November 18, 2019

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Finding the right flavour, right here

Stephen Fearing, co-founder of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, performs at the Times Change(d) High and Lonesome Club on Thurs., Nov. 7 in support of his new album, <em>The Unconquerable Past</em>. (Supplied)</p>

Stephen Fearing, co-founder of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, performs at the Times Change(d) High and Lonesome Club on Thurs., Nov. 7 in support of his new album, The Unconquerable Past. (Supplied)

Winnipeg is a central figure in Stephen Fearing’s newest album — although listeners will be hard-pressed to find nods to local landmarks or winks to famous figures in the lyrics. Instead, Winnipeg acts like a relief drawing, where the hard lines of the real city fall away to reveal the idea of an isolated place in the middle of a sprawling prairie.

"When I was a kid living in Ireland and I used to watch westerns, I always associated that (landscape) with America and I realized there’s a Canadian version," Fearing says over the phone while waiting to board a ferry back to his home in Victoria, B.C.

"There’s a sort of country-western flavour to this album that I haven’t really gone to before and it seemed appropriate that I should try and find that place in Winnipeg."

The co-founder of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings spent a week in the city recording his 13th solo album, The Unconquerable Past, in the home studio owned by Winnipeg musician Scott Nolan.

He and Nolan — whom Fearing describes as a "magical, mystical guy" — had been emailing back and forth about writing a song together, but it never panned out.

The last time Fearing was in town, for a show at the West End Cultural Centre, the two connected again and Nolan sent him off with a copy of William Prince’s album Earthly Days, which he produced.

"I liked that Scott stayed out of the way with that record, that he didn’t feel the need to put himself all over it, which a lot of producers do," Fearing says. "I thought that he and I could work together well... and I feel like I was right."

Nolan’s own musical style, which can be described as rock, roots and Americana, also helped shape the sound of the album for Fearing, who has had a tenuous relationship with genre labels during his career.

"Sometimes, I’m jealous of other musicians... that come from a place where their family has been for generations and there is a really strong musical root," he says. "I don’t have that connection and it does mean that there’s nothing you can lean on in the same way; however, on the flip-side, there’s a freedom that as long as you can make it authentic... you can try pretty much anything you want."

Fearing has been chasing authenticity since he was a teenager watching the punk-rock and new-age era take over Ireland in the 1970s.

"There were bands that literally changed their spots overnight... and I’ve always been wary of that. If you want to try something, you have to have a sense of authenticity to it," he says.

The album is also a return to the multi-instrument studio recording that Fearing sidestepped with his 2018 release.

The album is also a return to the multi-instrument studio recording that Fearing sidestepped with his 2018 release.

The Unconquerable Past plays with themes of nostalgia and concern for the future.

"I am of the mindset that, as a culture, we’re in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater," says Fearing, 56. "I feel more interested in honouring more stuff from the past then when I did when I was younger."

The album is also a return to the multi-instrument studio recording that Fearing sidestepped with his 2018 release, The Secret of Climbing — which was recorded with little more than a guitar, two microphones and a tape recorder.

The Unconquerable Past made use of more talent and technology. It was backed by Winnipeg musicians Jeremy Rusu (piano), Julian Bradford (bass), Christian Dugas (drums) and Andrina Turenne (vocals). Several songs were also sent to multi-instrumentalist Jim Hoke in Nashville, where they were overdubbed with pedal steel, organ and accordion.

Fearing will be reunited with the Winnipeg musicians Thursday for a show at the Times Change(d) High and Lonesome Club, where the musicians will play the new album from front to back.

"We had a really good time, but it was over in a flash, so it will be nice to just hang out with those folks again," he says.

He also plans to stick around for a few days after the gig to attend the Winnipeg Crankie Festival, which takes place Friday through Sunday. The festival is organized by Leonard Podolak and this year’s event is in honour of his dad, Mitch, the founder of the Winnipeg Folk Festival, who died in August.

"Mitch Podolak was really, really important to my career and was a really good friend," Fearing says. "That family is as much a part of my Winnipeg connection as anything."

eva.wasney@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @evawasney

Eva Wasney

Eva Wasney
Arts Reporter

Eva Wasney reports on arts, culture and life for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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