Go ahead and ask casual fans of Canadian music about the most recent solo album from Vancouver based singer-songwriter Stephen Fearing, and many will undoubtedly (and confidently) name his acclaimed 2017 release, “Every Soul’s A Sailor.” A phenomenal album, indeed, but no longer his latest solo project. Now rewind the clock back to September, 2018, and if you dig deep, you’ll find a rare gem of an album; Stephen’s eleventh studio album, “The Secret Of Climbing.”
You will not find “The Secret Of Climbing” on the shelves at your local CD store. Nor shall you yield any results with a Spotify search. No, for this project, Stephen opted for exclusivity, creating a special-edition available as a vinyl-only release that captures the subtle emotions of both his voice and acoustic guitar in their purest form, recorded off the floor and unobscured by any ‘modern’ studio wizardry. Comprised of seven tracks from his vast back catalog, and a previously unrecorded Tom Waits cover, “The Secret Of Climbing” was created with a singular goal – to share a collection of songs that captures the magic and intimacy of the original live performance (per the liner notes); making this release an absolute must for both purists and lovers of traditional folk music out there.
Teaming up with veteran British sound engineer Roy Gandy, Stephen had only two days to lay down these tracks at Roy’s studio in the Essex countryside amidst his busy international tour. “I’ve spent my career chasing that sweet spot where craft and soul merge,” Fearing explains. “With this record I think we achieved that, and listeners will experience the intimacy of that stripped-down session.” Upon spinning this album for the first time here in my own living room, I very quickly found myself turning to face the location of the speakers, convinced that Stephen was actually here in my home performing his music to an audience of one. This statement alone surely is a testament to both the talents of the artist, and mastery of the production of both Fearing and Gandy with this project; music so pure, and a sound that perfectly captures that intimate live experience.
Yet in an age where digital music and ease of commercial availability is the norm, why did Fearing choose to defy convention and go with the vinyl-only medium? “This is like a return to the early days of my career when vinyl was the lead format, and cassettes just came with miniaturized versions of the album art,” he explains. “I chose a gatefold cover because I missed the days of lingering over full-size liner notes while the record played.” Just handling a record, and spinning both sides whilst admiring the artwork and liner notes shall always offer a memorable sensation of nostalgic charm for me, but for those who cannot (or will not) embrace this format, Fearing has not completely dismissed the modern age. “The files were lifted directly from the album’s test pressing and preserve the detail and warmth of analogue as faithfully as possible,” he offers, and adds the availability of a digital download with the album purchase for the digital-savvy and mobile-driven world.
And lest we neglect to mention the wonderful selection of tracks selected by Stephen for our listening pleasures. Drawing upon earlier material, he breathes new life into both “When My Baby Calls My Name,” as found on his 2002 “That’s How I Walk” album, and “Johnny’s Lament,” his ode to Johnny Cash first introduced on his 2006 “Yellowjacket” release. And for those that named “Every Soul’s A Sailor” in response to the question posed earlier, you are well rewarded here with stripped-down versions of both the title track, and “Red Lights In The Rain” from this album. Stephen also recently released a live video of the latter on social media to further promote “The Secret Of Climbing,” filmed exclusively at The Mule Spinner in Hamilton, ON.
Other gems on this recording include a moving rendition of a popular “Blackie and the Rodeo Kings” cut, and a tune co-written with Nova Scotia recording artist Erin Costelo, which has to be heard to be believed. But don’t just take my word for it; I strongly recommend … no … I absolutely urge you to pick up a copy of “The Secret Of Climbing” for yourselves to fully experience these unique and intimate recordings. We are incredibly grateful to Stephen Fearing, who recently discussed this fantastic album with us, before heading off to FAI in Montreal, and preparing for his next Canadian tour in the Spring.
“The Secret of Climbing” is your eleventh full-length solo album to date, yet is unlike no other in your catalog, offering a level of intimacy between performer and listener you can only expect to hear in a small, live setting. How did the concept of this project originate?
The concept for The Secret Of Climbing originated with Roy Gandy, who has a passion for analogue recordings and a highly refined “ear.” Given that he is the co-founder and driving spirit behind Rega Research (The UK’s premier HiFi manufacturer), it’s no surprise that his deep (obsessive?) love of turntables etc. spills over into the creation of the very discs that spin on his platters. For years, Roy kept an ear out for recordings that had some special magic in the grooves and when he found them, he would often licence them to Rega in the UK and sell them through the Rega distributors and retail outlets.
Inevitably this led to the idea that he might try his hand at recording and see if it was possible to remove as much of the technology as possible between the source (The artist) and the pressing plant where the individual discs are stamped into PVC (vinyl), his logic being that every single stage of the recording process and every piece of equipment that the signal travels through, alters that sound, filters that sound, shapes the sound….and the more stages or gear you remove from the equation, the closer you get to the original sound. Of course this has inherent problems as much of that equipment was originally designed to counter technical issues within the studio environment, removing them means turning back the clock and re-introducing those problems back into the studio.
However, as Marshal McLuhan (that great Canadian philosopher) posited back in 1964, “The medium is the message” (in the digital era, aren’t we all starting to realize how profound and prophetic this concept was?) and I happen to love the “message” of vinyl, the way it colours the music that is carved into it’s grooves and the inherent tactile beauty of the 12 inch disc and cover. So I understood Roy’s idea and was intrigued by his obvious passion for the process (how rare and wonderful to come across a hardcore engineer with a deeply artistic spirit… form and function crammed into an eccentric soul) and I immediately wanted to get involved.
You travelled to my native home, the UK, to lay down these tracks at Roy Gandy’s Essex studio. How did you and Roy arrive at the decision to collaborate on this album, and what expectations did you both have prior to recording? If there was one thing that Roy brought to this project that you’d never previously considered, or was even outside of your regular comfort-zone, what would that be?
Roy was attending a songwriting master-class of mine in The UK and approached me after the workshop with this idea. Roy had previously made a recording with Christine Collister (a spectacular vocalist who had sung on one of my earlier recordings – Blue Line) and he told me about those sessions as we discussed the possibility of working together. After that tour was over, we kept the conversation going long-distance, for a year or so before nailing down specific dates.
To be honest with you, I don’t think either of us had much in the way of expectations… I was in the middle of a lengthy European tour and could only carve out two days to give to the project. Given Roy’s previous experience recording with Christine (which was complicated by the fact that they were trying to record a full band in a less than perfect-sounding room with no overdubs or EQ etc. ) I think he felt that we might get a song or two and then reconvene at a later date to do more. The nature of Roy’s work with Rega, is slow and steady refinement, always searching for ways to improve something, but never (?) reaching finite perfection… the nature of my work is kind of the opposite – get in, set up, make something happen, tear down, move on. What I do is very much “in the moment.”
Also, since I was just starting to tour my last studio recording (Every Soul’s A Sailor) I didn’t feel pressured to make the sessions with Roy into anything more than they were naturally going to “be.” In other words, I went in with an open mind and no agenda… I didn’t even have a “set list” of songs to play… I basically made it up as the tape rolled.
If your goal was to record something as authentic and acoustically pure as possible, you’ve accomplished it with “The Secret of Climbing.” Audiophiles will appreciate your commitment to a vinyl only release (albeit with a download available upon purchase). Without getting into the whole digital versus analog debate, what prompted you to decide on focusing on pressing to vinyl only?
As I’ve said above, Rega is known to be one of the world leaders in HiFi equipment with an emphasis on turntables, so naturally, we were focused on Vinyl. I would go so far as to say that Roy dislikes digital technology and CDs in particular – the idea of “compressing” music into files is something that (I think) he finds musically abhorrent (!). So in the spirit of what we were doing, we chose to go with Vinyl only.
Of course, I realized that many (most) of my listeners would want a digital copy, so we agreed that I would be in charge of creating the digital download files (these were created by David Travers Smith – my co-producer and engineer for Every Soul’s A Sailor – funnily enough, David has a Rega P2 turntable from the 80’s sitting beside his mixing console and he uses this to reference test pressings etc – kismet!) David and I chose to use the test pressing to create the digital download, so if you play the digital files on your iPhone, you are hearing vinyl – played on a vintage Rega P2 with slight compression added and a few static noises (not all of them!) digitally removed.
You have a well established career and have surrounded yourself with good ‘industry’ people, so the decision to go analog only may have been a little easier to justify. I am curious though, to learn if you faced any criticism or negativity from advocates of the digital and streaming world with this decision?
Yes, some people have complained about the lack of CD… it’s funny I think that my generation (people in their 50’s) think of CDs the way they thought of vinyl, that the sound is contained on the CD itself, like in the grooves of a vinyl LP. However a CD is just a digital file saved to disc and nowadays the CD is quickly becoming a niche market medium – streaming has already taken over from CDs as the mainstream medium. So when people complain about the lack of CD, I tell them to buy the LP and think of it as a digital file (follow the links on the download card inside) with a free cool, vinyl key-fob enclosed (and much, much better artwork)… sadly there are many people who can’t make the leap and I often don’t make the sale… which is why didn’t print up a lot of copies – it’s limited edition folks… buy it now because when it’s gone, it’s GONE!
You recorded the tracks live off the studio floor in just two days, directly to tape, with no dubs or embellishments. Wanting to get these songs down as authentically and honest as possible, how conscientious were you about the possibility of missed chords, wrong note choices, or untimely variations in vocal pitch? How much was accomplished with the minimum of takes?
So this is where we get into the limitations of the project’s parameters. Take away all that cool studio technology and you remove the concept of “fixing it in the mix” (actually there was no “mix” since we were only dealing with voice and guitar… but that’s another story). Yes, by committing ourselves to a signal chain with the bare minimum of technology (2 microphones / 2 custom built (by Roy) mic pre-amps / tape recorder (a beautiful old refurbished Studer 8 track) / 2 track Studer tape machine / cutting lathe / pressing plant) meant that each take was final (with no editing, equalization, compression etc.).
This put a lot of pressure on both me and Roy – I had to stay focused and really go for feel without errors, he had to make sure that we were not overdriving tape or otherwise making some technical error that would render the take unusable. However, as I said before, I was in the middle of a tour (so, very well “greased” if you will) and neither of us had big expectations or agendas – which meant that we both felt fairly free and unencumbered. I would say that there were no more than three takes on a few songs and many of the tracks were first takes… those same (lack-of-gear) limitations meant that we could and did work quickly – we made our bed and had to lie in it! In many ways this was stepping back in time to where the engineer simply recorded what the artist gave them and the idea of manipulating or “producing” those tracks was not part of the process at all.
The listener hears nothing but your soft, soothing vocals and acoustic guitar as you re-invent seven of your known hits. You also add in a cover of the Tom Waits track, “Time.” What drew you to adding this particular cover as part of the project?
It is quite a magical song for me, for reasons which I won’t go into. Suffice to say that once we realized we would be best served sticking to a particular sonic and dynamic “palette” (no large dynamic spikes etc), this seemed like the obvious place to record a tune I have always loved.
You just released a music video for “Red Lights in the Rain,” recorded at The Mule Spinner, a former cotton factory and now music venue in Hamilton, ON. What fueled the desire to cut this track as a video, and why in Hamilton? (side note: it seems quite a few artists are cutting videos at this venue these days).
“Red Lights In The Rain” seemed like an obvious choice for video treatment and even though we were recording and distributing in the ancient medium of vinyl, we still needed to get the word out on the inter webs. Nowadays people watch music, more than listen to it, so a video is a must. I was lucky enough to work with The Unicorn Project for this video and those guys are based in Toronto. I have played shows and recorded a live show (which may come out in the future) at The Mule Spinner, it’s a very cool space and seems like the perfect place to make this video.
I followed your recent social media pages during your travels in the UK with much interest. Being a Shropshire lad myself, I enjoyed seeing your references to shows in places such as Eccleshall and Shrewsbury (where you co-headlined with Rose Cousins). Any tales or observations from your time in my old county towns that you’d like to share with us?
You just go to England if you wish to have a real-deal cream tea (ditto for a decent Bakewell tart). I love to tour through the UK, I grew up in Ireland watching BBC, so the countryside, traditions and sense of humour are very familiar.
You are touring across parts of Canada this Spring. How does it feel to be on the road across the Provinces one more, and what should audiences expect from you on these particular dates?
I love to tour… I was born to be a traveler, and travelling with a guitar is a rare privilege and pleasure. These shows will be a continuation of my musical journey – hopefully some new songs and stories. Both Blackie and The Rodeo Kings and I (solo) are heading into the studio again over the next 12 months, so new material is flowing…