet there’s also a troubled, lost quality about Angus as he paces around the house, searching for something he can’t remember. Moodie is both lovable and intimidating as the gruff Morgan; a matter-of-fact man’s man who suffers no fools, there’s a broken-hearted, gentle soul beneath Morgan’s gruff exterior. Extremely patient and caring with Angus, a man of few words becomes a magical storytelling memory maker for his friend, who he clearly loves dearly. And while city boy actor Miles could easily become a clueless caricature, Conway gives him a sharp, desperate sense of ambition and a hilariously satirical edge. And though we may be skeptical about how genuine Miles is in his desire to connect with this world and these people, there’s no doubt that he comes to feel the full impact of the devastating truths he’s unleashed.

With big shouts to the design team, for their beautiful, evocative work: Joanna Yu, whose set combines realism and abstraction, with expressive charcoal drawing flats hanging above and around the vintage farmhouse kitchen and porch; and costume design perfectly suiting the working farm men and the clueless young city boy, who arrives to work in cut-offs, polo shirt and runners. And to Michelle Ramsay’s magical lighting design; and Michelle Bensimon’s timely and haunting sound design and composition.

The Drawer Boy continues in the TPM Mainspace until March 25; get advance tickets online or by calling the box office at: 416-504-7529.