One of Canada’s most acclaimed songwriters plays Victoria—his new home.
WHEN I SIT DOWN WITH acclaimed Canadian singer-songwriter and guitarist Stephen Fearing, the first thing I want to know is how he ended up living in Minneapolis 35 years ago. Knowing what a hotbed of songwriting talent it’s been, I wonder if this Vancouver-born, Ireland-raised son of musicians made a calculated, early-career decision to put himself in close proximity to Prince, Tom Waits, and the legendary First Avenue nightclub (also, it was my home for awhile).
As we sip steaming beverages on a rainy morning at Discovery Coffee, the tall, lanky, bespectacled Fearing tells me no, it was way more random than that. In his final year of high school, he became fast friends with a kid named Paul who arrived in Dublin as a foreign student from Minnesota. “He was a classic midwestern Minnesotan young man, and because I was born in Canada, there was a tenuous connection,” he laughs. When they graduated, Paul asked Fearing what he planned to do next. “I didn’t have a clue, so I went to visit him in Minneapolis.”
Stephen Fearing (Photograph by Mark Maryanovich)
After witnessing the empowered life young adults were enjoying in America (“freedom personified”), Fearing turned his visit into a two-year stay. He was a cultural novelty and social success as an “Irish guy.” In Minneapolis, he had his first girlfriend, paid cheap rent, got odd jobs under the table, and played his first gigs—in the myriad coffeehouses scattered around the Twin Cities. Without realizing it, he’d landed in something of a singer-songwriter’s paradise, a “perfect place…a great place to start doing what I’ve done.”
Escaping “financially depressed” Ireland during the dark, punk-rock Thatcher era was a primary goal of many young Dubliners in Fearing’s generation, and Minneapolis was indeed a fortuitous place to land, given the overall trajectory of the music industry. “What I didn’t understand in Minneapolis was that I was getting this great education in live performance,” a skill set so essential—now more than ever—to his ability to support himself as a modern-day musician. “[Performing] is what I love to do, and as much as I love making records, I don’t make my living from that.”
Sellout crowds have been a hallmark of Fearing’s 2017 North American and European tour. The music business, he says, has had an inversion: Artists used to make recordings in the studio, and tour to support the sale of those albums. Up until a few years ago, he explains, it was “the record gets airplay, and people buy it in quantities so that you don’t have to tour—touring was a loss leader so they could sell more records; a way to visit the territories and get the DJs on side.” Now, he says, “it’s the other way around; the record gets me a little bit of attention, so when I play live, I can get an audience. The only way for me to make a living is live work.”
Fearing’s most recent solo recording, Every Soul’s a Sailor, is his ninth. It is beautifully written and produced; highlights include the crooning, swoon-worthy title track, and an Arlo Guthrie-esque political rant on Trump, called “Blowhard Nation.” The entire album has garnered impressive critical praise.
“I love making records. I love going into the studio and spending hours and hours tweaking stuff.” The trouble, he says, is that the care he takes doesn’t necessarily translate into people hearing what he intended for them to hear. Digitization, compression, and distribution through streaming sites like Spotify means “it ends up on somebody’s iPad, crushed down into a tiny file that sounds like crap. There’s no way around that, except to fly around on airplanes, and have a carbon footprint as big as Sasquatch.”
His upcoming performance in Victoria will require minimal carbon; he will traverse a few blocks of Foul Bay Road to get himself and his guitar to UVic’s Farquhar auditorium to play with bassist Rob Becker and drummer Leon Power. Fearing and his family moved to Oak Bay a couple of years ago from Halifax, and the change has been a good one, he says. Between performing on the road and madly renovating the heritage home they bought, he hasn’t experienced a whole lot of the social landscape. Closer proximity to family, he says, coupled with economics, inspired the relocation from east to west, but as he’s getting to know this place, he likes it a lot.
Twenty-first century Victoria has surprised him in many ways; the artisanal startup businesses—and the youthful passion making them succeed—impress him. “I lived in Vancouver, and I would never have moved to Victoria back then. It was this provincial, snooty place where your parents went to have a holiday. That is so no longer the case…the hipster, gen-Y or whatever it is thing is pretty impressive, how people are drilling down and reinventing the wheel. I grew up where milk was delivered in horse-drawn wagons…pre-superstores, pre-even-large-grocery stores. There was the butcher, green grocer, baker—people here are rediscovering and reinventing that, with small businesses making the best coffee, the best prosciutto, the best pizza—wrapping it all up in ‘this amazing paper [their] friend makes up-Island out of rice husks,’” he says with a laugh.
Fearing, a founding member of the Juno-winning band Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, is something of an artisan himself—a crafter of lyrics and melodies that rely heavily on low-tech, old-world, time-honed skills. “What I do is quaint,” he says. “I play and sing. I’m more connected to the minstrels of the court than what’s being played on the CBC top 20. Change is happening very quickly, everywhere…I keep thinking if I hang in long enough, there’s a sort of ‘geezer factor’ that comes along,” he laughs, alluding to the older songwriters who enjoy a resurgence of popularity when the young and hip rediscover them.
He’s certainly made himself relevant with his “Blowhard Nation” song, written in the earliest days of Trump’s efforts as a candidate. “I don’t wanna live in a blowhard nation / With a king in a tinselly crown / When the whole thing wobbles and the wheels come off / You know what’s gonna go down,” goes the opening line. “At the time, Trump seemed like a loud-mouthed distraction,” Fearing recalls. “I thought, ‘Why am I writing this song, they’d be insane to elect him, he’d never become president, there’s no way.’ I couldn’t believe the arrogance of this person, and thought I might pull [the song] out now and then…I’d say to the crowd, ‘Remember him?’ Maybe I’d play it once a year…But then Trump became leader of the Republican Party, and then he got elected, and holy fuck, I thought, ‘I’m gonna be singing this song every day for the next two years—or four years.” Fearing’s face dissolves into an all-too-common grimace of fear and exasperation. “I just can’t imagine four years.”
Happily, Fearing’s next four years will surely include more touring and performing, since audiences keep enthusiastically gathering to hear him do his thing. The BBC calls him “without a shadow of doubt, one of the best songsmiths on the planet. Quality albums…stunning shows.” As long as he can carry on, he says, and manage the physical demands of being on the road, he’ll continue to do what he loves most—what he learned to do so very well in the coffeehouses and restaurants of Minneapolis back in 1980.
Stephen Fearing and his trio will perform in the concert “Every Soul’s a Sailor,” Sunday, January 28, 7:30pm, Farquhar Auditorium, UVic. Tickets: student/alumni $28, general $38, University Centre Ticket Centre, tickets.uvic.ca or 250-721-8480.
Writer and singer Mollie Kaye, who performs with The Millies, lived in Minneapolis for 15 years, starting in 1989. She played in many of the same venues Stephen Fearing did.