Fred Eaglesmith: Switching Gears & Driving STANDARD
By David DeRocco
“I’m not that great a songwriter, but I think I’m a good editor.”
So says Canadian icon Frederick John Elgersma – better known across North America and beyond as Fred J. Eaglesmith – a man who’s made a pretty good living writing songs despite the self-assessment of his craft. And it’s not that Eaglesmith has ever struggled with the process; after all, with the 2017 release of his latest studio album, Standard, Eaglesmith has written, recorded and released 22 albums in his career as a beloved CanCon country/roots/rock cult hero. It’s just that, no matter how quickly the songs come to him, he’s never quite willing to accept the results.
“Yea, they flow easily. I can write a song in three minutes. But then I’ll edit it. Even now when I go back and listen to some of my old records I’ll go ‘man, I should have given it one more edit you know.’ I think I’m good at separating it all out, and I’ll tell you why. I started writing songs when I was 10 or 12, I don’t know exactly. I would write them so badly, so horribly. And they would be three pages long. And I had insomnia, so I stayed up every night writing songs, and spending years condensing those songs. It was a really good lesson. I did that for 10 years before anyone had even heard of me. So I became a really good editor.”
He’s also become a really creative editor too. Never one to settle on the cookie-cutter verse-chorus-bridge style of songwriting, Eaglesmith instead has created a musical body of work that’s almost literary. Woven into the tapestry of his songs are tales of life far removed from the glitz and glamour of the city; instead, he sings about life on the country fringe, stories of rusted vehicles and even rustier dreams, of broken souls, lost love and quirky rural folks. With unreliable narrators, surprise endings and the kind of compelling plot twists usually reserved for cinematic characters, Eaglesmith sings of hope and heartache like no other. And while he’s never short on inspiration for his creativity, there is one thing that Eaglesmith says he’s finding in very short supply these days.
“Time, just time,” says Eaglesmith wishfully. “I have no problem with creativity. The light burns too bright in my head. I’m always writing, always playing music. Even this morning I came up with something real quick so I had to just record it on my phone and I’ll get to it later. It’s just time. If I could have another 50 years I might get it all done.”
Having spent the last 43 years on the road, it’s scary to think what Eaglesmith might accomplish with another 50 years under his belt. In the meantime, he’s happy to be touring his latest album Standard, 12-tracks of new original material that speak in often Zen-like allegories about the sometimes mechanical and soulless machinations of relationships with people and things. If that description seems hard to understand, it may be because this album was difficult to make according to its creator.
“This was a hard hard record to make, one of the hardest I’ve ever worked on. And my wife came down half-way or three-quarters of the way through it, after I’d worked on it for two years, kind of hip-checked me into the corner and added all this beauty to it. She’s really got a halo around her musical abilities. And she just started twisting the knobs on the board and it just kind of came to light. I had to change a whole bunch of songs and the production on them. There were lots of changes, recording it like The Beatles, varying the speed, speeding things up, slowing things down, putting my hand on the tape reels to slow things down. As mechanical as it was in subject matter, it was mechanical in the way I recorded it too.”
While legions of his fans – dubbed “Fred-Heads” for their eternal devotion – have come to expect the unexpected each time he releases a new album, Eaglesmith admits Standard to having some trepidation over the possible response from fans and critics due who might not understand the unique musical departure he’s taken with these songs.
“You never know when you take risks when you make records. You can get turned on pretty quickly. So you go, ‘are they going to get it?’ With this one for sure. Sometimes you make an album and you think it’s going to be no problem for fans to accept. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. And I thought with this one – I might get in trouble over this one. But it’s really been the opposite.”
While both fan and critical response to Standard has been great, a veteran like Eaglesmith knows enough about the ebb and flow of critical opinion to accept the odd bad review – even if people around him struggle with them.
“People around me aren’t happy when you get bad reviews, but I’m always up for it. My first record in 1981 I got some really harsh reviews in Canada for it. I remember. I was young, in my early 20s, I had to swallow it. But then I got all these great reviews. And I thought if I’m going to make records that are different than other people I’m going to have to take the bad with the good. And if there is bad and good, then I’m probably making art. If everybody likes it I’m probably just a participant in pop culture, which doesn’t have a lot of sustainability. But if not everyone likes it, and some people vehemently don’t like it, I’m probably making art. Of course if everyone hates it, I’m probably making garbage. I can take a bad review with graciousness.”
Part of that sense of graciousness may have a lot to do with Eaglesmith’s current state of mind; after years of personal struggle, the singer/songwriter’s life has finally stabilized thanks in part to a happy marriage to his musician/partner Tif Ginn. For someone who’s made a living mining gold from rich veins of human sadness, is Eaglesmith worried that happiness might take the edge off his songwriting? It’s a crisis of conscience that Eaglesmith has clearly considered in relation to his art.
“I once sat with Lucinda Williams, who after years of writing beautifully sad songs had just released an album that was kind of fluffy to me and I asked the same thing. In my situation now, I’m writing these things that are very jazzy, very in the Dean Martin world. I’m trying to really write them well. Nobody’s really heard a lot of this stuff. I’ve been playing it for eight years now, but I don’t really play it in public much. But I’m really excited about being able to write from a happy place. There is a real skill to writing it. People will mock my for saying this, but it’s really hard to be Barry Manilow. People think that’s easy. It’s not easy to write from that place where it’s just happy. It’s easier for me to write sad because I had a traumatic childhood blah blah blah. It’s harder now I’m happy. I don’t want to be part of the grief. Some reporter said to me the other day that these songs on this album were the saddest I’ve ever written. And I said, ‘no they’re not.’ There’s light at the end of the tunnel. Not on every one, but there’s some light. This is a sort of turn for me, that I just didn’t want to end up on the liquor store floor with blood coming out of the bullet wounds. I think Jimi Hendrix said a song is only as good as the present air. In light of what’s happening in the world, we need some happiness. We need some happy songs.”
See Fred Eaglesmith live at the Sanctuary in Ridgeway May 25th. For more details visit: https://www.thesanctuaryarts.org/events.