Featured Artist December 2007: Stephen Fearing

His music doesn’t kick your butt. Rather, it sweeps over you and stuns you with beautiful melodies, personal lyrics, pristine guitar playing, and distinctively warm baritone vocals. Either way, same effect. You’re still knocked out by how good Stephen Fearing is. And he’s the Twirl Radio Artist of the Month for December 2007!

Born in Vancouver and raised in Ireland, Stephen moved back to North America when he came of age. He spent a couple of years in Minnesota, then finally relocated to Ontario, back in his native Canada. Not surprisingly, a recurring theme in Stephen’s music is that of being on the road.

I first caught wind of this major talent eleven years ago, when he opened for one of my favorite musicians, John Wesley Harding. It was a Thanksgiving weekend show in Chicago, and many of us faithful bundled up and came out to see this traveling folk show. I had heard that “Wes” personally handpicked a couple of kindred spirits as opening acts for this tour. Stephen Fearing was one of them, and he did not fail to impress. Armed with nothing more than a guitar, some great songs, and his charisma, he set off some serious acoustic fireworks that night.

Apparently, I’m not the only one impressed with Stephen’s music. He’s been nominated several times for a Juno Award (think Canada’s equivalent of the Grammy), and earned a Juno for his latest release, Yellowjacket.

He has always been known for his songcraft and perfectionism. When he met up with producer Colin Linden several albums ago, his attitude changed. Not that he’s any less meticulous now, but Colin helped him loosen up in the studio. Stephen told me that Colin’s insistence on capturing the music in just a few takes has made making records more fun. Instead of being too self-critical, he now relishes the fact that he’s more accurately captured the soul and spirit of the songs.

Yellowjacket, his most recent solo effort, and first self-production, utilizes a broad palette of instruments and melodies, ranging from mellow ballads to mid-tempo pop, and from “Americana” (or would you call it “Canadiana” in this case?) to symphonic pop sounds.

The title track, Yellowjacket, leads off the album with a mellow tale of a jam band music fan who’s on the road, “following the big beat”. A nice string section and dobro accompaniment turn Stephen’s acoustic playing into a sweeping mission statement. The Man Who Married Music is a bittersweet ballad about a traveling singer/songwriter torn between his music and his wife: “the man who married music and the man who married you”. One Flat Tire is about being on the road, and out of position to help in the crises which befall your loved ones. It’s a full band piece, and despite the desperation in the lyrics, is rather upbeat sounding. This one should be a radio hit. Another radio-friendly track is This Guitar, my personal favorite track on the album, which revels in the life-affirming qualities of making music. There’s also a whimsical little acoustic guitar instrumental called Whoville. Stephen said that this track was written in a failed attempt to fit in on a local charitable holiday compilation album with a theme of “60 second songs”. The inspiration for the song was an imagined meeting between Dr. Seuss and John Philip Sousa. Fortunately for us, he expanded this one to almost three minutes.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the other huge part of Stephen’s life: Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, aka “BARK”. He and fellow Rodeo Kings Tom Wilson and the aforementioned Colin Linden have released five albums over the course of the last decade. These three friends share vocals, songwriting, and guitar duties. The feel of their Let’s Frolic album is somewhat akin to that of the Traveling Wilburys, with its loose, rootsy feel, and the presence of superstar musicians who genuinely enjoy each other’s company and musicianship. I tried making that comparison during the interview, and with characteristic humility, Stephen waved off my putting him in the same class with those incredible Wilbury superstars. He did admit that the conditions that produced the Wilburys were similar to those under which BARK operates: three well-known artists, checking their egos at the door, coming together to blend their distinctive styles (blues, folk, rock) into something that they all like. Working in the BARK ensemble is a respite from the usual expectations placed on these guys, and has resulted in a warm, organic album.

If that weren’t enough, several A-List musicians helped out on Let’s Frolic and the follow up, Let’s Frolic Again: Garth Hudson, Daniel Lanois (produced U2’s The Joshua Tree), and Pam Tillis. I told Stephen that the track I Give it Up Everyday sounded to me like something that would happen if the Wilburys ever met up with Al Green in Memphis. I apparently called that one right, because he responded that the horn player was none other than Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns, who helped shape the sound for Al Green, Isaac Hayes, and Otis Redding–in fact, they played on nearly every Stax release in the classic Memphis label’s heyday! These musicians had such a good time living and recording together in the famed Bearsville Studios in upstate New York, that they recorded 29 tracks–enough for both Let’s Frolic albums!

Whether solo or in Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Stephen Fearing is immersed in an incredible music career. His impeccable music continually earns him critical acclaim, award nominations, and fans on both sides of the border. I’d like to see him become more well-known here in the U.S.; albums like Yellowjacket and Let’s Frolic will help grow his American fan base. I’m proud to honor Stephen Fearing, as the Twirl Artist of the Month for December, 2007!

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