Last week it was my great fortune again to spend the day with the blues women of Montréal when the Femmes en Blues 2014 show hit the road for the first time. We spent the day in a small town remotely located in Quebec, well known for its biker organizations and fondness for blues.
I left the farm early in the morning planning on taking my time, unsure of what a full day without my band, and with a group of women who are really considered to be the some of the cream of the crop of musicians and singers, not only in Montreal but across the country.
I arrived early because I am by nature nervous and being around a group of people for an entire day when you are someone like me who spends all day with horses and goats, can present a challenge. Women have been traditionally challenging for me to have relationships with. There always seems to be an undercurrent of competition, a desire for besting one another – I know this sounds very high school but it is what it is. I was going to spend a day with 20 women I didn’t know very well outside of the fact that we are in direct competition for the same jobs most of the time.
We all meet early afternoon – an empty bar, beautiful stage and a talented sound tech. here is what lays in front of the next three or six hours for us at the Marina bar in Sorel.
Sounds check goes on for a while – these women are really professional and want their sound to be optimal. I walk around listening to the requests each musician is making of the sound tech; what do they want to hear in their front monitors? Are they able to communicate with the rest of the band? Can they hear their voice enough? Are they getting the drums properly? There is allot to consider even when what you may see as a final product of impromptu soulful music.
Then there are conversations all day by the bar…
“When I don’t sing I get a little bitchy”, said Ysabel Gagnon as we sit together on stools.
“I spent so much time ignoring God, I didn’t hear Him telling me this is what I should be doing”, continues Ria Reece, another great diva of the blues scene.
“Can you imagine us in an office? ” I ask
No, they all agree. AH how times have changed.
Singing is not a “choice” – not if we are going to be happy anyways. Music is a call from the soul, a call from God, a call from something higher and bigger and stronger than us. The only choice we have to make is whether or not to follow it.
I don’t know how long I will be a singer for. It could be another day a week or a month or decade. This is a funny business, contingent on many factors and I plan on enjoying every single breath and moment of it.
I began singing with my sisters in a choir when I was young. I remember they called me one of “the Bells” – meaning I was placed in the front with other sopranos. We sang songs like “Fly Little White Dove Fly” and “Put Your Hand in the Hand of the Man’; I stood in the front learning one of maybe 3 or four harmony parts, my sisters behind me helping me keep on track. At night the dishes were always done in two or three part harmony as additional practice.
I learn others have had similar histories to me. This never happens and I enjoy the feeling of reliability. The exchange of stories and travel tales come quick. There is much laughter and empathetic sounds for some of the more outlandish tales I heard.
Would you want to be famous? I ask them.
This sparks a great debate.
Late nights, crazy drunk people, driving home at four a.m., doing it three or four nights in a row, singing for bikers, crappy pay, breaking down without gas, small towns, scary hotel rooms, inconsiderate bar owners. Then smaller, funny but also relatable issues – make up, bra (or no bra), shoes (or no shoes) dealing with relationships while you are on stage.
Singing is not like any other occupation – you can’t fake it for very long like you could another job or even another instrument…or even mediocre sex 🙂 Singing a song well, connecting with the audience and feeling like you have brought something to the music comes from a place that is not controllable by human means – more by soulful invitation. When you are in the middle of a great song, you are moved, your band is all doing what they are best at, everyone is happy and into the song and thoughts have been suspended for the time – this is the magic of the music – the ultimate payoff for the hard work and the bonus that no amount of money could equate. In my band, SoulFusion we call it our “Happy Bubble”.
In the first part of Music from the Inside I started exploring and experiencing the fellowship that occurs between musicians. While on the road with my singing sisters in blues I really discovered something special with the women I am privileged to be associating with in the music world. They have incredible stories. No one gets to where they are without some serious happenings in life. Their stories remind me that it’s not always an easy job and sometimes it’s even quite dangerous.
Ysabel Gagnon of Mama Groove fame recounts her experiences with an unruly drunk bar fan who head butted her after a show and she found herself with a concussion and permanent sight impairment a result. Another singer talks about needing body guards because of a riotous overly enthusiastic blues audience. Even a small public life is a challenge.
What do you think of Facebook?
Moans of annoyance echo around me.
“It’s a necessary evil, but I feel too public.”
Yes, we all agree. The “public” aspect of our lives can be a little uncomfortable.
“God, people know when I go to the dentist! Who cares about my life?” continues Barb Diab, another great Montreal blues legend. “I love to sing – Just come hear me sing. That’ll tell you all you need to know.” she smiles vibrantly. The women around her nod in agreement. Yes – everything you need to know about us can be heard in 3 short minutes.
It is almost show time. We finish dinner and return to the dressing room where we all squish inside and =begin to outfit ourselves for the theme of the party. I feel a little “out of it” in this case. I have never been a stage dresser – most of the time my band is excited if I have brushed my hair.
But here I see hair and makeup a beautiful clothes and shoes that would kill me. We are supposed to have a fifties theme, an era which I am particularly averse to, being a dedicated hippie. I ask Ria for help It seems to be our tradition that when I need to dress up, Ria saves me. She poufs my hair doing some fancy spinning thing, I have a leather jacket and greaser I shall be! I feel pretty after she is finished untangling my mane of hair.
Ria herself looks like Billy Holiday – perfect hair, flowers, stunning clingy dress that made every man in the room step back an take a breath. The rooms filled with laughter, we practice “Oh happy Day” with Ria singing in front, the rest of us her gospel choir.
If the show sounds as good as the dressing room – we are going to be ok, I think to myself.
We all go for dinner, amicably gathering around a big table. The restaurant next door gives us a discount we take gratefully – there is not allot of money involved n this happiness project J
We order our food, singers reticent to fill their bellies before show time but after 5 hours of rehearsing and sound check, we are starving. I sit with new friends and old. The conversation is easy and relatable. We talk about singer things” like breathing techniques, funny stories about shows or touching experiences we have had.
I love this sharing! It feels like finally, after a lifetime of feeling like everyone else had gotten a copy of “How to live Life” The Manual for dummies – I had finally found my own book!
I’m not so naïve or self centered to believe that I am the only one that has felt like I am “outside of the box” of normal in this world, I realize. But the joy at finding this kinship was almost overwhelming.
In this group of women, I can let my belly hang out, like I would say to my sisters.
Women you let your belly hang out with are rare an beautiful. For these people I can just be myself, nothing fancy, nothing made-up, nothing contrived – just me. Happy=, sad, sacred, fat skinny, good hair bad hair – just me. And they adore me as much as I do them! Imagine that. So let’s see, I get the best career in the world, the opportunity to make people happy and be creative, I get a “club” of fellow singers who I know beyond the shadow of a doubt always has my back as I do theirs (this is better than a union for sure!).
I have been so busy talking to everyone and helping sound check, I never did my rehearsal I realize.
Stage fright. Tightening in my gut.
I am going to tank. Oh lord.
I have picked a particularly difficult song. We each have four or five, but mine is the one everyone is waiting for. It’s a “different” kind of tune by Alabama Shakes called “Hold On”. My recent quitting smoking has made my voice very strong and I have not yet tested it on this challenging long note song.
Ria is first Barb is second then me to close the first set.
I’m not nervous. I feel so fully supported and accepted protected and loved by these women. The incredible on stage rock and blues guitarist bassist drummer keyboard player- such talent. No fear.
Ria knocks them dead, opening with a roaring rendition of This Is A Man’s world – gravelly and powerfully female – the audience explodes joyfully encouraging.
Barb come up after her, with her incredible stage presence and ability to bring the band together, she has the audience on their feet. I m videotaping an taking pictures – no time be nervous.
I hear Ysabel introduce me and I am up. Three songs and I am having an incredible time. My guitar slung on my shoulder, playing with Christine Denfer, my favourite blue guitarist in Quebec – we look at each other and smile. This is what we are waiting for. The Bubble.
I am on stage looking at the audience. The roaring of clapping has died down, our first three songs were probably the best I have ever heard or done and I am filled with an irrepressible joy.
I think about my mom – how proud she would be and so so happy to see me feeling strong and supported and alive like this…
“I’d like to dedicate this next song to my mom – I miss her so much and I know she is here”.
The girls gather around the side of the stage. I can feel them. Everyone knows about how hard losing my mother has been – thanks for Facebook. I don’t mind this. I could not have survived with that amount of pain alone and I am glad they understand.
I begin the song…
“bless my heart, bless my soul – I didn’t think make it to 42 years old”…I wink. The song rally says 22 – but I am way past that.
You got to holllllllld…on.
I hear them now – all their voices around me like some incredible 5 part harmony.
I resolve not to cry on stage but I have no choice.
We sing all of us there together and it feels like the choir, it feels like summer time in my kitchen at home doing the dishes with my sisters – I close my eyes and for the first time in so very long… it feels like home.
I finish the song, get off stage and breathe. Incredible.
My gratitude spills over my eyes. It looks like tears but not really – tears are for when you are sd. This is more like a necessary Soul Cleansing.
“so when your worlds a little funny now – you got to hold on
When times are real tough – you got to hold on
When you feeling alone – you got to hold on.
Namaste Sisters 🙂