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Photo courtesy Frazey Ford

Calgary Folk Fest 2021: Frazey Ford

By Rachneet Randhawa, August 17 2021 —

Vancouver-based alternative/indie singer-songwriter Frazey Ford recently performed for Summer Serenades at the 42nd annual Calgary Folk Musical Festival. This Canadian singer, songwriter and actress blurs the line between country, folk and soul into a newfound appreciation.

Originally part of the alternative folk trio The Be Good Tanyas in the late ‘90s and early 2000s alongside her bandmates Samantha Parton and Trish Klein, they gained widespread critical acclaim and cult band status. Later in the 2010s, Ford launched her solo career with her debut album Obadiah. Her nearly two-decade-long musical career is a truism to her authentic beginnings to her latest release with U kin B the Sun. This album is, according to Elizabeth Chorney Booth, “the result of personal growth and an intentional exploration of boundaries. Bold, sensual and confidently fragile, Ford is obviously not afraid to explore what lurks inside her, either musically or emotionally.”

Ford’s early beginnings and music appreciation was fostered by her parents as they played folk music all the time especially from classic icons like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. 

“For me, in particular, my mom sang [and] her grandfather played music — we kind of come from an American, Cajun French Canadian kind of musical history —  so my mom played a lot of music in the house,” said Ford. “And so music was just kind of around, sort of like the furniture.”

Ford says she felt that music was very normalized in her home as a child, and that soul music was something she was attracted to from a young age. 

“From a very young age, I was just singing, but it was very normalized. I thought my mom was a good singer, it was just that she sang, and it was a part of her life. And it’s just a way that we express ourselves.” Ford said. “And then I just got into singing as a kid, and I got really into a lot of soul music like Otis Redding, and even the Supremes and Al Green.”

When asked how she would define folk music, Ford claims that there’s no pre-set definition for it. 

“Folk music is music that I feel like is passed down in a more kind of organic way,” she said. “I think that any type of music is a very alive form. So people are constantly taking a form that has existed for a long time, and they’re using it as a vehicle to express their own feelings in it and bring their other influences.”

Ford explains that it’s not a good idea to have a clear-cut category for what folk music embodies, precisely because you’ll unimaginably put it in a box. Folk music is all about being open to exploring the possibilities. 

“I would say when people are trying to say it’s folk, maybe it’s gentle, or maybe there’s an acoustic instrument, but for me, all music is folk music — all forms of music have a route and they have an expression and they have all these people experimenting within the genre.” 

One thing she hopes resonates for her fans from her performance at the festival is all about celebration, given the hiatus of the pandemic lockdown. 

“I think throughout the pandemic, I’ve often imagined the moment when live musicians and live audiences get to commune together in that way, and I think that both audiences and the bands are just so grateful and have missed that thing that gives my life meaning and gives a lot of people’s lives joy,” she said. “So honestly for me today, I’m just so thankful that we’ve made it to this point, that people are going to get together again and play music.”

Although her U kin B the Sun album dropped pre-pandemic, there was a lack of endorsement through traditional in-person performances thanks to the restrictions on public events this past few months. Ford also spoke about her personal struggles through the pandemic and how writing this album was a completely different experience for her. 

“We were supposed to be on tour for the whole year. We did five Canadian dates, and then the whole thing shut down,” she said. “But honestly, I had lost two family members in a row — my brother had passed away, and my dad passed away within six months — the year before the pandemic. I had been writing anyway, so I was sort of relieved to have a bit of break.” 

Despite the challenges, Ford said that the raw energy of this album brought a new level of trust not only with the process, but with her band members as well.

“This album was like a really different experience for me. The previous album I did was Indian Ocean, and I recorded it with Al Green, [and other] soul musicians in Memphis. That had been this really lush, thick, kind of experience,” said Ford. “This album just had this different energy that was really raw. I just find that sometimes an album has its own energy and its own force, and I had to really trust the way that I chose to record it and just really trust the band.”

She goes on to say that she ended up doing a lot of improvisation in the studio with her band, which was a new experience for her. 

“We just started improvising together and kind of co-writing together and there was several tracks that just kind of came out instantly, and just had a really strong vibe.”

When prompted about the method to the madness when it comes to all things composing and songwriting, Ford says she has no set process that she follows.

“I feel like, as a songwriter, I never sit down and say I’m going to write about something — I wait for a dream or I wait for a message. I find that these things exist already, and they come through you and you’re having to respect them.” 

Ford mentions that one of her tracks titled “Holdin’ It Down, from the album was difficult to record initially. 

“The tricky part was  trying to figure out, ‘Okay, what is the song saying?’ because most of the melodic bits and the instrumentation and the whole vibe, kind of existed instantly, and we kept a lot of that the very first recording,” she said. “So a lot of the instrumentation is the very first time we ever played it. This is kind of [an] organic thing that’s happening, where we’re just playing off of each other.” 

Ford says this song is about resilience, femininity and the power of finding your own voice. 

“There was something about that song, it was just really about resilience and strength, and femininity and maybe about being your own strength for a long time and then what does it mean to let your guard down and be vulnerable.”

Out of the same instantaneous recording session came another booming song titled “Azad,” inspired by and named after her sister. 

“Assad is the name of my sister, she has a Sanskrit name, and my sister was born actually with a perfect Third Eye birthmark on her forehead. Somebody just advised my parents to give her this name which means peace and freedom,” she said. “My sister is that song — my sister’s like a wild wolf of a human.” 

Growing up, Ford mentions that her family has faced unstable, stressful and tumultuous times, which also inspired the song. 

“I think, for me, that song is also about survival and wildness and the power of finding beauty in darkness.” 

As for the most challenging aspect of recording her music, it was writing the lyrics as she had to go back and forth and sit on them for a while. 

“In this one hour, I think we wrote six tracks, and they just appeared and they seemed so full and they had such personality and presence,” she said. “But it took me a whole year to try to figure out to learn how to write like that —  to learn how to respect the instantaneous vibe.” 

Despite being a talented musician, Ford also faces writer’s block at times because, as she explains, many don’t fully understand what it’s like to be a creative type of person and people misleadingly buy into the fantasy of being a musician. 

Ford describes songwriting as an excavation of yourself.  The whole idea is to remain mindful throughout the process, which Ford explains is so crucial to creating great art.

“It involves a certain amount of cocooning and a certain amount of loss of identity and all these places that are very uncomfortable, that other cultures seem to have a lot of knowledge about,” she said. “Just the void and stillness and sitting in discomfort and not knowing who you are anymore.”

This album also explored a new way Ford approached her music writing. 

“Normally when I make an album I’ll sit down, and I’ll write a song and I’ll think about it and then I’ll bring it to the band and the band will play on it. But this [album] started in an opposite way where I was immediately exploring a lot of rhythms and it kind of came up through this rhythm section of this album, rather than the other way around,” says Ford.  

For Ford, recording usually every album is like an intense journey where she goes very inward. 

“I feel like sometimes these spiritual concepts or deep work that I’ve been doing start to show up in an art form, and this one really felt like [the] result of the grieving that I was going through,” she said. “Then the pandemic hit, and I felt like, in a way, the world was so raw, and it felt like, in some ways, I had already said something about what was gonna happen in myself, because I had gone through this really hard stuff. And then suddenly, the whole world was going through this hard thing together.” 

Being unable to tour and play for a live audience was also detrimental to how she completes the process of her art. Ford realized how much the performance of her art contributes to the process as a whole. 

“Performing the album is what completes the cycle of the art form — you write it, and then you embody it and you take it all over the place. To not do that felt so strange, like, deeply, deeply strange,” she said. “I think I finally really appreciate how much performance means to me and even just in a spiritual way, to make your art and then share it publicly, that’s what completes the process.”

Ford never goes in intending to tell people what to think and feel of her songs because everybody has their niche and unique experiences on their own terms. 

“Music is like the soundtrack to other people’s lives — you may have written something but when they’re listening to it, it’s the soundtrack to their experience, and their emotional journey, so I never like to tell people what the song is about, per se, because it’s about what it’s about for them,” she said. “You know, that’s what art is. I don’t think the art belongs to the artist, it’s a shared cultural experience.” 

Being the refined soul singer and beaming star she is today, however, wasn’t always the case. Ford mentions her struggles with mental health growing up in British Columbia and being tormented as a young adult. She profoundly shares some of the strategies she used to help her through these tough times. 

“One of the things that I did at that time, I was living in the country and I would go running, and there were a lot of bears so I would like [to] sing scary [songs]. The bears and I started running and singing and it became this real therapeutic thing. And when I’ve started to think less depressed and anxious, I decided to go to music school,” she said. “I started performing at open mic nights, and it became this real source of strength for me. I had this very deep connection to music because it had really pulled me through a very dark, dark place.”

As for being a woman in the Canadian music industry, Ford mentions that overall she’s fortunately had a good experience with little controversy. However, Ford said she struggled in other ways within the industry. 

Ford expressed there are some difficulties of being a woman artist in the music industry including being a parent. 

“There’s a lot of aspects of the industry that are still very much a boys club, for sure, but I’ve been fortunate that my first band was mostly women. I have a female manager, I work with a lot of women,” she said.  “Because the music industry can really just eat you alive, I had to fight for my time and space in order to be present. But I think my managers do an amazing job of protecting me from what could be the shittier aspects of the industry and we’ve just steered clear.”

Some parting advice from Ford for budding artists who hope to make it in the music industry is fairly simple — be a kind and humble person. 

“I feel like when I first got into it, there was a lot of ego, a lot of diva and energy like that,” she said. “And now I actually feel like because the industry has been in such turmoil for the last 20 years, you actually just have to be a nice person, and that didn’t used to be that way. I feel like you have to be good to your band and treat everybody well.”

Frazey Ford’s latest album can be found on Apple Music or Spotify. Additionally, she is on her re-booked tour in the USA, UK and Europe beginning this October 2021 into early next year. Be sure to check out this hot headliner who has set the precedent for folk music in Canada and beyond.   

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