OH YES! HELLO Frazey Ford, Canadian. On the line.
Now the excitement is not just because Ford, who most of us discovered about 20 years ago with the folk/country-leaning Be Good Tanyas, has become a purveyor of soul-drenched songs that feel like, and feed into, humanity at its most revealed. Or that she’s a woman who takes centre stage in the world without asking first, or deferring to those who think they own it, and yet seems to accommodate everyone else as well. Though that’s part of it, for sure.
The truth is though it’s not that common that I speak to someone who not only might know what the commonwealth is, and be speaking to me at the most opportune time, but might also take an interest in its athletic elements on a four-yearly cycle. So I have to ask: did she watch any of the Commonwealth Games?
“The Commonwealth Games?,” she says querulously. “Absolutely not [giggling]. I am probably the least interested in professional sports person you could ever meet. I didn’t even know they were happening. I haven’t even heard the word commonwealth since I was a child. Sorry!”
Well, guess who’s got four years to do her homework eh? And Ms Ford: no, Victoria in this case is not in BC.
To be fair to Ford, she has been busy. Though not necessarily with music. The album up for discussion, and the focal point of her upcoming Australian shows, U Kin Be The Sun, was released more than two years ago though only readily available recently, but she wasn’t sitting idly through lockdowns waiting for it to reach us.
“I spent the first year teaching myself how to draft patterns for clothing, so I designed a lot of clothing, and I did a lot of visual art. I found that if I was working on something every day I felt less anxious,” says Ford. “In the second year I got into sculptural ceramics and started making lights and sculptures, and I was also doing a renovation.”
She sounds appallingly capable, especially to someone who may or may not have difficulty tying his own shoelaces.
“I don’t like to be bored so I have to have something that I’m learning or developing. I’m not necessarily good at it but I do often switch my creative outlets because in this industry the pressure to make art sometimes will interfere with the freedom you feel creatively. I find that if I switch art forms, even one I don’t know about, I feel like a child again: I feel like I can play. And then hopefully I get that feeling back in music.”
Speaking of which … when I first heard the single from the new album, U And Me, I was totally seduced by the slow burning sensuality of it, then all of a sudden I was confronted by desire smashing into despair in those lyrics. But what really struck me was how there was no frailty here, no naivety either: it was pure adult knowledge. Once the album arrived it turned out this is what U Kin B The Sun is all about.
“Isn’t that what life’s about, what art’s about?” Ford asks, with a laugh. “But that is what I was thinking about when I wrote the song, about the rawness of hope and the dashing of that experience. I think it was exploring something in the song that I haven’t really explored very much, lyrically.”
Getting to adult knowledge, which some of us never really master, means wading through some real pain and joy and ugliness first. Ford’s done it, dealt with a hell lot more than any of us really, but is it worth the effort?
“I come from a kind of unique situation in that I had a lot of trauma as a child, and all the kids in my family really had very difficult early years. We all reacted to it differently and I think there was a very early point in my young life that I knew that if I didn’t make a choice to really wrestle with and claim and deal with huge pain and abuse and tragedy, then I didn’t want to be here,” she says.
“It felt very life-and-death to me and then as my life went on music was the thing that really tethered me the earth. It was the thing that was keeping me here, and I didn’t really want to be here: it was so hard.”
Ford has talked before about aspects of her upbringing without ever sounding riven by bitterness. Rather there’s been sympathy along with the hurt and anger, and today she talks about how several of her siblings ended up with addictions, some really challenging lives, with one brother dying a couple of years ago.
“Watching him self-destruct for 25 years was always a reminder to me that if I didn’t keep moving forward there was this other thing,” she says. “What went down in our family had probably been going and for generations, and when I became a parent it was extremely clear to me that if I didn’t address these things and become an adult, I would be passing it down to my own child. I don’t know if everyone is put into position where they really have to choose to grow, but I think I didn’t have a choice.”
The benefits have not just been in her sometimes tough to take in lyrical frankness, and grasp of soul, which like country and folk is built on pain. She cites a strong, “beautiful” relationship with her own son and puts some of that on working through her pain and some of it on finding music which became “a vehicle to try and convey that [pain and growth]”, instead of the more damaging alternatives.
Something else to appreciate on the album is not just being unafraid to show anger but putting it on equal footing with other emotions. For some of us, being told that anger is inappropriate or excessive is frustrating, even insulting; sometimes it’s exactly the right emotion.
“I think you cannot deal, especially, with trauma, without accessing your rage, honestly. It’s such an important feeling. It’s such an undervalued piece of ourselves,” says Ford. “I think anxiety is so related to anger that people can’t feel. As a child there was a lot of violence in my family so I saw a very hurtful, destructive version of anger and I couldn’t really locate anger and myself for a long time. I misinterpreted my personality and thought I was without anger.
“When I realised how angry I was, it was such a huge piece of becoming whole. Anger is just part of a nervous system: we are animals and here we are being so scared of this emotion and that messes with us.”
Yet often female artists who don’t play it down are dismissed as “angry women” or “emotional”, as if that is the ultimate dismissal.
“We are supposed to be these domesticated, two-dimensional beings – it’s so patriarchal, but the patriarchy is so destructive towards men as well,” Ford argues. “Women are told they are not supposed to feel anger; men are told they are not supposed to feel sadness, so there are these big chunks of your humanness that are supposedly erased, and it’s toxic for everyone.
“There’s a certain amount of magic I think that comes through allowing yourself to burn in the fire.”
U Kin B The Sun is out now. Frazey Ford plays:
Northcote Social Club, Melbourne, September 29
Caravan Music Club, Archies Creek, September 30
Dashville Skyline, Hunter Valley, October 1
The Vanguard, Sydney, October 4
Eltham Hotel, October 6
Sol Bar, Maroochydore, October 8
Black Bear Lodge, Brisbane, October 9