Calgary musician Carter Felker and his not-so Everyday Life

Taking off with a garbage bag stuffed with clothes and a lone John Prine CD; watching friends’ lives corkscrew and implode; moving on from ideas, towns, and jobs; a girlfriend who kicks musical butt. Each of these things is one thread in a web of life experience that, woven together, make Carter Felker the songwriter he is today.

Which is to say, one hell of a songwriter.  So much so that in 2014 when he was let go from his job selling guitars, his girlfriend Amy Nelson, a celebrated songwriter in her own right — who, like Felker, will be performing at this year’s Wide Cut Weekend, Oct. 13-14 — suggested Felker play music full time.

It was a gamble that paid off in 2015 when he won the Upstart category of the Calgary Folk Music Festival/Ship & Anchor Songwriting Contest with the delightfully simple yet profound Drink the Water. That gave him the money and traction to create his debut album, Everyday Life, released in 2016, featuring that song and several other treasures. 

“(That win) was the catalyst — it was huge!” Felker says from his Calgary home. “I kinda realized maybe I can do this. Respectable musicians, their biggest critic is themselves. I was fairly down on myself all the time about my songs. You never know if you’re a good songwriter or not, then you get someone telling you this song’s worth a win at a fairly prestigious place. It’s been won by Joe Nolan, J.R. Shore, and even Art Bergmann, who is kind of legendary. (I thought) maybe I should take myself seriously and focus a little more firmly on the craft.”

With a charm bracelet of gems strung alongside themselves on the album, it’s obvious the songwriter did just that. Amidst sparse, easygoing production, the songwriter pieces together stories of people we know. They live down the street or go to your corner pub or pick up their kids at the same daycare you do. There’s the grocery clerk numbed by the daily grind while wondering what it all means, the person who bought the house and all the toys during good times and watched them slip away, the coke addict who knows better but just can’t help it, and the fickle hearted coward who steals away from a relationship without a word of explanation.

“A lot of the stories I’ve been an eye witness to growing up in Northern Alberta, especially in the booms,” Felker explains. “There’s a lot of weird stuff happening because young people with money might buy a quad, then what do you do in the winter? Buy some coke.

“Where I write from is definitely truer to life — I try to almost talk about the sad monotony of everyday. It’s where I stake my claim, because I think a lot of artists and writers this day and age — there are so many things to write about that I think some of it is a little self-indulgent. That’s why I try and use simple language because I am trying to connect with people in a very simple way.”

This focus on simplicity is earned, especially when he accidentally discovered the work of John Prine. “I started out playing music, just whacking on the guitar, working at a liquor store when I was 19. And this guy had a playlist on his iPod — he must have been, 20, maybe 25 years older than me — called It Ain’t Country Unless the Fat Lady Sings. There was tons of John Prine on it, who I had never heard of.”

Felker went to one of two record stores in Grande Prairie — the one at the mall because downtown, where the cool kids hung out, was too intimidating — where they had but one Prine album, his first, self-titled release. Which was enough.

“When I moved down here to be with Amy, I took a garbage bag full of clothes and my John Prine CD. Everyone wants to be super original, but for me, I want to sound like those ’70s songwriters. It’s a super important period in music. You look at some of the guys who were writing then: Jim Croce, Steve Goodman, Don McLean, and John Prine. Even Tom Rush.

“Their sound is so timeless that if I can even slightly tap into it, it’s a success. I mean sonically. Lyrically, everyone has their own style, and I want to have my own, too. John Prine took stock in the seconds between the seconds; you can tell he really paid attention to the small details of life.”

So not surprisingly, Everyday Life is an album that picks the listener up on the first song, transports them past each of these lives like a sleepwalker gazing in a different window with every tune, and caresses them until the final note. It is, in short, a tough album to follow.

“I don’t remember who said it but you might have 25 years to write your first album and two to write your next. I had a strong album; I ran out of money regarding promoting it and sending it out. But I’m proud of it. Going into the next album there is almost less pressure because I am more connected to the art of doing music.”

Felker explains his new songs are more personal. “I talk more from my first-person experience and maybe less storytelling. (The) things that fascinate me, I use the term ‘sour love.’ You meet people and they’ve been together so long that they’re still together, you know what I mean? Modern love and how people live within that realm.”

Speaking of which, there is one last piece to Felker’s songwriting prowess.

“I’m lucky to be with my partner Amy Nelson (also a winner of the Upstart category in 2016 and currently working on her own album). She’s the one who really inspired me to take stock in lyrics,” the musician explains. “I was writing a lot and moved down here and was stuck in this write-songs-for-a-good-time feeling. Everyone was to be laughing. I had a lot of friends that if there comes a sentimental, sad song, it would turn them off because they just wanted to drink beers around the campfire.

“We met up and she was the first person to say, ‘Screw the rest of that.’  She’s fearless, and she writes songs about standing up for yourself.”

As well, Felker has another songwriting mentor who also just sits with him and helps him figure out life. “Lucky Sonne (Luke Colborne) is one of the best. He’s unbelievable.”

(Photo courtesy Kevin Warren.)

Carter Felker appears at Wide Cut Weekend at Mikey’s Juke Joint on Friday, Oct. 13, and at the Ironwood on Saturday, Oct. 14. Tickets available at Heritage Posters and Music or by clicking here. For more information go to widecutweekend.com.

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer who has written for over 25 years about her passions, music, books and horses, in the Calgary Herald, FFWD Weekly, Swerve, Western Horseman, Western Horse Review, and others.