Talking with Kate Fenner about Her New Album ‘Dead Reckoning’

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Kate Fenner
Photo: Jody Kivort
       

Canadian folk artist Kate Fenner recently released her new album, Dead Reckoning, which showcases Fenner’s haunting voice.

Kate Fenner
Kate Fenner

Describing Fenner’s voice, Warren Zanes shares, “There’s a homelessness to her singing style. She’s in very good company in this regard. Like the handful of singers who faced the “what is this?” reaction to their individuality as singers – Dylan being the most notable, but Morrissey, Joni Mitchell, and Tom Waits being others – Kate sounds too much like herself to be stored under any other name. There are beautiful swells, and emotional peaks, just as there are moments of an almost spoken, confessional intimacy. Her wide vibrato conveys an unmistakable sense of the voice-as-instrument. But the singing always hangs on the word, reminding me of the song’s place as a poetic form. This is a writer gifted with a singing voice.”

Fenner’s previous albums include Horses And Burning Cars, Magnet, and Middle Voice. Highlights on Dead Reckoning consist of “My River,” the pop-tinted “Transit of Venus,” “Quiet Rider,” the bluesy “Son of a Gun,” and “That Fire,” which conjures up hints of Liz Phair. Perhaps the best song, “Ghost Moon” resides somewhere between a rift and a revelation.

Guitar Girl Magazine spoke with Kate Fenner to discover more about the inspiration for Dead Reckoning, the evolution of her tone, and how she got started in music.

What inspired your new album, Dead Reckoning?

‘Dead Reckoning’ came about after three years of writing, in the time leading up to the pandemic and during the pandemic itself, in response to a series of deaths–among my friends and family. Like most of my artistic endeavors, I didn’t set out to capture anything–each song came of its own accord, and each one is attached to one of these losses.

Walk us through your mindset as you entered the studio to record the album.

I had been feeling a little discouraged about the process of releasing music independently. The landscape has changed so much–it is sometimes hard to justify the effort and expense of recording when you are uncertain as to how you’ll find your audience. I was bemoaning this fact to my friend (producer) Scott Harding, and he said, “Wow, Kate, it’s too bad you don’t have a friend who is a producer with his own studio who would love to make another album with you.” So we began! I gave him a lot of creative control–he chose the band and did the arrangements for the songs. We have a lot of trust and admiration between us, hard-won through many shared life events.

How did you get started in music?

My high school boyfriend, Chris Brown, was starting a band. He had heard me sing along to the records we listened to and asked me to join. I was in the 11th grade. That band lasted ten years! At one point I went to university for a while but left after two years to join the band full-time on the road. It’s a bit like I understand the mafia to be–once you are in, it’s very hard to get out.

Did your sound evolve naturally, or did you deliberately push it in a certain direction?

I think it evolved naturally, with help from life events. When I was young, I was a “big” singer, I threw everything all the way to the back wall; I sang everything as if it were my personal national anthem. As I got older, had a child, got sober, got sick for a bit–things slowed down. I think I am more nuanced now, both as a writer and a singer, less desperate to convince you. I’m happy if you just spend a little time with me.

What is your definition of tone? And has your tone changed over time?

If you mean my singing tone, I would repeat what I said above–it changed with time, with heartache, with intent. As for my guitar playing, I have no business talking about tone! I have no craft, just instinct.

What inspires your writing? Do you draw inspiration from poems, music, or other media?

Poetry inspires my writing a lot. I decided at 13 years old that I would drink my coffee black, smoke cigarettes, and read poetry. The last of those is my most enduring habit. I have an entire floor-to-ceiling bookshelf devoted only to poetry. Although I don’t think the purpose of poetry is to condense thought, it often winds up doing so, and reading it excites that muscle in my own brain and my habit of expression. The words are probably more important to me than the music in what I do.

What can you share about your writing process?

My process is unreliable but usually works like this: I am thinking about something, a subject kinda large and vague. I read and read and read–not intentionally on the topic about which I’m thinking, but I will subconsciously choose things that coalesce around that topic. A line occurs to me, usually attached to a melody, I reach for a guitar, and the song generally pours out in the two or three hours that follow. So, weeks of reading, looking at art, walking around, then a quick song download.

I have a handful of songs I’ve spent weeks trying to get right. They get finished but rarely get played.

What kind of guitar do you play?

I have two guitars that were gifts that I am very close to: a 1941 Gibson acoustic (with an all-wood neck!), and a Martin that is a reissue of a ‘40s model, that is almost vintage itself (I think it was made in the ‘60s). The fact that I don’t know the exact models should tell you everything you need to know about my guitar playing.

Which artists in your opinion are killing it right now?                                    

Older jazz artists blow my mind–Ron Carter and Bill Frisell come to mind. They have made a home in a musical form so expansive and organic that they can always be bringing something new to it.

My son listens to a lot of rap, and the musical palette in that genre is truly astonishing–Kendrick, 070 Shake, Tyler the Creator, and Billy Woods.

There are so many great singers, so many that I know and am friends with–I can’t even make a list. I love, at heart, a woman writing and singing a song in a direct way–Waxahatchee, Flock of Dimes, Lael Neele, Martha Wainwright, Alice Smith, Charlotte Cornfield.

How do you define success?

Singing in front of a crowd and having them really hear you.

How do you keep your sound consistent onstage? 

In the past, I have been very cavalier about how I sound on stage. I aim to change that this time around!

Looking at your experiences from the last few years, what have you learned from them?

There does not seem to be a “way” to do this right–make a living making music–but I am still inclined to do it, on whatever stage (literal and figurative) that presents itself. I love to write songs and sing them; I will keep doing it.

What can your fans look forward to over the next six months? Music videos? Live gigs?

I’ve been making videos for each song on this album–either by myself, using my phone and iMovie, sometimes drawing, sometimes using a projector–and I really like them! I have asked friends–visual artists, filmmakers, my son–to pick a song and make one too. I have been releasing them on Instagram; I will move them to TikTok and YouTube when the album is available.

I hope to design a show to go with the album that is a little more than just climbing on a stage and singing these new songs mixed with old ones, and a lot less than like, a musical. But I’d like to present these songs together, with some added visuals and a bit of focus, and properly honor the people they celebrate.

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