Carolyn Fe is one of Montreal’s favorite musicians. A pioneer in the Quebec Indie scene, she’s been entertaining us with her distinct vocals since the 80s punk scene. These days she is signing the blues and about to launch her new CD Original Sin recorded with Carolyn Fe Blues Band. You haven’t experienced Montreal’s Indie scene until you’ve caught one of Carolyn’s shows.
NileGuide caught up the busy singer to talk about her career, the Indie scene and what she loves about Montreal.
NG: You grew up in a predominantly white, Francophone neighbourhood, one of the few Asian kids around. How did that shape you as an artist?
CF: I think that experience as being the outsider is what shaped me not only as an artist but as a woman trying to make her way in this crazy world. It was quite difficult growing up being the visible minority in a time and place where diversity wasn’t the “in” thing and I didn’t speak French. It took a lot of effort. I was teased, bullied, ignored and although I eventually made friends with our landlord’s kids, that time and place has solidly instilled in me a sense of not belonging which I carry on today. On the productive side, that sense of not belonging made me go forward on my own terms…whether it be in my business affairs, theatre or music.
How did you get started in the Montreal music scene?
I guess it was a natural progression. Although my stage life started with Dance, I needed to get a lot of aggressive energy so I was in quite a few punk and speed metal bands in my early years. Always the voice for each band doing underground gigs in the Montreal music scene, even played at Foufounes Electrique quite a few times.
Some of us remember you with a pink Mohawk. How did the transition from punk to blues happen?
Ah, yes, the pink Mohawk! I proudly confirm that I sported a 4 inch pink Mohawk. WOW! Times have changed. I guess after those younger, more rebellious years of high energy, screaming out lyrics and loud, oh-so-loud music I felt the need to get back to the roots of it all. With time passing, I no longer have the urge to scream and yell to be heard. My voice’s low timbre seems to carry the message loud and clear.
What prompted you to retire Mama B and go solo?
Mama B is a pseudonym that belongs to a band that I co-founded, DD Swank. It was a really neat concept. We were to tell the story of the life of a woman who broke through barriers in the early 1900’s. She travelled around the world & wrote poetry. Although I appreciated the styles of music (adult contemporary, pop, euro-jazz), I felt it wasn’t moving fast enough and the band’s identity was not being established. I really needed to get to the Blues. It was urgent and I was aching for it.
How does the Montreal music scene compare to when you got started?
Hmmm…I’ve seen a lot the ups and downs in the music scene. In my punk years, we were quite busy gigging and the music scene was alive and well. There were so many venues for bands to play. The audiences really appreciated live music. That eventually dried up. But there seems to be a resurgence these days. I say BRAVO to that and am ever so grateful for the venue owners who open their businesses to include live music! Cover bands and tribute bands still have the majority of the market while original bands still work harder pounding the streets to gain fan loyalty.
What was your first gig like?
WOW! Now you’re really taking me back. Let me think…Ah yes, it was this underground event with 6 bands in the line up at an abandoned building on the Main when it wasn’t so chi chi (early 80’s). They temporarily called the ‘venue’ Le Foie (The Liver) – go figure. It was quite the experience. The place was dingy, there were no bathrooms, the stage was made from industrial palettes. But it was fun! The place was packed. I guess we were lucky the police didn’t raid the event. I was in a punk band (forgot the name, we broke up that same night) but after my set was over, I was asked to lend my voice and collaborate on projects with 3 of the other bands. Little did I know that some of those people are now established industry folks in Theatre, Film, and Music.
What are some of the challenges of being an Indie musician?
In all my endeavours, I’ve been blessed with having the opportunity to meet and work with a handful for top notch professionals but in the end the production of projects still rest on my decision to say “go” When I came out with my EP 100% in 2009 and was shopping it to labels, promoters and bookers…a “respected” industry person (who will remain nameless) told me it was useless. “An Asian singing the blues is like selling a fridge to the Eskimos. You’re not Black so don’t even try it.” For a second it reconfirmed my sense not belonging but then I thought I have the right to sing the Blues. I’ve certainly earned it. Now, after receiving royalty payments from my songs being played on air and online on so many radio stations worldwide, I remain “indie”. It’s a lot of work and there are days I wish that some label, some promoter and/or some booker would sign me just to ease up on certain tasks but I am at home with the Blues and I am definitely OK with being indie.
Like many Canadian artists you’ve had many diverse experience ranging from dance training to corporate recruitment to voice and acting work. How do you juggle it all?
First and foremost, I have a partner who loves me unconditionally and supports me in all my endeavours, without that support I would not be able to do what I do. I guess I am very Cartesian about my projects. My business life has taught me to be a planner. Every move I decide to make is planned. It is amazing how 24 hours can be a lot of time when things are planned. Each activity I do is classed into 2 levels of priorities: Urgent and Important. Urgent are those activities that if I don’t complete, I will not be able to sleep properly. Important stuff can wait a bit. LOL
Has it gotten easier for women musicians?
I honestly don’t know. I keep my head down and do what I have to do. I manage the band, get the bookings, etc. There are lots of women musicians out there, some established (and making a living out of music) and some (like me) still working on having our little spot in the scene. As it is, music (and the arts in general) is not an easy gig. One day, you’re loved the next, you’re ripped apart. It’s a delicate balance playing in the business of art.
Where’s your favourite venue?
So far, all the venues we’ve played at were great! We were treated with respect and they appreciated our music. It’s a two way thing – the venues need people to keep business alive and we need venues to gain a loyal following. We appreciate any venue who give us a chance at sharing our music.
What do you consider the quintessential Montreal experience?
Montreal is a culture incubator. Amazing food from all over the world – if I had the money and stomach I would eat out every night to taste all that there is. Copious amounts of talented people (music, theatre, dance, art, photography, etc). There are endless events and activities to go to for all ages. I would love to be a kid again and discover all the arts this city has to offer through untainted eyes.
Where can out-of-towners pick up a copy of the new CD?
Original Sin is launching on August 12 & 13 at Bistro A Jojo Blues Bar. We’ll have some CD on sale then. But you can also buy it online at www.cdbaby.com or www.itunes.com. Fans can also contact me directly. We love hearing from our fans.
Follow Carolyn on Facebook and find out where she is playing when you’re in town.