Review: Stephen Fearing, “The Unconquerable Past”

The Unconquerable Past

This last couple of years have been quite a prolific time in terms of writing new songs and being in the studio for Stephen Fearing.  With two acclaimed albums under his belt, he released Every Soul’s A Sailor and took home a Canadian Folk Music Award for Contemporary Singer Of The Year in 2017, the album was named Blues and Roots Radio Worldwide Album Of The Year, he followed that with a limited-edition, vinyl-only release The Secret of Climbing in 2018. In all he has recorded over twenty albums in a career that has seen him record and tour as a solo performer, as part of the duo Fearing and White, in a trio with Gary Craig and John Dymond, and for the last twenty-five years with the band Blackie and The Rodeo Kings, cofounded with Colin Linden and Tom Wilson.  Clearly there is a wealth of recording and writing experience that has been gained with some of the best collaborators you could possibly hope to wish for.

On a trip recently in Europe two years after touring his album Every Soul’s A Sailor he found himself back in the Netherlands performing the songs from that release, he decided that he would need to come up with some new material and had remembered a conversation he’d had with Winnipeg based producer / singer / songwriter Scott Nolan who had suggested they write together. Fast forward to a tour Stephen was doing in Manitoba last year which found him at Scott’s studio, he loved the ambience and what Scott was all about, he refers to him as the ‘ magical, mystical guy ‘. What impressed Stephen the most about Scott was the way he had produced the William Prince release Earthly Days, Scott was not apparent as a producer on the recording, he seemed to have gotten out of the way and let the artist be to the fore by giving space, a real trick and talent of the art, that approach appealed to Stephen.

Back on the road and thinking about what lay ahead, with a twenty five year anniversary Blackie and The Rodeo Kings album already recorded and set for release in 2020, he knew it would be best for him to have his own solo recording out there sooner rather than later, so with his manager he set the wheels in motion to start recording and with a fortuitous text message from Scott to say “Hey, we should record an album! ” the stars aligned and Stephen was on his way to the studio in Winnipeg. The city has great memories for him, it’s where for the first time he was given the opportunity to perform on larger stages at the folk festival many years ago, it also has a long tradition of producing outstanding talent and nurturing the arts.

Scott assembled a team of musicians to lay down the tracks, Stephen took a couple of weeks to write brand new material, and included one extra musician, Jim Hoke, who plays pedal steel, harmonica, accordion and hammond organ, he is a real Swiss army knife of a recording artist from Nashville who Stephen had met while visiting Colin Linden during the Blackie recordings, Hoke is a virtuosic multi-instrumentalist who has played sessions for artists like Dolly Parton, Paul McCartney, Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle, among many, many others. Stephen was so impressed with his command and mastery of multiple instruments that he asked if he’d contribute to this recording.

The scene was now set and over the course of eight days ten songs were recorded for The Unconquerable Past an album which has produced exquisite tracks exploring the present, future and of course the past. There are co writes with Tom Wilson, Born To Break Our Mothers Hearts, with Andy White, Emigrant Song, and there is also one fabulous track, No Country, that was written by Scott Nolan and arranged by Stephen which I’ll touch on at the end of this article.

There is a thread of North America which permeates through the whole recording, a journey of self discovery, examining memories and conversations where Stephen gleaned stories from his mother through sitting and listening to her recollections of the past. It spurred him on to write the title track The Unconquerable Past, a phrase he remembered reading somewhere previously and which spawned a number of the tracks on this collection.

Emigrant Song I will mention first, as it highlights the outstanding songwriting quality that is stamped all over the recording, it’s a track that he particularly wanted to perform as a solo artist having previously done so as a duo with Andy White, he felt that it didn’t get the exposure it deserved, throughout are thoughts of leaving ones homeland, of having nothing to go back for, the never ending riddle of life and the everlasting quest for the future, this arrangement is stunningly beautiful, it has always been one of my favourite songs and I am so glad he chose to include it, he can so eloquently speak to us on the subject as he has walked the walk having been born in Vancouver but with such a big part of his personality, and who he is, coming from Ireland where he spent much of his childhood before returning first to the USA and eventually back to Canada. Jim Hoke got to work on the arrangement having been given the go ahead to do whatever he wanted with it, the result is a wondrous Celtic tinged creation that has real relevance today for so many emigrants like myself and our journey’s, I am not ashamed to say I shed a tear the first time I heard this arrangement, it’s immensely powerful.

There are other outstanding tracks too, Sunny is a lonesome song with guitar and harmonica instrumentation written from a non gender specific viewpoint about two peoples love for each other, a real contemporary approach which works quite brilliantly.

Marie pulls no punches, Stephen calls into question what people say to each other on social media, how simplistic their vents are about their lives and world in general and subtly suggests everyone really just wants to be loved and wanted, observing that the world has mostly been run by white males and he especially wonders why women have any patience with us anymore, it’s a man’s cry for help, of not wanting to be left behind as we have become lost in this world, a song which is both angry and sad.

Boundaries are pushed throughout the album in terms of crossing genre lines floating seamlessly between the rock n roll infused track Christine which curiously questions what rock n roll love might feel like when you are in your fifties, it’s written about his wife, there is a genius hooky line ‘ Heart full of soul and a soul full of gasoline ‘, a treat of a song which is full of fun, has real energy to it and fits in so many ways to the themes on the recording.

He truly is one of Canada’s finest songwriters exemplified as the album continues with tracks that contain deeply meaningful thoughts. Walk in Someone Else’s Shoes suggests we empathize more with our fellow humans, understand that we are flawed and allow understanding for someones mistakes in life, ‘ You won’t find the road to love until you walk in someone else’s shoes ‘, if only politicians would take note the world would be a more caring, loving place for us all to live in.

No Country epitomizes the reasons why Stephen chose to work with Scott Nolan, it’s a perfect fit for the story thread, they had always wanted to write together, Scott had an idea he thought might work, Stephen had room for one more track, Scott played his song in it’s entirety and they realized that it would make a perfect end to the album with a bit of arranging, it’s simplistic in structure, the chord progressions seem familiar yet it’s a new creation, the ultimate post script at the end of the album to remind us what a sublime journey we have just undertaken.

On “The Unconquerable Past” you’ll find gem after gem of song lines showcasing a master craftsman at work. The recording is complete but the work is just beginning for Stephen Fearing, once the album is released in November he will be doing what he was born to do, what he loves most, he will play it, shape it in his live shows and talk about it to his attentive audiences, I’d highly recommend getting along to one of those shows, for not only is he one of Canada’s finest songwriters, he is also one of the best live entertainers in the business, and you’ll be able to say you witnessed him perform songs from one of his best creations to date, I’m sure he’d sign your copy too if you asked.

Visit Stephen Fearing’s website.

Stevie Connor

An award winning piper, composer and singer / songwriter from Edinburgh, Scotland now based in Ontario, Canada, Stevie is the founder of Blues and Roots Radio, a multi award winning media platform established in 2012, based just outside of Toronto, with a hub in Melbourne, Australia. He has been recognized in 2014 and 2017 by the Mississauga Board Of Trade and Legislature of Ontario for his work in support and promotion of independent artists across Canada and around the world. He has in the past been honoured to sit on national music award panels.
He is currently head of programming and music director at Blues and Roots Radio where he oversees the running of two online radio channels and reviews the many releases sent to the station for airplay consideration.
He is passionate about the Canadian independent music scene and covers as many live events as time will allow.

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