Here is a project that is greater than the sum of its parts. When those two parts are as individually talented as acclaimed singer/songwriters Stephen Fearing and Andy White, you know you’re in for a unique listening experience. Ten years of writing, three weeks of recording and a whole lots of miles spent on the road together have gone into this album.
Fearing is well known within the international folk and roots music community as one of its most accomplished songsmiths, storytellers and guitarists. A double Juno award winner in his native Canada, he has experienced commercial and critical success, both in his solo career and with roots/rock supergroup Blackie and The Rodeo Kings. Along the way, Fearing has toured and recorded with everybody from Merle Haggard to Shawn Colvin.
Northern Ireland born and raised White has earned a global following for blending folk and pop stylings with a poet's sensibility. Working with the great names of Irish music - Sinead O'Connor, Van Morrison - and writing with the likes of Peter Gabriel and Neil and Tim Finn, Andy has won Ireland's top songwriting awards and toured the world many times. A published author, his recent on the road journal/novel 21st Century Troubadour has scored rave reviews.
Between them Stephen and Andy have released nineteen solo albums, a formidable body of work to which they can now proudly add Fearing & White.
This eponymous debut duo album is the happy result of a long friendship that has survived both the tyranny of distance and the travails of the road. White now calls Melbourne, Australia, home, while Fearing has recently moved to Halifax on Canada’s east coast. Over the past eight years, the two well-travelled troubadours have juggled schedules so they can meet up at least once a year to hang out and write songs. Fearing & White is a collection of 13 of those tunes (there’s an extra track via iTunes).
The album has been a long time coming and, in fact, less than a year ago, it looked as if it was destined never to happen. “Last March, I had a 15 date tour of Alberta,” recalls Fearing. “Andy was touring the States at the time, so I suggested he fly up and open the shows for me. I was mentally preparing to break the news that I didn’t think the record was going to happen… we’d been talking about it for a few years, struggling with how to raise funds and with the logistics of recording and touring such a beast. But during the flight to Calgary I kept listening to our demos, thinking ‘f***, these are really good! Why not go into the studio with just the two of us?’ As luck would have it, Andy Hogg, a friend whose house we were staying at, said ‘I'm in. I'll be your record label.’ All the difficulties vanished in one 15-minute conversation. The rest of that tour became a trial run for the tunes.”
Fearing & White will be the first album bearing the LowdenProud imprint, and it marks an auspicious beginning for the new label. Although a duo project, Fearing & White is not the sound of two singers strumming acoustic guitars round a campfire. It features adventurous sonic atmospheres that perfectly compliment the eloquence of the lyrics, and both artists distinguish themselves on instruments with which they are not usually associated. White contributes melodic bass parts throughout (as well as acoustic guitar), while Fearing's resonant and fluent electric and acoustic guitars shine consistently. Guest drummer/percussionist Ray Farrugia (Junkhouse, Lee Harvey Osmond, Mary Gauthier) supplies a robust and rhythmic kick.
“We did a lot of things that were secret pleasures for us,” says Andy. “I grew up playing bass, and wanted to bring a UK pop element into the studio, while Stephen has an amazing electric guitar technique and a unique take on N. American roots music. We’re two Irishmen who grew up listening to T Rex records – I fell into the folk thing almost by accident – and I think we’ve brought a British pop sensibility to the folk idiom people are more used to in our work. Take all this, add in the hours we spent writing and eating toast in Stephen’s kitchen, record it in a Canadian studio, and you end up with an atmosphere and a sound that’s different from a lot of records out there right now.”
Injecting real warmth into Fearing & White is the analog approach favoured by the album’s engineer and mixer, Scott Merritt (Fred Eaglesmith), and the familiarity of Stephen and Andy with Scott’s Guelph studio, The Cottage.
“We made this record in a very old-fashioned way,” says Andy. “We had just two weeks to record and mix the songs. We were close to the emotional heart of the record in Guelph – which had become home turf for us while we were writing – and the songs translated to the studio very naturally. It was intense, but all the intense recording experiences I've gone through have produced great records.”
The songwriting process evolved in an organic and traditional way. “It started off with a friendship, but soon became one of the best collaborations I've experienced – and definitely the most exacting,” says White. Collaborating via e-mail may have been more practical for two artists living 10,000 miles apart, but Andy explains, “I really believe the best songs are written face to face. There’s a level of communication necessary, which you just can't do electronically. What you hear on the record started off as two friends sitting around a kitchen table late at night, singing our hearts out.”
A core component of their friendship (aside from a mutual love of The Trailer Park Boys and beers with fancy labels) is their shared Irish roots. “I’m from Belfast and Stephen grew up in Dublin – we're really just two Irishmen abroad trying it on,” laughs Andy. “Growing up in Ireland gave me a different view of the world and especially my connection to music,” explains Stephen. “ Having these common touchstones with Andy is a big part of this record”.
The instrumental empathy between Fearing and White is matched by their vocal interaction throughout the album. “There's an interesting dynamic,” notes Stephen. “In some ways, it’s not dissimilar to the way I work with Tom Wilson and Colin Linden in the Rodeo Kings. In my family, I grew up singing harmony and interacting musically with other people. Even though I have this career as a solo artist, I love to work as an ensemble player and singer. Andy is more of a straight front-man. From the very beginning, we were working with the ideas of harmonies and having two vocal parts running through each song. Often, one vocal thread is a little more spoken-word, and the other, more melodic. I feel sometimes like I rotate around Andy like a satellite, musically and vocally, and I’d often try to sing harmonies or unisons an octave above or below. I love singing with Andy... all the back and forth. It creates a very different sound… a different entity from either of us on our own.”
“Singing together feels really good,” agrees Andy. “It’s the kind of thing you can’t know until you stand next to each other on a stage or in a recording studio. The closest I’ve done to this previously is with ALT [White's ’90s collaboration with Split Enz’s Tim Finn and Hothouse Flowers singer Liam Ó Maonlaí]. Another musical adventure, which started off in a friendship and ended up on a world tour.”
White and Fearing’s songwriting partnership now totals over 20 songs, and a number of the tunes on Fearing & White have been recorded previously. Blackie and the Rodeo Kings covered both ‘If I Catch Crying’ and ‘Heaven For A Lonely Man’ (both tunes made the BARK Best Of collection), while ‘Faithful Heart’ and ‘If I Catch You Crying’ have appeared on Andy White solo albums.
All these songs take on vibrant new life on the duo record. “When we pick up these songs again, we go back to when we wrote them, not to where they were when they were recorded by other people,” says Andy. “That’s how we reach the emotion and poetry at the centre of the songs. In perhaps our best known song ‘If I Catch You Crying’ this is a very gentle and sensitive place – I remember being extremely shaken up after revisiting it."
Fearing & White explores diverse lyrical terrain, though Andy reflects, “the album's tone I find is one of yearning. It is emotionally bare, and coy and mysterious too. The songs will definitely keep you guessing.” Plus, as Stephen observes, “there is plenty of humour in there too.” For instance, the stream of conscious-psychedelia of the infectious ‘Silver Sky’, the breezy upbeat vibe of opening track ‘Say You Will’, the cod-Irish humour of ‘Heart O’ The Morning’, and the musically quirky yet haunting groove of ‘Mothership’.
Fearing and White are eagerly looking forward to taking these songs on the road, and have cleared their busy individual schedules to do just that. Duo tour dates in Western Canada and Ontario are being set for March and April, after which Stephen will be active with Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, who release their keenly awaited new album, Kings And Queens, in April. “Both projects mean a lot to me. Even though I may go a little schizophrenic between the two worlds its all music and I'm very happily up to my neck in it,” he says.
Andy remains on the road for most of the year in Australia, North America and Europe, as a fully paid up 21st Century Troubadour. “We've been put on earth to play shows,” he says, "at least that’s what we tell ourselves when we meet in Arrivals and try to get our guitars into a medium-sized family car. Stephen and I have plenty of fun on the road and far too much coffee. That’s where it all comes from, really.”
The pair are committed to keeping their shared creative fires burning, and for that we can be deeply grateful.
Songs for times like these – Fearing & White.