It’s been nearly two years in the making, but the waiting and anticipating has all paid off, as current fans and those who will soon become fans of Kingston singer/songwriter Miss Emily, aka Emily Fennell, will be well rewarded for their patience with the forthcoming release of the breathtakingly soulful, elegantly crafted and emotionally evocative new album, In Between.
Produced by long-time friend and collaborator Gord Sinclair, bassist for the Tragically Hip, and featuring the compositional and instrumental contributions of Hip guitarist Rob Baker, In Between is a landmark album for one of the community’s most respected, admired and adored musical artists. It is also an emphatic statement by an artist who is boldly staking a claim to her musical destiny and embracing the style and tone of music that will help define her as one of the most potent and powerful voices to ever come out of the region.
Fennell is a cornerstone of the Kingston music scene, and has been plying her trade for nearly two decades. Her story is well-known within the close-knit confines of The Limestone City, but outside of it, it is not. But it is a story that needs to be told and understood, especially in relation to the revelatory and powerfully evocative creative spirit that imbues In Between.
For the vast majority of her 19 year career, she was a full time musician and single mom. Think about that for a moment. Think about how hard it is to be a working musician, able to support oneself, pay all the bills and keep a roof over your head. Now try doing it while raising a child. Even though Fennell was acclaimed and truly embraced and beloved by so many fans over the years, it’s still a struggle to make a decent living as a musician. She gigged constantly, becoming a musical contortionist as she would adapt her style and set list to accommodate as many different gigs as possible.
In essence, while she loved her chosen profession, for most of her adult life she was in survival mode. Since the release of her previous album, 2014’s Rise, she has married and had the opportunity to depressurize and relax, to get her emotional, spiritual and artistic bearings under her, reassessing her goals now that she is no longer simply, as the old expression goes ‘singing for her supper.’
“I did my first bar gig when I was 17 and busted my ass for 19 years since then. With the whole getting married and the double-income household, which I am weirdly still getting used to, I was able to take a breath for the first period of time in my entire adult life and not panic about how I was going to pay the hydro bill. But I also realized that I want to go somewhere with this, with this music and with my career. And I realized instead of just saying that, I need to start creating real goals. And I want recognition. I want to go to Juno Awards and be nominated for things and play wonderful halls and collaborate with the top musicians in Canada. And I know I sound like a bit of a lame-o for saying that on the record, but by stating it, I think it makes me feel one step closer to achieving it. I am f***ing motivated, I really am,” Fennell said, adding that the break did indeed energize her.
“When I did my taxes for 2015 I had this tiny little number and it was like I wasn’t a musician for the year 2015. I released Rise in the middle of 2014 and got married three weeks later and then I just collapsed in some ways. I was exhausted and you’re right, once you remove the survivor mode of work it changes everything.
“Listen, if I wanted to make better money all these years I would have chosen a different career. I went into it with my eyes wide open. At the end of the day, something has got to give at some point in time and my mental and physical health had really taken a hit. I am lucky I can walk, from all those years of carrying speakers in and out of clubs, up and down stairs. It’s crazy, but then think of doing it in six-inch stilettos. But now I do yoga every day and I take care of myself. I am very fortunate these days and I am lucky, I guess, to be able to tell the story about how the hell I got through it.”
It is true that over her career Fennell has donned numerous musical guises, releasing independent albums that were sometimes alt-country, blues based hard rock, singer songwriter and ingénue pop. In Between has been dubbed by some as adult contemporary or contemporary soul. But that is a bit inaccurate true as In Between trumpets a real old school soul, which borders on an authentic Gospel vibe. With the addition of elegant string sections and choir-like gang vocals that enliven every chorus, it truly has some epic, immersive musical moments.
“Whatever format it seems to fall into, I am very thrilled with how the record turned out. I was raised on old school soul, old country and old Gospel, and I feel lucky for that, that’s where I feel my heart is. And my drummer Rob Radford, who has worked with more for over 10 years now, recently said to me when I first sent him the scratch tracks, the rough stuff before we went in to record, he said, ‘Em, this is what you should have been doing all along. This is your stuff, here it is,’” she said, but added that, hearkening back to her comments about being in survival mode for so long, she needed to take her circuitous and difficult musical journey in order to get to where she is now. In Between needed those previous 19 years in order to be as magnificently deep and spiritually awakening as it turned out to be.
“I am hoping, between CBC and satellite radio that I can develop a new sense of place on the musical spectrum, one that I can inhabit full. Because, like I said before, if there was a folk festival opportunity, well then I am a folk act. If there was a gig for some fancy corporate function, well then I am wallpaper jazz. If there was bar work, which is what Kingston has offered me for many years, thankfully, and paid so many of my bills, I was bar rock. Now I get to do what I truly want to do.”
This renewed focus has meant renewed goals and ambitions, and they are bold, but based on the level of talent and commitment Fennell and her collaborators bring to the table, eminently reachable.
“I was getting to a point in my life where I really want to create specific goals for myself. I use the same voice in all the different music that I write and record and perform live. I like different genres of music and I have never really stuck to one specific genre. So when we went into this new project I said to Gord that I want to make a blues record and one of the reasons I want to do that is because I respect a lot of the super incredible Canadian blues singers and musicians, one of them being Suzie Vinnick. And I was thinking that I want to be a part of the circles that she is part of,” she explained.
“I want to be in a circle that has a real live music following – a passionate live music following. And the Canadian blues circuit really is made up of a passionate group of people. You have groups like the Toronto Blue Society and the Kingston Blues Society and so many festivals and venues that welcome this music. And blues music is in my roots; it’s how I sing. I sing like a blues singer for every single type of music I have ever sung – it all comes with the same voice and my voice is very much a blues-oriented voice.”
In Between is a true showcase of the emotional depth and power of both Fennell’s voice and her writing. Two of the most evocative songs on the album are You Win and Sometimes It’s Better to Lose. One is the reaction to her own behaviour during a fight with the man who became her husband. The second is her looking back at a bad relationship, and being thankful for where she is now.
“I wrote You Win specifically because I was not a very nice person to my boyfriend. It was our first summer together and it’s challenging to put a family together. I am his second wife, he has two kids and I have a kid and it was early on in the process of kind of joining families and we had a fight. He is not an easy person to argue with; he is really, really intelligent and he is even more hard headed than me, which is really saying something. The song was a response to the fight. Although I said it was my ‘sorry song’ he later pointed out that nowhere in the song do I actually say, I’m sorry. So I guess there is another example of my hard headedness,” she said with a chuckle about what really is a sweet song.
“Sometimes It’s Better to Lose wasn’t originally written in 6/8 tempo, but that was a suggestion by Sinclair, which was f***ing genius I think, because it changed the whole style of the song. It’s kind of one of the first love songs I have actually written and it’s definitely autobiographical, which is how I like to write, even thought I was told by all the great writers I know that you shouldn’t do it. I have a scar my knee and it’s literally a souvenir from a s****y boyfriend that I had. It got bad and I remember I just went swimming and I cut my knee on a zebra mussel getting out of the lake. And every time I look at it, I think of that moment and how it represents a time in my life that was kind of crappy.
“So that’s the opening line of the song: ‘I have a scar that is a souvenir, of a fiery love that I held dear. But he passed me by when he had to choose. Sometimes it’s better to lose.’ It started me down a lonely road that led me to where I am with my husband now and it actually might be the first truly happy song I’ve written.”
Hold Back the River is emblematic of Fennell’s willingness to unleash her unbridled vocal strength and the song that really puts the old school soul and Gospel stamp on the record.
“I pride myself on what kind of moves me so I can create an a Capella tune. I love a Capella music and even though I play multiple instruments, I have noticed that as I have gotten older, that sometimes they get in the way of my voice. My voice is more where it’s at for me and I truly realize that now. So Hold Back the River was first a melody, but then I wanted to do a call and response too, which I did. Lyrically it reminds me a little bit of a song from my last record called Standing Stone. In order to sing a Capella you have to show extensive sensitivity or extensive strength and so far I have used them to do these kinds of ballsy, anthemic, awesome style songs. So that’s where I was going with that tune,” Fennell said.
The song Land of Greed almost didn’t make the album. A late comer to the process, it was a truly remarkable (although VERY last minute) collaboration between Baker and Fennell.
“We were doing the recording Monday to Friday over two weeks at Gord’s house. On the second Monday, Rob Baker pulls me aside and said he felt the album needed another up tempo tune and I totally agreed. I had nothing and asked if he did, and he handed me a disc of tunes and when you receive a disc of tunes from somebody like Rob Baker, the guy who came up with guitar parts like on Ahead by a Century, you know they’re amazing. And he does them in his home studio where he puts together full instrumentals, sometimes with vocals too. I listened to the songs at home a few times and kept going back to Track 2 which ended up being this tune. I pressed record on my phone and just recorded what I sang along to it, jotted down some lyrics and came back to the studio about an hour later and said, ‘I wrote a song, I am going to give it a night and I think we need to tell the guys that we’re going to record it tomorrow,” she said with a laugh. Sinclair was rightly surprised and resistant at first because of the lateness in the process. But Fennell asked Baker to intervene and convince his Hip bandmate and the other musicians that this song needed to be on the record.
“When I came back into the studio the next morning, Rob was already there with the the guys rehearsing the song. I put the disc on a little ghetto blaster that I brought with me and sang the lyrics that I had written the evening before. That was the first time I had ever sung the song completely and it was meant to be just a scratch vocal for the guys to play along to. But what you hear on the finished song is that scratch vocal, the very first time.
“And the whole record is full of first and second takes of everything, mostly live off the floor, me singing and playing piano at the same time while the others are kind of sitting in a circle around me. That’s most of the record. It’s not a slick operation in that respect, but it’s organic and because we had a great engineer and because we are using great musicians, it still sounds pretty slick.”
What will also sound slick will be Fennell and her band (featuring Baker and Sinclair) as she officially launches In Between with a pair of dates at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts in Kingston on Thursday, Oct. 26 and Friday Oct. 27. For more information on the shows, visit http://www.queensu.ca/theisabel/content/miss-emily.
For more information on other tour dates, the In Between album and more, visit www.themissemily.com.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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