STEPHEN FEARING: I am a songwriter, singer, guitarist, recording artist and producer. I’ve had the great honour to make my living at this for over 30 years and count myself extremely lucky to be able to write that last sentence. I also adhere to the saying that luck is 90% hard work and 10% luck.
JS: What important beliefs do you express in or through your work?
SF: It’s difficult to put into words and perhaps a bit of a cliché, but I believe that the journey is an end in itself, that the “work” is by far the most important thing for an artist, far and above any critical or financial success that may come from the work. I believe that people are inherently good and worth the effort it often takes to understand each other and stay connected. Love is not “all you need”, but without love, we are nothing, love is life, life is the journey.
JS: Name two people, living or dead, whom you admire a great deal and tell us why for each one.
SF: My Mother, who struggled through a great deal of turmoil (as many women of her age/era have) and decided, after many attempts to be a “good wife” in the 50’s mode, to follow her gut and strike out on her own as a successful entrepreneur. Women have always inspired me. She is as tough as nails.
Nelson Mandela, another person who overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles to change the world without losing his own sense of dignity and grace… without giving away or amputating his soul and his humanity.
JS: How have you changed since you began to do creative work?
SF: I am less arrogant and also surer of myself. I am less concerned about what other people think of me or my work and much more interested in connecting with my audience. I have greater empathy for others and am certainly more aware of the great privileges I have “inherited” as a white male and also the challenges facing the white male artist now and in the future.
JS: What are your biggest challenges as a creative person?
SF: Speaking of which… I think the Great White Male (!) has been on the receiving end of so much privilege, and for so long, that slowly, inexorably and inevitably the tide is shifting and in ways we could never have imagined – “the order is rapidly fading and the first one now will later be last for the times they are a changing”. Any artist, who has grown beyond the first flush of creating, who has been working and creating for years, is faced with the challenge of re-inventing themselves, with moving past a style or sound that has worked in their favour before, to avoid becoming stale or stagnant. At the same time, it is important to hold onto those elements of your work or process that are at your core… now add into this equation the fact that you are male and white and the unavoidable truth that it is high time for that genetic lottery ticket to no longer hold any advantage. This, I think, is my biggest challenge – how to be myself and remain current and relevant.
JS: Please describe at least one major turning point in your life.
SF: When I was a high-school student in Ireland in 1979, I had a history teacher who was that rarity in Irish education – a teacher interested in his student’s inner lives. Mr. Moxham discovered that I was passionately interested in singing / performing and invited me to record a “demo tape” that I could use when I headed across the pond to America (post-graduation) to get myself some “gigs” (I had never heard of demo tapes and had not even considered such a thing). Moxham set up a reel-to-reel in the school music room and proceeded to record me for a few hours one evening as I played every song I knew. Later when I went around to his place to pick up the cassettes he had transferred those recording onto, he sat me down and turned on the radio, tuning it to a local pirate station. This was the era of pirate radio, where small (sometimes mobile) amateur “stations” were springing up all over the place to challenge the State stranglehold of the airwaves by broadcasting music and other content that would never have been allowed on Irish radios before then. As I sat there listening, I heard myself singing one of the songs we’d recorded, there I was coming across the airwaves, coming through the speaker. It’s hard to imagine how profound that was in this age of high-tech, when people record themselves and photograph themselves by the hour, but it was the lightning-bolt moment which I will never forget and still get goose bumps thinking about. In hindsight I realise it was an act of incredible generosity on Donald Moxham’s part… that crucial moment when an adult takes you seriously as a fledgling artist and holds open a door.
JS: What are the hardest things for an outsider to understand about what you do?
SF: The fact that I spend the vast majority of my day doing everything but playing music. Amongst many other things; I am a skilled long-distance driver, a small business owner, a publicist, a creative designer, a digital photographer, a teacher, a producer, a shitty bookkeeper and the list goes on. As such, I am an artist and though much of the joy I get from my work comes when I am onstage singing and playing, the vast majority of my work happens away from the stage (and some of that is joyful as well…). Once again – the work is the reward and an end in itself. The fact that I can continue to perform, that I make enough of a living as a performer (and all the other subsidiary streams that flow from into that river) to continue working as a performer, marks me as successful and I never lose sight of that.
JS: How and why did you begin to do creative work in the first place?
SF: My family has been in this racket for generations. My maternal Grandfather owned a chain of movie theatres in Ireland, my maternal Grandmother played various instruments and sang as well as being a pit musician during the silent movie era. On my Father’s side, my Grandfather was a British Music Hall singer/performer. Music and performing are in my blood.
I started with piano lessons, but after my parents split up I grew bored with the lessons (and the instrument) and to my great regret, I quit and embraced the guitar (first guitar was a gut string “flamenco” model which hung on the wall of my step-father’s house). When my paternal-Grandfather died, he left me $250 (a small fortune for a teenager in the ‘70’s) I spent that on a glossy Japanese-made acoustic steel string and the die was cast.
JS: What haven’t you attempted as yet that you would like to do and please tell us why?
SF: I have never had the pleasure of working live with a symphony orchestra or a group larger than a six-piece band. I grew up with recordings featuring big bands, orchestras etc.…. classical, pop and jazz recordings with large amounts of musicians playing the arrangements. As a singer, I would love the challenge of working in that environment, as a writer I would love hearing my material arranged for multiple voices / textures.
JS: What are your most meaningful achievements?
SF: As an artist – the ongoing and precious connection I have with my audience.
As a man – my relationship with my wife and kid, my family and friends, all of whom keep me sane, alive and functioning.
JS: What advice would you give a young person who would like to do what you do?
SF: The best piece of advice I got (from Willie P. Bennett) was to take the music seriously but to NOT take myself too seriously. I took this to mean that I had to put my ego aside both for my own health and the health of my music. There is no “fair” in rock ‘n roll and to survive one must have a thick skin and a stubborn, unrelenting compulsion to play. If you are not “driven” to do this, it’s best that you find another way to make a living because you will be tested in every way. A desire for “fame and fortune” is why fools pursue the arts.
JS: Of what value are critics?
SF: It depends. I believe that being an authentic critic whose opinion “matters” takes work and a commitment to the music that is as great as the commitment to being a musician. I find that a lot of critics don’t actually like musicians (perhaps because they are frustrated musician’s themselves) and use their voice to build themselves up at the expense of others. For my money, a critic is someone who knows enough about what has gone before to truly discover and describe the value or spark in a creative work, even if they don’t necessarily “like” it.
JS: What do you ask of your audience?
SF: That they open their hearts and minds. That they be willing to suspend belief and come with me on a little road trip. That they turn off their cell phones….
JS: What specifically would you change about what goes on in the world and the arts?
SF: Oh boy…. I love to sing and play and have been blessed to make my living doing just that (and all the other tasks associated with it – see above). There is a direct connection between the commitment it takes to actually make a living at this (rather than pursue it as a part-time hobby) and the depth of work one can achieve. For artists, I think it has to be your life’s work in order for you to get past the superficial. Coincidentally, I think you have to fully commit if you are to have any chance of making a living from this for your life (even though there are no guarantees). Sometimes I wish this were not the case as the pressure of “making a living” often threatens to suffocate the creative spark altogether and one has to constantly guard against chasing after the “fools gold” of commercial success. I wonder if we wouldn’t all be better off with a living wage… I also wonder if I would dig as deep and stick with it long after the rest of the world has gone to bed if my mortgage wasn’t due the following morning…
JS: If you could relive one experience from your creative life, what would it be and why would you do so?
SF: When Blackie and The Rodeo Kings first went into Grant Avenue Studio to record “High or Hurtin’ – The Songs of Willie P. Bennett” I barely remember those sessions, I was so completely overwhelmed by what we were doing and struggling creatively to keep my nose above water. I would love to go back and savour that moment and those sessions when (without any understanding at the time) we opened a door to something that would feed us physically, emotionally and spiritually for decades to come… and counting!
JS: Tell us what it feels like to be a figure who is presented somehow in the media. What effect does this presence have on you?
SF: The older I get, the more I understand the media and am comfortable with it, even as it morphs and changes, dies off and reinvents itself. There have been many times when I wished for more exposure and greater coverage, and as I continue to grow and create it does indeed get harder to get that exposure (even with all the new tools of social media) since “new” and “young” are still the magic keys to the kingdom. Even so, there is a fine line between using the media to your advantage as an artist and being “hit-and-run-over” by your own success and your own image. Thankfully (for better or worse) I have never experienced that kind of heavy-rotation and I am mostly comfortable with the experiences I have had. Occasionally I wish for more privacy, but generally I can disappear without too much difficulty.
JS: Name two places you would like to visit, one you haven’t been to and one to experience again and briefly tell us why
SF: Asia: South Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam… I travel so much but 99% of the time in very familiar territory with a guitar in my hands. I would love to travel to these places with or without my guitar, to truly be a minority and delve deeper into cultures that I have tasted but only scratched the surface of. I would love to perform where I am unknown and free of cultural baggage, to be liked or disliked for what I create in the moment.
Ireland 1970s – a time of great cultural change when some social experiments (The Republic of Ireland for one) were starting to come to maturity and (d)evolve. Dublin was a dirty, tough town, surrounded by the aching beauty of the countryside and I recall milk delivered by horse-drawn carts and horse shit in the streets. The American flag was a tarnished symbol of rebellious youth culture, The Troubles” were mostly up north and everything seemed possible and impossible all at once. Punk rock was raising its snotty nose and I was scared shitless about what I was going to do next.
JS: Please tell us about one or more projects that you have been working on, are preparing, or have recently completed. Why do they matter to you and why should they matter to us?
SF: In a few months I am planning to release The Secret of Climbing – an album of songs (vinyl only) in partnership with Rega Research (a venerable old British company who arguably make the greatest turntables in the world). The concept for this recording was to eliminate as much of the processing/signal path between the performance and the listener as possible and to remain completely in the analog realm. Sounds simple? Yes and no. No mixing board, no EQs or compressors, no studio smoke ‘n mirrors, no cutting and pasting and no overdubs – just my voice and guitar, 8 songs, 2 microphones going direct to tape and then pressed directly to vinyl. As with any process there are elements of the studio arsenal that have evolved to deal with specific issues and like any solution, they come with their own problems. So, we decided to go back in time and try to home in on the performance and present that as nakedly (purely) as possible.
For me the opportunity to let go of all the elements of production and concentrate solely on the performance was a challenge I found irresistible. I was in the middle of a European tour when I went into a home studio (outside London) and recorded 11 songs (only 8 can fit on two sides of a 12” disc) over two days with no overdubs or editing. Being in a live-music touring mindset and completely freed of studio safety nets, made for an interesting headspace, but I was determined not to get bogged down in overly critical listening and just go for the performance. The nature of this recording method meant that we were constrained dynamically by the lack of technology, so this is an album of ballads – a gorgeously intimate and somewhat stark song cycle.
I think this album’s relevance to anybody other than the hard-core Stephen Fearing fan (a small but dedicated group of oddballs) lies in the vinyl grooves of the medium itself – hello Marshall McLuhan. One of the fascinating statistics of Rega Research is that even at the height of the CD boom – when Vinyl looked to be months away from total obsolescence – Rega was selling thousands of turntables worldwide month after month. Roy Gandy – my co-producer and visionary of Rega Research -explained to me that those who were devoted to the quality of vinyl as a medium never abandoned it even as they also embraced digital technology. Since Rega was always dealing to a niche HiFi demographic, the mass market currents didn’t affect them like other companies and they stayed healthy and viable.
Now that Vinyl has made such a dramatic comeback and is very much the flavour of the month, there are a lot of myths being pedalled to consumers and frankly a lot of crap being poorly pressed and sold on 180gram vinyl for reasonably big bucks (Ikea is purportedly introducing a turntable this year!). Our little project is beguilingly simple with a total focus on quality in performance, recording, cutting and pressing such that it is worthy of the Rega name.
JS: Let’s talk about the state of the arts in today’s society, including the forms in which you work. What specifically gives you hope and what specifically do you find depressing?
SF: Having just touched on the resurgence of vinyl in my last paragraph it’s timely to look at the digital wave of file-sharing that utterly gutted the recording industry and is now changing every other aspect of the arts world. As most of your readers are aware, file sharing (translating music into digital files and then sharing that over the internet for free) destroyed the retail market for music such that all the old “record” stores (A&B Sound, Tower Records etc. etc.) are gone the way of the dinosaur. Since I never really made my living within the mainstream of Radio and Retail (i.e. I never sold significant amounts of product – no gold records on my wall) this hasn’t affected me in the way it has other artists. However, there was an infrastructure in place and that is gone forever, replaced by YouTube (people watch music now rather than listen to it) and other social media outlets. Andy Warhol’s idea of everybody getting 15 minutes of fame has been whittled down to a fraction of that (15 seconds of fame?). Fortunes are created in a flurry of clicks and careers are born and die in a matter of months. People’s attention spans are ever more fleeting and an entire generation has grown up listening to hideously compressed files on earbuds with little or no sense of the creators and players or indeed the music itself (music is a lot more than the notes being played). It is extremely depressing to understand that for many people, art (music being the common denominator for the vast majority of people) is not something you spend money on and many people who think nothing of spending good money on their “device”, balk at the idea of paying for the music they listen to on that device, which leaves the creators of those recordings struggling to finance their work never mind make a living from it.
Live music is the only way to pay the bills now but since I have always made my living that way, it’s not really a big change for me except that the competition for paying gigs has risen dramatically and even in the dark corner of the business where folk musicians dwell, it’s getting very crowded. On the positive side – the same technology that has driven this industry into the weeds has created so much possibility for maverick creators and the old record companies who were the gatekeepers and “filters” have lost their power and their control, such that it is possible for work to be embraced strictly on it’s merits IF it can rise above the noise and the static to be heard.
JS: Finally, what do you yourself find to be the most intriguing and/or surprising thing about you?
JS: I’m still hungry.