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This article was published 2/3/2011 (3721 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Writing an album is a challenge.
Now try writing half the album in a second language you don't speak fluently and you've made the task even more difficult.
But that was the goal Christine Fellows set out to achieve on her new album, Femmes de chez nous.
The album title -- translated literally as Women From Our Place, or colloquially as Our Gals -- is a collection of stories about women introduced to Fellows during her recent artist residency at Le Musée de St. Boniface Museum where she pored over the museum's historical documents to learn about women who helped shape the province in its early days.
"That title was inspired by a book, Femmes de chez nous, published by a local publishing house," the singer-songwriter says. "It's a history of these women from our community. Each photograph of the woman had a caption about her off to the side. It was just a sketch, but the songwriter in me loves a sketch. For me, naming them all is like bringing them back to life."
The new album wasn't completed during her six-month residency, which required a finished product at the program's conclusion. For that, the pianist created a live multimedia performance piece, incorporating historical artifacts from the museum with new original music.
She performed two shows a night for five nights at the St. Boniface Cathedral with a full complement of musicians and visual artists, including Shary Boyle (projections), Caelum Vatnsdal (film), Leanne Zacharias (cello, vocals), Alex McMaster (cello, vocals), and Lise Brémault (guest vocalist). The shows were filmed and included as a DVD with the album.
"A special key to that project was not only did I bring in other artists to collaborate with, someone from the museum was a part of it," Fellows says over the phone from Dawson City, Yukon, where she and her husband John K. Samson (frontman of the Weakerthans) were staying for the month of February as the Dawson City Music Festival's songwriters-in-residence.
"Lise Brémault helped me with the French translation and she is a great vocalist, so she was part of it. I did do a small amount of writing, but I'm not a French speaker so writing in the French language is difficult, and I worked with found text so I did a lot of working with pronunciation."
It's not as if the 42-year-old Winnipegger doesn't have any experience with the language, however.
Fellows was born in southern Ontario and moved around frequently as a child, owing to her father's job as an engineer for whisky-maker Hiram Walker.
When she was 15 her family ended up in the Cognac region of France, where Fellows and her sister were enrolled in a French school despite having no background in French. They lived there for two years as her dad helped modernize the alcohol-making process.
"What a way to learn the language," Fellows says with a laugh. "It was pretty intense and being 15, the most awkward time of your life, but as a result, in the recesses of my brain I have a capacity for the language. I'm not a native speaker, though, and I was afraid.
"It's scary -- I had never written in French, but I was drawn in by the history of the Grey Nuns and Louis Riel and all that, so I had to go to the place that made me uncomfortable."
Fellows delved into the museum's artifacts and learned about the history of St. Boniface, its colourful characters and the Grey Nuns who travelled by canoe from Montreal to Winnipeg in the mid-19th century to serve as educators.
Because some of the details were incomplete, Fellows created a life for some characters based on only pictures or vague descriptions.
Choosing a favourite historical figure is impossible for Fellows, but the original four Grey Nuns who made the perilous journey to the city by canoe in 1844 and founded the St. Boniface Hospital were inspiring, she says.
The museum is their original convent and is one of the oldest buildings in the city.
"Just being in their place was very powerful. So much of their work disappeared when the cathedral burned down two times, but there is a papier-mâché Virgin Mary that was handmade by one of the nuns, and even though there were no photos of the woman, she had character. A spirit. I had her letters," Fellows says.
"They were amazing writers and kept great records, and even to this day, someone writes down what they do every day. I had her letters and day-to-day goings-on from 1847. It was pretty amazing to read their words and get to know them. I can stare at a photograph forever, but getting to read their words and immerse yourself in their words is something else."
Fellows' fifth solo album is an offshoot of the project, with additional material written after her residency was completed. She will hold the release party for Femmes de chez nous tonight at the First Lutheran Church, 580 Victor St., with Shotgun Jimmie (admission is $17) as part of a tour that will take her across Canada and down to Austin, Texas, for the South by Southwest music conference.
When she returns home, she will continue working on an experimental musical-theatre project and a children's project with Boyle as part of Toronto's Harbourfront Centre Fresh Ground New Works Commission scheduled to open in February 2012.
Much as she'd never tackled a project in another language, Fellows has never developed anything especially for children.
"The music and images that we put together are really demented -- we're child-like adults with dark senses of humour," she says. "It's going to be about sex and death for kids. What else is there? They love it too, but they don't know what it is... There may or may not be a trampoline involved and there will definitely be smoke machines.
"I'm embracing the idea it's going to be scary and sad and ridiculous with some total bust-out freakouts."