So here’s the story…
I had my first professional gig when I was 16 years old and a senior in high school. It was 1965. There was a wonderful coffee house in Regina appropriately called the Fourth Dimension. It was – it had to be – housed in the basement of a pizza joint and came complete with red-checkered table clothes and old Cinzano bottles with candles dripping wax down the sides. If memory serves, I was so scared I just mouthed the words and chunked away on my banjo ukulele while my two colleagues, Mel Graham and Ted Quade, did the rest. The little freckle-faced redhead that I was did not at the time recognize the foreshadowing of her life long career.
Creativity has always been my passion. In my teen years, while my friends were discovering the Beatles, I had discovered Nina Simone, Ma Rainey, Besse Smith, Billie Holiday…..the great black women blues singers….. I was hooked for life. Not only did I develop a deep-rooted love and respect for the blues and early jazz, but those women taught me about the world and life. This white girl in Regina began to learn about racism. Buffy Sainte Marie taught me how close to home that racism really was.
I was working two jobs by then to put myself through university. Art School further opened up my world and I buried myself in the studios on the Old Campus at the University of Regina and loved every minute of it. It was the 60s and the left had hit the campus full on with a cadre of radical professors from California. It worked for me. The second wave of the women’s movement had just begun its creep into Regina. I was sold and off I went into my life armed more with the worldview I was developing than the degree I had received.
After a short stint in California, I found myself living in a dingy basement apartment while working in Swift Current. Broke as usual, I thought – “hey– I could paint a couple of paintings and hang them to pick the joint up.”
As abstract painting was the only “real” art form at that time, I had been criticized and discouraged in Art School from the art form that I loved – realistic portraiture. But I loved realism and my goal was to create beauty and meaning in my own world. Free from art world restrictions, I did just that.
My first painting was the “Old Man” and he remains a favourite to this day. He taught me how to look for the painting’s spirit, find it, honour it, and live with it.
Painting was feeding my soul, but I quickly surmised that I had to be dead before I could even think about making a living from painting. The irony was too much.
My passion for creating beauty continued to sustain me, but music finally got the upper hand. In the early 70’s, while living in Regina, I played in an all-women’s dance band called Walpurgis Night. We played dances all over Saskatchewan – from small towns to reserves to the big cities of Regina and Saskatoon. Polkas, schottisches, waltzes, 60s rock and roll, and, when the crowd got drunk enough (where all good prairie dances are wont to go) I could start singing some blues. It was during this time that I first met Connie Kaldor. We instantly became fast friends and she remains to this day my hero and an inspiration.
After the sixties drew to a close, I came out. I was living in Toronto at the time and although I was heavily involved in the women’s movement, for the first short while I remained closeted, as the general feeling was that lesbians would give the movement a bad name. I got over that quickly and came out with a vengeance in 1972 when I moved back to Regina. For me the political was indeed personal and I had to speak out where there were no voices. So I found myself doing radio shows, speaking to police and medical personnel, and giving lectures on campus.
In 1975 I moved to Winnipeg in search of a larger gay community and a larger music community. I continued to paint on the side and sell some of my work, but, as my heart has always yearned for the country, I began to plan how I might try making music pay the bills, so that I could build my dream home far from the madding crowds.
My partner at the time, Joan Miller, and I decided that she could be the manager and I could be the touring musician. She became my manager for the next 25 years and remains one of my closest friends.
I was steeped in the political voices of the women whose music coursed through my veins and the giddy politics of the sixties. I was a feminist from my first breath, but from the moment I heard the actual word, it became tantamount that I spread that word.
If the music that moved me so deeply came from the raw truth of the lives of those women who sang to me, then I would have to do the same. Sing about the truth of my life. Oh oh. This was the early 70s and no one in Canada was openly and publicly gay. The first song I heard about “such things” was a Connie Kaldor song entitled I Found a Girl. It’s a story about two friends who are catching up on each other’s lives and one comes out to the other. Worked for me. As I began singing it, so began the grinding of the wheels of change.
But the first time I stepped onto a big stage – Regina Folk Festival – 1976 – night stage – I thought my career was about to be a nano second long. If I was to have a career in music, I was going to be out. I couldn’t fathom doing anything else. To my utter shock and amazement, I received a standing ovation. I was gob smacked.
After that defining moment, a little voice was saying at the back of my mind – “this just might work.”
It turns out that the gift of that entire exercise was that each new gig, each new album, was a wonderful surprise. In spite of the fact that I had definitely limited my career by being honest about myself, I was still touring and changing people’s perception of the world.
When I was approached by a couple of different producers to make an album in 1978, I was very concerned that my ability to sing and record the songs I felt needed to be heard, would be compromised. I hesitated. And then I ran into Dan Donahue who suggested I make my own records. To produce an album independently back then was almost unheard of. Today, of course, it’s the only way to fly.
In 1979, with Dan producing, I recorded Grandmother’s Song. The studio was a little 8-track in the basement of Guitarland on Broadway in Winnipeg. It cost me $3000, which at the time seemed astronomical. I had to borrow the money in $100 chunks from family and friends. It was the dead of winter – January 1979 – and a bunch of the musicians were crashing on my living room floor. The boiler went out on my furnace right in the middle of it all and we were heating the house with a leaky old fireplace and electric heaters. Just when you think you’re stressed to the max…….
That first album began opening doors and soon I was talking with Don Herron and Peter Gzowski on Morningside (the 70s CBC national morning show) about being a lesbian. I had done radio shows provincially about being gay and warded off the religious zealots blindly quoting Leviticus and damning me to burn forever more in hell. But this was a national and respectful forum. I still run into people who thank me – remembering first hearing someone in Canada say on the radio that they were a lesbian and the radio didn’t explode and vapourize all listeners.
In the almost 40 years that I have been a professional musician, I have observed first-hand the astronomical changes in technology. I have recorded on 8-track, 16-track, 24-track, and multi-track systems with gazillion dollar boards, right through to Pro-Tools on the computer screen. I’ve used half-inch and two inch tape (where you edit with a razor blade), DAT VHS cassettes, A-DAT tape, and, now, hard drives and CD-ROMs. I have dragged around albums, cassettes, (no 8 tracks though) and now CDs. (I still have a garage full of vinyl!) My own personal salvation these days is my iPod and music downloads.
And now, 30 years, 14 CDs, and a million miles around the globe later, I am offering up this latest rendition of songs as I see and feel them. I have learned that the closer I cut to the bone of my own emotional journey through my time here, that it is more likely to resonate with the listener.
I confess when the idea occurred to me to record again, it was initially because I had never, at any time when I recorded, thought – “okay, this is probably my last CD.” So the idea that I might never make another one sent me off on a tangent of thoughts about how I would have done the last one differently if I had only known. So I decided to make a CD mindfully. One that I would feel, if it were my last, that’d be okay. This is that CD.
I began in October, 2008 in Montreal. Connie Kaldor had invited me out to write with her. I went with an idea for a song about how religious myths and stories are here to guide us along. The story of the Garden of Eden and the snake teaches us that we are each given a life to live that is our own precious garden and we are responsible for keeping out “the snakes” that would bring us down.
Connie immediately sat down at the piano and said, “well, it has to be gospel then.” The two prairie girls were popping ideas faster than corn …. That serpent is, that serpent is, that serpent iii-is.
In November, Laurie MacKenzie and his partner Abby treated me to a week in Phoenix to check out possible art shows, and I began writing Everybody and I Remember It Well. In December, another friend treated me to a week in Mexico where I finished writing those two songs. Then in January, when Steve Bell came out to my farm to do some writing in my Retreat House, I dropped in on him on my way to the dump one day and we kibitzed about writing together. I sang him the chorus idea I had for Money and when I got back from the dump and post office an hour later, he was off and running with it so we sat down and wrote it together.
These are some of the stories about where the music comes from. In truth, none of us really knows where it comes from. I personally always pray that I will be awake enough to catch and honour the gift when it’s sent my way. And sometimes, someone else catches the song first and writes it and then it comes my way and I know that song was meant to have me sing it too. Such was the case the first time I heard Alana Levandoski’s first CD. On the drive from Winnipeg to Regina, I played it non-stop. I Ain’t No Saint resonated so strongly that I had to sing it, thinking to myself, “how did someone so very young write a song meant for me to sing?”
I decided to produce this CD with my two main men with whom I have had the absolute pleasure of touring and making music for many, many years. Laurie MacKenzie is an extraordinary guitar player who currently tours with The Guess Who, and Don Benedictson is an equally extraordinary bass player and producer with his own studio.
I chose Don’s studio in his straw bale home in Roseisle, Manitoba. And I mused about how much the industry has changed in 30 years. Now there are tons of studios to choose from, a deep and rich pool of players, and the infrastructure necessary to master and manufacture – all in Manitoba. That’s how far we’ve come.
I also had the great good fortune to hook up with Ken Campbell 3 CDs ago – ostensibly as a pedal steel player, but he also magically plays anything with strings and has become my touring partner.
So, the four of us began pre-production in January, and then in February we found 3 days where everyone, including the inimitable Christian Dugas (currently playing with the Duhks) was available, and lay down the beds. All the equipment and infrastructure may have changed over the years but the basics of life as a musician remain much the same. We all crashed at Don’s house. I found myself sleeping in the isolation booth. (Nice bed though – that’s changed.) It was an extremely intense 3 days, and on the fourth, Don and I went in to Winnipeg to sing and play at his father’s funeral. The huge gift that Don gave was that he was not only able to continue working on this project, but that his deep sorrow was translated into such beauty.
In March we began days and days of overdubs – the guitar solos, vocals, keyboards……and here’s one of the most amazing ways things have changed. Some of the parts – like keyboards and sound scape work, were done in Vancouver and Iqualuit and then emailed back to us. Our pool of resources has become worldwide.
As I was carefully choosing the people I wanted to record with, I very much wanted Connie Kaldor and the Campagne family to do the backup vocals. Connie has been my anchor since those early days in the 70s. Without her watching my back and supporting me, I’m not sure I would have been able to withstand some of the storms I have weathered. So, off I went to Montreal where Connie and Paul have a studio in their home. We got great visits in around long days of recording back-up vocals with Connie, Paul, Michelle and Suzanne.
Always, when working with such gifted and talented people, the beauty is sometimes so exquisite that you can barely contain your emotions and you just hang on for the ride as it’s going by. Many times during the beds and overdubs, I was speechless at what was being created. Feeling Don through his bass on I Ain’t No Saint just after his father passed on. Sitting with the headphones on while Laurie played the solo on Everybody and almost passing out with pleasure. Watching Ken’s shoulders shaking silently as he chuckled to himself, long after Laurie had cracked yet another outrageous joke and then seamlessly slide into a line on Ancient Cry that makes the hair on the back of my neck still stand up. Working late into the wee hours on Party in the Sun fueled only by Christian’s youthful energy and enthusiasm and being blown away by his musicianship. Having my heart burst with joy as I watched my four year old granddaughter, Lucy, singing Playmate, standing on a chair to reach the microphone and stopping half way through to ask “what is that brown thing in between your teeth?”
And then there was that moment in the control room in Montreal, sitting in a semi-circle with Paul, Suzanne, Michelle and Connie – all our heads leaning in to better hear each other, while working out the parts for Hallelujah. When our heads came up, Paul asked if I liked the idea. My eyes were brimming over with tears and he laughed, tearing up himself, and said, “Oh, I guess so.”
So with all the pieces in place, and the Flood of 2009 raging all around us, Don could begin his magic at the board – with the roar of a gas pump in the background. His home was flooding so he had to run the pump 24 hours a day with hourly infusions of gasoline. Danielle, his partner, very graciously handled that, going without sleep, so that we could work.
You are listening to the results of it all. And now the music passes from me to the world. I will watch it grow on its own and learn about it all over again through others. I know how it has touched me. May it give you what you need and bring you laughter, tears, and healing.
And, like most things, you don’t know you’re blazing a trail until you get to turn around and look back and there it is, filled with others making their way along it.