CROW Sessions Spotlights Stephen Fearing

By Bill Monahan

On Tuesday April 24th, Crow Bar and Variety in Collingwood presents the third in its special series of dinner shows, this time featuring singer-songwriter Stephen Fearing.  The early dinner-show format, with the admonition, “Shut the F@#k Up and Listen”, is designed to give audiences extra insight into the artists featured with a mix of stories and songs.  Part of the show on Tuesday will be an interview on stage conducted by writer and broadcaster Jeff Woods “asking some of the hard questions”.

Stephen Fearing, a veteran singer-songwriter, winner of  two Juno Awards, a Canadian Folk Music Award and a West Coast Music Award, has been building an international reputation since the release of his first self-titled, self-produced cassette in 1986.  He is probably best known as one of the founding members of Blackie and The Rodeo Kings, but during his decades with them he has continued to develop a solo career that includes collaborating with the Northern Irish singer-songwriter Andy White, almost two decades as a solo artist on the prestigious True North label, conducting songwriting workshops, and producing records by other artists that include Suzie Vinnick’s Juno-nominated “Happy Here”, for which he co-wrote most of the songs.

“When I started in this business it was a very different landscape and certainly there was a lot more emphasis put on just being one-dimensional,” he says, “You know, ‘don’t confuse the audience’, just be the thing that the record company is trying to sell you as and stick to that.  I think a lot of musicians have an interest to try different things, not just other styles but collaborating, performing with other players gives you a chance to try a different hat and that kind of thing.  The way the business is working now, you’ve really got to be able to spread yourself around, do different things, multiple income streams.  But just from a selfish point of view of keeping yourself interested, the more ways you find to can skin a cat, as it were, the better.”

Like a lot of veteran artists, Stephen Fearing has lived through the seismic change in the music industry that occurred with the advent of the Internet, and he’s learned to adapt.  He’s live through the change from the days when a musician was seen as “somebody who rolls out of bed at noon and picks up a guitar and then is just kind of magically transported to the show and then to a party afterward,” to the way things are now, “when so much that needs to be done is the artists’ job.”

“What’s also different is the idea of a label period,” says Stephen, “Most artists, if there’s a label involved it’s a label they’ve created themselves.  Being signed to a label, that’s kind of fantasyland now.  There’s just no money in it.  There’s no money in selling records.”

“I have so many jobs,” he adds, “I’m sitting here figuring out my itinerary, booking rental cars and then thinking ahead towards my next release, and artwork and you kinda gotta do it all.  It was nice to just leave it all to somebody else but along with that, do you like what somebody else is doing in your name?  Do you agree with the decisions they’re making? Ultimately being the captain of your own ship is the best scenario.”

The necessities of adapting forced him to leave behind his relationship with Bernie Finkelstein, head of True North records, with whom he’d been associated for almost twenty years.

“It was a complicated deal I had with Bernie because he was my manager, he was my label, he was my publisher,” he says.  When Finkelstein sold the label, he says, “we stayed together a little while longer but I realized that the times had changed and the digital world was so prevalent. 

“I remember discussing with Bernie that the True North website was pretty out of date and kind of woefully lacking, and Bernie looked at me and he just said, ‘You know, I just have no interest in that part of the business,’ and I realized it was time for me to move on because that is the future of it like it or not.  That’s where it is all going to exist and you have to embrace that or retire.  I have great respect for him and I consider myself very lucky to have been able to work with him but it was time for me to move out on my own.”

The transition to becoming a DIY musician was made easier be a friend who created LowdenProud Records specifically to put out his material.

“Loudandproud is basically a very low-interest loan.  In any other aspect it’s not a label.  I basically do everything, but the hard thing for any independent artist is coming up with that chunk of money that it costs.  You go in the studio, hire the producer, hire the graphic designer, pay for the run of three or five thousand units. You know that’s a big chunk of change up front.  If you’re a very wealthy person, that kind of money is chump change but for me that’s significant, so finding somebody who’s willing to put that kind of money down and let you pay it back over the course of two or three years as you sell the albums is kind of like crowd funding but from one person.  It’s pretty great when you cross paths with people – and they are out there, you know –“

Those people out there who want to help just for the sake of helping have been part of Stephen Fearing’s history, going back to his high school days in Dublin, Ireland, when his history teacher, Donald Moxham, gave him an essential boost that changed his life.

It was the end of his days at school, and he had just walked out on a biology exam, not feeling too good about his effort, when Mr. Moxham asked him how he did.

“I said I didn’t really think I’d done very well.  He sort of stood back and looked at me and said ‘You seem like an intelligent person, what is it that really makes you tick if it’s not academic?  And I confided in him because I liked him that I was really interested in music and playing guitar and singing.  He kind of lit up and he said, ‘Well what are you going to do about it?’”

When Stephen explained that after exams he planned to go to the U.S., Mr. Moxham asked if he planned to play any gigs there.  Stephen really wasn’t sure what a gig was, but answered “I guess” and the teacher told him he’d need a demo tape.  He arranged to take him into the music room and record his songs for him so he’d have something to work with.

“It was a pretty generous offer, the first time an adult had shown a personal interest in me outside of being a son or a snotty teenage student.  So anyway he booked the music roo. I went and I probably over the course of two hours played every song I knew. He recorded it all on the reel-to-reel and he said ‘come back in three days’ time and I’ll dump this on to cassette for you.’”

When he returned to pick up the cassette, Mr. Moxham had another surprise for him.

“He had contact with a little local pirate radio station and they probably had a broadcast range of five miles.  He’d given them a cassette of these songs that I’d made of the demos and they played one song on the hour. I listened to myself coming through the radio, you know I was seventeen years old and it just blew my mind.

“Such a generous, kind thing.  There was a teacher who was really interested in the inner lives of his students. It was an amazing thing to do.  It still gives me chills when I think about it.  Back then being on the radio was a really big deal.”

Demos in hand, he moved first to Minneapolis and then to Vancouver, where his career began to pick up steam.  It was still in the ascent when, in 1994, Blackie and The Rodeo Kings was formed.  Through his label, whose star was Bruce Cockburn, Stephen was added as the opening act for Cockburn’s tour to support his “Nothing But A Burning Light” album.

Colin Linden was the bandleader,” he says, “I had met Colin before that but very briefly on the festival circuit but now suddenly I’m on a tour bus with him.  I was the opening act and he was the bandleader for the headliner, so there was a bit of a pecking order thing going on but he was friendly and I realized  I had to come up with an interesting idea because this guy, he’s really busy and he’d be really important for me to connect with.”

At Stephen’s suggestion they got together to write some songs, and it made him want even more to “spend more time working with this guy. I suggested to him by email that we think about doing a Willie P. Bennett tribute record because everybody was making tribute records back then.  Colin replied that it was kind of a coincidence because he’s just finished talking to his wife about the same idea. 

“But Colin suggested, ‘let’s not do what everybody else does which is twelve different artists doing twelve Willie P. Bennett songs.  Let’s put a band together and we’ll be the only Willie P. Bennett tribute band in the world and we’ll call ourselves whatever.  He suggested we needed another singer and he suggested Tom Wilson who I’d met previously as well. 

“Being that Colin is Colin, what was an idea on my part very quickly turned into reality to the point where I think we were in the studio like a month later.   We were recording and we went to Bernie and asked if True North put it out and the whole thing just took off from there.”

It took off in a big way.  Their first album, “High or Hurtin’: The Songs of Willie P. Bennett” was both a popular and critical success and led to two decades of albums and international touring.  They haven’t slowed down yet.

“It was just one of those things,” says Stephen, “you throw an idea out into the world and suddenly it takes over your life.”

There is an irony in the fact that the tribute band became much bigger than the artist they were honoring.  The Willie P. Bennett song that the band closes every concert with, “White Lines”, inadvertently captures that irony.  It’s from the point of view of a struggling musician, stuck on a cold highway trying to thumb a ride to his next gig and thinking, “You know it could have been me you’re listening to on your radio.  I could be warm inside of someplace, instead of standing out here in the snow.”

“You never know what’s inside a person’s heart completely buy my sense was that he was very proud and very pleased at first,” says Stephen, “ The best piece of advice I got from Willie was, ‘don’t take yourself too seriously but take your music very seriously’.  We all feel that our music is important and that we’re creating important work, that’s part of what makes you tick, but I do think that Willie understood that he was creating really important music that would influence people long after he was gone, as is the case.

“It was never easy for him, I mean partly because of him.  We always joke that Willie had a gold-plated book of matches to burn any bridge he might come to.  He didn’t make it easy on people who wanted to help him.  He was suspicious and I think he saw the bullshit so clearly and just couldn’t go along for the ride.”

For Stephen the irony had another dimension.

“When I met him I already knew of him because I was given a copy of “Hobo’s Taunt” when I was still living in Ireland so he was kind of a legendary figure for me. 

“But he was always under the radar.  He never achieved the kind of success that somebody from the outside would assume that he should because of the quality of his work and I think that there were parts of that that were difficult for him.  At the same time I think he really shied away from the spotlight, I don’t think he liked it. So the idea that we would come along without him having to do anything, I think that really appealed to him.

“And then I think there was a point where he got tired of it, he was like, ‘OK…you guys are going to continue?’

“I think at one point he kind of felt like, ‘this is my material, what are you guys doing getting known on my material?’  Later I think it was cool again.

The legacy of Willie P. Bennett, who passed away in 2008, lives on through the music of Blackie and The Rodeo Kings, while the individual members continue to build their own careers alongside the group effort.  It’s clear that a big part of the success of the band has to do with the song writing talents of the three central members, probably to a larger extent than the songs of their original inspiration, but, Stephen says, “We named our band Blackie and The Rodeo Kings because it was a tribute to him and we’ve never lost sight of that. We’ve ended every show we’ve ever played with “White Lines”.  He’s always there.”

The stop at Crow on Tuesday is part of Stephen’s current Canadian tour.

“I’m in the middle of a tour where I’m going to go from really small rural towns in Saskatchewan to playing various venues in Ontario and it’s all good.  That’s the name of the game in Canada.  You have to be able to play everything from house concerts to concert venues and huge outdoor festivals, that’s how it works.  Each show is a little different because the venue makes it different and the response from the crowd makes it different.”

This show promises to be very different with personal stories adding dimension to the work of a respected and constantly growing Canadian talent.

The dinner show starts at 5:30 pm. Tickets are $85.00, including gratuity and tax.

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One Response to CROW Sessions Spotlights Stephen Fearing

  1. Gillian says:

    I’m chuckling at the title of this show. When I was 5 months pregnant, friends took me to a Stephen Fearing concert on Saltspring Island and his music was so loud I feared for my unborn daughter’s ears. Thanks for this in-depth post.

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