Folk Fest: Interview with C.R. Avery

Fast Forward Weekly caught up with poet beatboxer singer and playwright C.R. Avery on Sunday afternoon behind the stage 5 tent.

 James Wilt: How’s the festival been for you so far?
C.R. Avery: Oh it’s been lovely. It’s been good. You having a good time?

JW: Of course. How have the collaborations been?
CA: Wonderful. I just played with Joseph Arthur Imaginary Cities and the Head and the Heart. I really connected with those.

JW: So when did you start beatboxing through a harmonica?
CA: They just kind of fell into each other in one show. I was doing blues and the hip hop thing and I thought that it might be a dorky thing to do. It turned into my meal ticket.

JW: When did you start getting into slam poetry?
CA: It was more freestyle. I was living in Hamilton and would just go on stage with a band and make up shit. When I moved west spoken word was almost more than music. It was a force. It wasn’t slam: It was more poetry readings and stuff like that.

When Alan Ginsberg died there was a memorial for him in Vancouver. That’s when I met all those people. I liked that community. I wasn’t into the slam thing when it started because I thought that the scoring was ridiculous. Then I just said fuck it and went to one. There were so many people at it. I thought I’d give it a whirl.

JW: Had you written poetry before that?
CA: It was more lengthy song lyrics. It wasn’t even freestyle back then: It was called “make up a poem.” No one likes labels. That’s tricky. For us it’s spoken word more than slam. Slam is like an emcee battle. There’s a lot of battle emcees that did that and came up through the ranks.

There were giant crowds for that: People wanted blood. But you don’t want to make a career out of being a battle emcee. It’s the same with spoken word. We were scribbling poems and then slam – which started so beautifully with Mark Smith from Chicago trying to get working-class people into the poetry show – turned into what it turned into.

It was definitely a gorgeous exotic stepping stone which I regularly go stand on and enjoy the view.

JW: What does your writing process consist of?
CA: Sometimes someone just says something really cool that triggers something. Sometimes it’s just clichés. Usually it’s just a line. But then you’ve got the school of thought where you have to write ten pages a day or spend three hours at your craft or you’re a fucking minor poet poser.

I guess sometimes it’s just death honestly comes knocking. I love the Dylan line “Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain.” Sometimes it’s just your way to pull out of something. It doesn’t have to be a parent dying but just something like: “Today the whole world seems to be a bad T.V. show. I don’t want to be a part of this.”

Sometimes the audience will be singing along and I’ll be going: “Fuck man. I wrote this during a really fucking shit time and now it’s like a flower growing up through cement.” It’s kind of neat in that respect. It’s always this friend that you can count on. It’s there for you in those times. Anytime you find yourself there don’t wallow in it. Let’s pull ourselves out. It’s a great rope to pull you out of the hole.

JW: Yesterday I saw you perform “Coroner’s Office and Figure Eights.” What was that inspired by?
CA: You know what it was? There’s a magazine out of Vancouver who were doing this anti-Olympics thing showing the other side of the coin and wanted me to write something for them.

It was weird. Like Leonard said I’m not left or right. I don’t connect with straight political stances. Or Dylan’s like about all propaganda being phoney. It’s from Michael Moore to fucking TV evangelists. Both have some good – don’t get me wrong – but I can’t do the propaganda thing.

I had to write it and I began thinking about the Olympics and how my sister was a figure skater. I just started writing about that. It’s a little bit like if I was to go to a hip hop jam I usually perform a blues song and vice versa. I almost felt like writing not a pro-Olympic thing but how my sister was a figure skater. But there were some things in our community that were fucking sickening. I really wish that the Olympics turned into the spirit of this global Band-Aid in which put 30 per cent of profits go towards the poor neighbourhood and that they leave something behind.

I tell you all those anarchist kids would get behind the Olympics. They’ve gotta see that the reason people are angry is because they’re feeling used. And the media’s lying. I wasn’t there – we went on tour on purpose during that period – but there were tons of people that showed up to a peaceful protest. It was our right as Canadians.

When we were touring I remember checking out of hotel room in Saskatoon and two old women were going: “Oh my God they broke a window. Those people should be shot.” I see their anger but this isn’t China. When k.d. lang addressed Amy Winehouse last night just addressing it is great.

So all of that it floating around in my head. I put my sister being a figure skater and then there was a twist.

I almost dropped that piece because I didn’t feel the audience being into it. But then I did it up in Whitehorse for Hockey Day in Canada. There wasn’t a big response. Geoff Burner said to me that it was important. I took that to heart so I keep doing it.

JW: What role does humour have in your writing and performing? CA: Even when Shane Koyczan is writing about something so heavy like the death of a loved one he’s got jokes in there. It’s more like “I’m going to bring this audience on a journey but I’m not a black turtleneck morbid person.” You’ve got to get them on your side and make them laugh a bit.

It’s like Billie Holiday blues. A lot of these people live tragic lives. It was more like “I’m going to make you laugh and I’m going to find beauty in the most fucked up shit.” Some comedians go places that songwriters don’t. It’s taboo shit.

JW: How do you engage the crowd?
CA: It’s important to have the lines to pull the audience in. There’s gotta be something going on there. And the great people that I’m inspired by don’t wait until the last line to impress people. It’s every fucking other line. And that’s a part of the editing process to go “Fuck this is just me being long-winded; I could say this in two words.”

Neil Young talks about when the Internet showed up one of his biggest beefs was that a lot of his process for songwriting was taking a new song up on stage and figuring out that the bridge isn’t working or that third verse doesn’t work. When the Internet showed up those versions showed up too. Even on our tour it took us three shows to get this one song perfected.

JW: So what’s with the yellow hair?
CA: I’m a looney rock-and-roll animal. I go back and forth. I haven’t had as many colours as my daughter: she’s done seven. I did a movie once and I dyed it black and had a moustache.

In terms of fashion I’m wearing light brown slacks a home-made vest with harmonica slits clean underwear clean socks and shoes that are still covered with mud from the Vancouver Folk Fest.