February 2020. Frazey Ford released her third solo album — the soulful, slow-grooving U Kin B the Sun — and was steeling herself for a year’s worth of international touring commitments. Within the month, though, COVID-19 stopped the world in its tracks.
At first, staying home was no big deal for the former member of Canadian folk group the Be Good Tanyas. She had everything she needs; she’s an artist, she don’t look back – so she happily threw herself into painting, sculpting, designing clothes and learning to play the electric guitar.
“Then about six months later, I started to feel grief about this album. I didn’t feel like I had any connection to it … I remember one night, I was painting and thought: ‘What’s missing from my life? Oh, purpose! I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing right now,’ ” she recalls, laughing down the phone line from her West Coast home.
“To not (tour) was so strange and really started to affect me.”
No wonder Ford, 48, is excited to return to the stage on July 27 for the Calgary Folk Music Festival’s Summer Serenades series, a precursor to her rescheduled world tour that starts in October. She’s also somewhat nervous. “It’s impossible to imagine being in a club with people breathing, or getting on a plane,” she says.
Yet Ford reveals she was “deeply relieved” when her original tour dates were postponed. The months leading up to the release of U Kin B the Sun had been difficult. Her older brother Kevin (the subject of her debut solo single Firecracker) died in late 2018 after struggling with addiction throughout his life; about six months later, cancer claimed her biological father Adam Godfrey, with whom Ford had developed a close relationship since meeting in 2013.
“I managed to keep writing through that time even though I don’t fucking know how I did it, honestly,” Ford says. “I’m also a single mom of a teenager (18-year-old son Saul) and he was having issues. Then there was a lot of pressure from the (record) label. In that time, I also bought a house. It was an extremely stressful time.
“I was so exhausted … I was actually very concerned with how I was going to manage the touring. Then the pandemic hit and it was all shut down. A part of me was relieved because the cocktail of all I had been through and hadn’t had a chance to (process) was hitting me.”
One wouldn’t immediately assume U Kin B the Sun emerged from a time of tumult and grief. One of 2020’s finest albums, Ford’s latest bubbles over with summery, restrained and uplifting country-soul, reflecting Ford’s lifelong love of Al Green. (She formed an Al Green cover band in music school and, more recently, recorded her sophomore solo album, 2014’s Indian Ocean, in Memphis with members of the same Hi Records studio band that played on Green’s 1970s classics.)
Look deeper, though, and many of Ford’s songs also harbour pain and anger, the emotional fallout of a chaotic childhood. Her parents were Americans who came to Canada to escape the draft; she says her father was an addict and her mother struggled to raise four children in a household shaken by violence and trauma. But whereas the lyrics on Indian Ocean are unflinching and intense, U Kin Be the Sun approaches this subject matter with more distance and acceptance.
“Indian Ocean was about the life I’ve lived … the experience of coming through a troubled past with abuse and violence. It was more of the grief and sorrow part of that healing process,” Ford says. “That was a hard album to play live. My band jokes about the intensity — how quietly we were playing but how hard they were grooving, and how emotional it is and how brutal it is.
“(U Kin B the Sun) is a very spiritual record for me. Ultimately, I’m looking for peace and forgiveness. It came out of a deeper place, feeling strong, and looking at questions of death and the shortness of life.”
Talk of peace and forgiveness turns to Truth and Reconciliation. As the interview wraps up, The Scene asks Ford for her thoughts on residential schools, given her own lived experience with childhood trauma and abuse. She doesn’t hesitate.
“There are so many parallels for me with the mythology of an abusive family and the mythology of an abusive country. I think about this question: how do you come to wholeness in yourself when you’ve experienced abuse and so much of it is about owning your truth, being able to speak your truth, being able to be heard,” she says.
“We have this story about Canada that doesn’t include who we really are and what we’ve really done to people here. There’s no way we can move forward as a society without owning that and without allowing space for the voices that have been crushed and the people who have been crushed. We cannot move into wholeness. We can’t evolve until there’s a space to acknowledge the depth of the damage that has been done. (Canada has) a very comfortable mythology, but when the mythology does not include the humanity of everyone involved, then it is a sick and broken mythology that only perpetuates sick(ness) and brokenness.”