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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Heart vibrations as the dead weave tales reminding us to live in the inspirational, uplifting Spoon River

Spoon River ensemble—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

 

Is your soul alive?

As we make our way into the theatre, we find ourselves entering the funeral of Bertie Hume; filing past old family portraits and rows of headstones as we make our way out of the funeral parlor and into the cemetery. We are greeted by funeral home attendants and, possibly, friends and family of the deceased.

This is our introduction to Soulpepper’s immersively staged Spoon River, based on Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology poetry collection, and adapted by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz for the stage, with music composed by Ross. A remount of this beloved, award-winning show is currently running in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre, located in Toronto’s Distillery District.

As Bertie Hume is left to her eternal rest, former citizens of the town—now “asleep” in the cemetery on the hill—emerge to share their stories with us, the passersby. Set in small-town America, the lives, loves, joys and pain of its people are revealed with memories, regrets, confession; at times harrowing (“Fire”), hilarious (“Couples” and “Drinking”) and heartbreaking (“Mothers and Sons”). The quirks, the humanity, the secrets and betrayals—all interwoven with poetry, spoken word, music and song, as we get snapshots of the people they once were.

The remarkable, multitalented ensemble plays and sings, with rousing, foot-stomping sounds and gorgeous, resonant harmonies in a collection of blue grass and gospel-inspired songs. Stand-out soloists include Alana Bridgewater, Hailey Gillis (as Bertie Hume), Miranda Mulholland, Jackie Richardson (“Widow McFarlane”) and Daniel Williston (“Fire”). Soulpepper veterans Oliver Dennis and Diego Matamoros bring stellar character work, as do Raquel Duffy, Stuart Hughes, John Jarvis and Michelle Monteith. Ultimately, Spoon River is a celebration of life (“Soul Alive”)—and a reminder that life, warts and all, is a cherished gift. I dare you to not stomp along.

With big shouts to the design team for their work on this magical, evocative production: Ken MacKenzie (set and lighting), Erika Connor (costumes) and Jason Browning (sound).

Heart vibrations as the dead weave tales reminding us to live in the inspirational, uplifting Spoon River.

Spoon River continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre until April 21; booking in advance is strongly recommended to avoid disappointment—the place was packed last night and this show is getting lots of standing ovations. Get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Up next: Soulpepper will be taking Spoon River to New York City’s 42nd Street in July as part of its first NYC season at The Pershing Square Signature Center.

The Spoon River soundtrack is available on CD in the lobby of the Young Centre; you can also find it on iTunes. In the meantime, check out the trailer:

 

 

Emily Mac’s California daydreamin’ in her first single “California This Winter”

EmilyMac-StairsSinger/songwriter Emily Mac released her first single earlier this week: “California This Winter,” available for download/purchase on iTunes and viewing on YouTube.

Featuring Mac’s powerful and soulful vocals, the arrangement inspired by the R&B, gospel-infused sounds of Motown, “California This Winter” is not just a lament for the season, but one of the heart and soul. The opening lines of the chorus say it all:

I can’t stand the cold of these winters no more                                                                        I can’t stand them getting right deep into my bones                                                                I can’t stand the ice that forms ’round my heart with every break…

The video features some chilly, grey scenes of late fall and winter in Toronto, the orange of the autumn leaves overwhelmed by bare branches and bleak skies in the semi-darkness, followed later by the even bleaker and chillier atmosphere of the light snow flurry on the waterfront.

But fear not, it’s not all icy gloom in this ballad – this dream of escape from a geographic and romantic freeze – there are hints of warmth, light and joy, both lyrical and visual in “California This Winter.” But you’ll just have to watch the video and see for yourself:

You can connect with Emily Mac and her music via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reverbnation and her YouTube channel.

Dance all night to Mip Power Trio sophomore album Half Pint Full Heart

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Mip Power Trio – photo by Paul Taborovsky

Had the great pleasure of wrapping my ears around a preview stream of Mip Power Trio’s sophomore album Half Pint Full Heart this past week – in advance of their CD launch party this Friday, February 27 at the Bovine Sex Club.

Mip Power Trio is: Mip (songwriting/lead vocals/guitar), Greg Kowalczyk (bass/back-up vocals) and Shane MacPherson (drums/back-up vocals). Following up on their debut record Haggard and Bedraggled (2012), the band joined forces with producer/engineer Ian McGettigan to create 11 tracks of rootsy rockin’ goodness on Half Pint Full Heart.

“Breakthrough” kicks of the record, with rockin’ beats, the chorus bringing a kicky retro vibe with a kick-ass plea “my knuckles are getting sore knocking against your invisible door” –  Mip’s gutsy vocals reminiscent of Gwen Stefani in No Doubt’s “Sunday Morning.”

You can get yourself all toasty and warm as you bop along with “Winter Scene” – and then with the roots guitar riff and alt country/rockabilly-infused storytelling in “Potential.” And Mip nails it when she describes the celebratory “Take Me Back” as “skaspel” – it’s a groovin’, movin’ blend of ska and gospel. The lyrics bring cool pop culture references (Springstein and artist/modern architecture pioneer Le Corbusier), and the arrangements offer some sweet surprises, like the circus-like beats on tracks like “Grown-up Games” and “Whiskey Ain’t Cheap,” and the haunting, atmospheric intro to the final track “Northern Lights.”

With tight musicianship, strong lead vocals and sweet harmonies driving the music, coupled with the band’s fun, casual party vibe, I dare you to not move your feet as you listen to Mip Power Trio’s Half Pint Full Heart. Like the Northern Lights, you can dance all night.

You can catch Mip Power Trio at their CD launch party for Half Pint Full Heart this Friday, February 27 at the Bovine Sex Club, where they’ll be joined by local bands Little Foot Long Foot, and Freeman Dre and the Kitchen Party. Check here for all the launch dates/locations around Southern Ontario and Quebec.

You can connect with Mip Power Trio on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr and the band’s YouTube channel.

And if you’re like me and can’t make it out to the Half Pint Full Heart launch, check out this playlist of some of their vids, including “Northern Lights” and “Take Me Back” (both from Half Pint Full Heart) – and stay tuned to Mip Power Trio’s website/social media platforms for the opportunity to stream and download the record:

Big love & a joyful noise @ Tania Joy “I’ll Be Around” CD launch

The Melody Bar at the Gladstone Hotel was packed last night, all in celebration of the release of Tania Joy’s EP I’ll Be Around. And what a celebration it was!

MC Shannon Paterson, a long-time friend of of Tania Joy’s – from their days as six-year-old figure skating pals to modern-day wing men in the dating scene – ushered the evening’s festivities, including opening acts Arlene Paculan and Candice Sand.

Arlene Paculan got things going with some R&B and pop goodness – a set of originals and covers, on keys with Mickey Rodriguez on drums.  From the slow groove of “My Plea” to her love song to Tony Stark and awesome Green Day mash-up to “Running” – a soulful ballad with a sometimes haunting piano arrangement (and a personal fave) – it’s always a pleasure to wrap my ears around Paculan’s sounds. Coming up for Paculan: the Beaches Jazz Festival, the release of her debut full-length CD Everything Begins with Love (June 21 @ Gallery 345, Toronto) and WonderFest West (August 14 @ Celebration Square, Mississauga). Drop by her website for details and keep an eye out for her upcoming gigs.

Candice Sand showed us she’s got this, bringing it with a bluesy acoustic set, with Neil Whitford backing her up on guitar. Shifting from cheeky fun on a cover of Ingrid Michaelson’s “The Way I Am,” then a couple of songs later into the slow, sexy “Maybe I’m Crazy” and the soulful, strong groovin’ yet vulnerable “I Got This” (her recent release) to audience participation like on her slow groove cover of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” it was a pleasure to see Sand perform live (I’d missed her set at a WonderFest event a while back). Definitely an artist to watch out for.

The main event, Tania Joy, took to the stage with a full band backing her: “The Groove Doctor” (Dave McMorrow) on keys, Rick Joudrey on bass, Jeff Haynes on guitar, Richard Greenspoon on drums (he also engineered the record), and the lovely and talented Arlene Paculan and Candice Sand on back-up vocals.

Opening with “I Push You Pull,” an R&B-infused ballad, with the organ/keys and back-up vocal arrangements bringing some gospel Tania Joy delivered a set of originals from her I’ll Be Around EP, peppered with some covers of songs by the likes of John Fogerty and The Allman Brothers. Singing of connections and relationship, with a mix of folk, blues and gospel on “Gypsy Heart (Back To Me)” and taking us to the church of the joyful noise on “Shine Your Light,” this is a deep, rich and resonant voice singing catchy and soulful lyrics. The moving R&B/gospel sound returned on “I’ll Be Around” and “I Won’t Quit,” the title track inspired by and dedicated to the memory of her cousin Dana Rene Gibson. Bee Gees cover “To Love Somebody” had folks singing along (I was one of them, on harmony) and the reggae rhythm of original “New Ending” got folks up dancing in front of the stage. And the whole room was feeling Tania Joy’s cover of “People Get Ready.”

Tania Joy’s warmth and enthusiasm is contagious – and was matched by that coming from the audience. Friends, family, fellow singers and musicians brought a whole lotta love and support – the room was vibrating with excitement and positive energy. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for this talented lady. In the meantime, drop on by Tania Joy’s Soundcloud and YouTube pages.

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Arlene Paculan, with Mickey Rodriguez on drums.
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Arlene Paculan opens for Tania Joy at the “I’ll Be Around” EP launch.
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Candice Sand, with Neil Whitford on guitar.
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Candice Sand at Tania Joy’s “I’ll Be Around” EP release.
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Tania Joy (right), with Candice Sand (left) and Arlene Paculan (centre) on back-up vocals.
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Tania Joy on guitar at her “I’ll Be Around” EP launch.
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Tania Joy brings it powerful and soulful at her EP launch.
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Tania Joy and event MC Shannon Paterson.
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The energized, enthusiastic crowd kept Tania Joy busy with autograph requests after the show.