A world of spectators

A conversation with Newfoundland’s most adored folk songwriter Amelia Curran, whose new album ‘Spectators’ isn’t only lyrically and sonically captivating, it’s also incredibly relevant.

“I think it takes much more effort to be dishonest than it does to be honest. There’s humiliation in honesty, which is maybe what can turn people off of it, (but) I think individually we’re all perfectly honest. And when we get together in groups, you know, we notoriously do not make decisions very well en masse. That’s what elections are all about,” she says, laughing politely to keep the conversation lighthearted.

We come at this stuff with different opinions but a similar urge to resolve, so I’m wondering how this conversation will go.

“And yet there’s this togetherness that should be had,” she continues. “But as individuals I think honesty is easy, honesty is inherent. I don’t think it’s a big deal.”

Listening to her words fluctuate between certainty and ambivalence, I gradually come to realize the passion in Amelia’s voice bespeaks, perhaps more than anything, a desire both to understand and be understood.

Sitting on the back patio of her downtown apartment in St. John’s, cigarette in hand, a cold India in front of her, Amelia Curran is bracing to step back into the spotlight when she releases her new album Spectators and hits the road to share her songs with Canadian audiences coast to coast.

Other journalists have already asked Curran about following up her 2009 Juno Award-winning album Hunter Hunter with something equally distinct, so I’ll leave that part out; it’s the substance of her new music that deserves our attention.

A tragedy, a challenge, a change

A far cry from Hunter Hunter, a similarly lyric-driven but primarily acoustic guitar-based masterpiece, Spectators features a swath of instrumentation and session musicians.

The 34-year-old, who spent several years in Halifax before returning home to St. John’s last year, was slated to record the new album in June 2011 here in Newfoundland with the help of Don Ellis, Mark Neary and a host of local musicians. But the loss of her father David that same month forced Curran to put the recording on hold. “When you lose a parent it impacts your entire person; your entire personality changes a little bit I think,” she says, reflecting on her loss. “I’ve lost many people close to me but not a parent — it’s different.”

It was December when Curran finally entered the studio, and with a tight deadline. “We recorded it but it was a stressful time,” she recalls. “We worked 16-hour days … we had it all done. Then it came back to us with a little bit of mediocrity, and I set into a state of panic about the songs,” she laughs.

The artwork for ‘Spectators’ was created by friend and fellow musician Martin Tielli.

She couldn’t make the album in St. John’s, so packed a few bags and headed for Toronto to take another stab at it. “I’m so happy to be in St. John’s (but) I can’t lock myself in,” she explains, “I can’t have that writer’s lockdown in this town.

“When I’m in Toronto it’s incidental — I just feel like I’m in a big city. I moved into this rental place for a month — it’s almost like the singular-living Fight Club idea. Coulda been anywhere. It was perfect, it was complete anonymity, absolute privacy, and (with) lots of city din. And it was perfect for writing. It’s the opposite of the cabin in the woods idea but it worked.”

Subsequently, Curran enlisted producer John Critchley (Dan Mangan, Elliott BROOD) to record and mix the album, a choice she says immediately lifted the fog that enshrouded her. “I handed the reins over to him completely,” she recalls. “I thought it would be disheartening to tell (him) that I’d hit a wall with it, you know? And it’s not that I didn’t care, but I had no more effort to put into it. But John said, ‘OK, very well,’ and took the reins and we finished it two weeks in June. After one day he was doing such great work I became interested again and re-inspired. John’s perfected this delicate balance of being the boss without being authoritative, and (of) being precise and being creative.”

In her writer’s lockdown, Curran scrapped some of the songs she’d recorded in St. John’s but in turn found others (‘Face on the News’, ‘Strangers’ and one other, she says) that hadn’t previously emerged. She also gave new life to ‘What Will You Be Building’, a song she gave to friends The Once to record for their 2009 debut album.

The big question

The result is a brilliantly orchestrated work — musical arrangements, melodies, lyrics and all — that conveys among other things, but foremost, a profound and heavy sense of obligation and accountability. Like its predecessor, Spectators addresses human relationships (Strangers, San Andreas Fault), but throughout expands its concern for the state of humanity, namely the unfortunate phenomenon of watching as unnecessary pain and suffering proliferate around the world.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever been aware of a theme on an album, which wasn’t intentional,” she explains. “I have a constant…feeling I’m not doing enough. But enough of what? I mean, you don’t know what you’re supposed to do. Or the more dramatic, perhaps more effective, what you’re not supposed to do.”

I have a constant…feeling I’m not doing enough. But enough of what?

I share morsels of my experiences in Sudan and Haiti and the degree of suffering I witnessed in those places, and it seems we share the contradictory feelings of urgency and powerlessness. “I don’t know what to do…for anything, for anybody, for the good of anything,” she says. “For the good of people, for the good of the environment, for the good of, you know, the state of the nation. I mean, I have no idea what to do. In terribly low moments I think, oh I’m just making rhymes for a living, and that’s what I’m creating that’s new under the sun,” she says, alluding to the album’s opening track ‘Years’ and laughing at herself for quoting one of her lyrics.

“There used to be this joke that I’d say. It’s not like I’m working with Doctors Without Borders. It’s not life or death. It’s not even rocket science. It’s music. But then again, music is this universal language and music is really important … But I feel like that’s pandering, when people are like, ‘But you are helping, you are making a difference,’” she laughs. “I don’t know if I buy that.”

It’s not life or death. It’s not even rocket science. It’s music.

Curran is frank, and as easy as she says that is for her, it’s what I appreciate most about her music. It’s not so obvious in form though, as she’s mastered the songwriting craft in a way few others do. “I’m using a lot of metaphor and simile, and maybe throwing a few bed covers over things,” she explains. “But that’s not my intention — it’s the only way to really explain it. You can’t explain a thing in its raw form, because it wouldn’t make any sense. To really explain it, to get it across, you’ve got to sort of twist it around and boil it up and present it as something else — you’re presenting it as something it isn’t. But that’s still honesty — it’s just the only way to really get it across.”

The face on the news

At the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival last August, Curran wittily prefaced a new song while, whether she knew it or not, commenting on the media’s profound obsession with devastation over solutions: “I watch too much news before writing songs. That’s why they’re all sad.” When I remind her of the comment she dismisses it as something she shouldn’t have said on stage, but elaborates: “I feel like once (something) is on the news it’s too late. Once it’s on the news and it’s public knowledge, then we missed a step.

Once it’s on the news and it’s public knowledge, then we missed a step. We missed caring and understanding.

We missed caring and understanding. You know, when you get to bombs and guns and violence and murder, it’s too late. I don’t know, I feel really helpless about it.”

Unable to sit idle, Curran turns to music as her release valve, and the mastery with which she writes and sings isn’t heard only in her lyrics. Her vocals articulate both dismay and a pining for something better, presumably a world in which she doesn’t have to watch the news, feeling helpless, only able to sing.

We’ve got years

Years, the album’s opening track, delves right into the joint humanity and state of the world theme, and Amelia says it’s “cathartic” to perform. “I was thinking about friends I had when I was younger, and our whole generation and our plan, which is, you know … we were probably the only generation of our age to want so badly to have a war to protest, but we had no war to protest,” she says, explaining the inspiration behind the song.

Amelia Curran performs during the ‘Spectators’ album release show at the St. John’s Arts & Culture Centre, Nov. 12. Photo by Graham Kennedy.

“There was this brief period where nothing was happening after the Cold War, and so we protested ourselves with grunge music,” she laughs. “And that was great — I have a great fondness for that brief time. But we were an angry, depressed bunch — not all of us, but the majority of us — and I was in there. We were going to go backpack across Europe, also not a new idea. We were gonna be free, we (were) not gonna be like ‘them’ — we were non-conformists in our conformity with each other. We were gonna be free and new and different and forgiving and truthful and loving, and nothing happened. And when you look at the bulk of us in history, we’ve done nothing — well, I can’t say we’ve done nothing because we’re in our 30s. But it seems that I grew up with all these kids and we were all just starving for a big change to make. We wanted to make a difference so much, and we didn’t know what we wanted to make a difference in. And we wanted to save the world, and we thought we could do it.”

Years is musically “big,” she says, relative to anything Curran has recorded in the past. As with most of the songs on Spectators, the instrumentation is lush, and it vividly sets the tone for the record, both lyrically and sonically. The rest, however, you’ll have to discover yourself. Mark my word — you won’t be disappointed.

“Where did that desire for a better world, and to be a part of the actions that would bring it about come from?” I ask.

Questions and answers … and more questions

“I don’t know where it comes from. I think young people are just like that, actually. And I think it’s incredibly important because some do make great differences … We wanted it so badly it was almost vain … There was no Big Bang for us between then and now, but that doesn’t mean we should give up those ideas. I think those ideas were really, really great ideas. I think teenagers, with all the hormones and all the dramatics, have some really amazing ideas, and I think it’s important that maybe it really is that dramatic. Make a mountain out of a molehill, please!,” she laughs. “I think it’s important, but we grew up and we lost it.”

“So, what can we do now?” I continue, probing not so much as a journalist but a person with similar questions and concerns.

“I don’t know what to do. The only thing you really have to do is be a good person, and be good to your neighbour. It’s this old Golden Rule idea, which is not just a Christian idea. It is that simple. But then you see people not being like that and you want to make a difference and make it easier for them to just be nice people, and you don’t know how, and to the point where you kind of see their perspective. I don’t know, if people were coming into my neighbourhood in St. John’s and stealing all my stuff and taking away my rights, you know, maybe I’d be a murderer too.”

Curran stops, we both sigh under our breath and sit silently for a few moments, knowing we won’t get to the bottom of this today. So we grab another beer instead.

Spectator videos

Blackbird on Fire

What Will You Be Building

Update: As the Idle No More movement swelled in January, a video of Curran’s ‘Spectators’ song ‘In a Town (200 Days)’ appeared online, featuring images from the Canada-wide, indigenous-led protests.

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