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The Fred Eaglesmith diet of Humble Pie

Posted by Cat / June 16, 2007

20070616_FredEaglesmith.jpgWho is Fred Eaglesmith?

As summarized on Hello Darlin's website, Fred is a Canadian singer/songwriter/comedian/painter with 15 CDs to his credit. He has spent the past decade performing (with his band) at 300 or so North American venues per year and recently he's toured Holland, the UK and Australia.

Fred has won both a Juno and a Canadian Independent Music award and his songs have been covered by the Cowboy Junkies, Chris Knight, Mary Gauthier, Dar Williams, James King, Kasey Chambers and Blackie and the Rodeo Kings plus his songs have also appeared in Martin Scorsese and James Caan films. He owns his own record label and is one of music's most successful indie acts.

Impressive. But seriously, other than possibly the most humble "rock star" I have ever spoken with, who is Fred Eaglesmith?

In order to flesh out that answer just a little bit more, Midnight Poutine caught up with Fred on the road, somewhere in south-eastern New Brunswick, just after he crossed the Nova Scotia-New Brunswick border. This westward trek will land Fred in Montreal on Sunday, June 17 at Petit Campus.

I asked Fred if he was from a musical family. "My family wasn't musical other than in a church way. My father was a great singer, He was the loudest singer in church," Fred's childhood was divided between two places: church and farm. His family (Fred is one of nine children) lived on a series of farms in southern Ontario and were hard-working, church-going folk. But one of the earliest musical memories for Fred, the one that had a profound impact on his life, was brought to him through the magic of television.

"I saw Elvis on television when I was 10. We had just got a television - the first television we had - and I walked in from working outside, the barn was freezing cold, and as I walked in there was Elvis on television. He was in some Hawaiian place and it looked really good and I thought 'I wanna do that!' And I decided that day to do that. That night I wrote my first couple of songs, and I never stopped."

That was nearly 40 years ago and Fred has never once questioned his choice to devote his time to music. From that moment on, he has concentrated almost exclusively on music and songwriting. "There has been no doubt since that time. I knew then that that's what I was supposed to do." I told Fred that I found it enviable he should be so certain about his calling, about never having a moment of doubt creep in on that vision. "I know," he says, "it drives people crazy."

20070616_fredandthefs.jpgFred's music attracts a very diverse group of fans among which the die-hards are affectionately known as Fredheads. His fan base comprises truckers, farmers, lesbians, bartenders – the list goes on - and many of these groups are represented in his songs or acknowledged in his stage banter. What is it in his music that strikes a common chord with these different listeners? "I try to keep it smart. I don't appeal to the general population, but I appeal to the fringe. And the fringe is a big fringe that I appeal to."

Fred acknowledges that these are also people who have had a lot of adversity in their life, people who have struggled. "I have a lot of that at my show," Fred observes. "I have a lot of people who come to my show, look me in the eye, try to get my attention and say 'You don’t know how hard it is for me.' They may think that I'm ignoring them when really, what I'm saying is 'No, I totally know. But it's not that big of a deal to me.'" These aren't songs that take you away from the trials and travails of everyday life. They are songs that tell it like it is, but at the same time, let you know that you are not alone.

While many songwriters and musicians have distinct followers such blues devotees, hard rock fans, or traditional folk aficionados, Fred sees his audience as, first and foremost, people who truly think about the songs. "They're thinkers. Maybe someone's a farmer but he's an alternative guy. He's thinking about something else. Or it might be a steelworker or a welder – he's thinking about something else. And that's what it is."

Fred himself is quite the thinker or "alternative guy". Situated on the shores of Lake Erie, Fred's own farm runs entirely on wind and solar power. He is currently a spokesperson for Oxfam's Make Trade Fair, and Make Poverty History campaigns. His new fundraising campaign, 'Reflections', works to help raise awareness of the problem of bicycle safety, especially for migrant workers travelling to and from farms on roads at night. 'Reflections' gathers funds to donate bicycle reflectors to various farm centres around Ontario. Fred is also a prolific painter.

Attend a Fred Eaglesmith concert at a smaller, more rural setting (think Agricultural Halls, Community Centres, and Elks Lodges) and you will see Fred where he is most at ease. "I really don’t like playing to larger audiences, where I can't look people in the eye." Before a show – any show – Fred likes nothing better than to get a bit of shut-eye. "I'm really not a very good example of a rock star. I don't do anything rock star-ish. I'm a bit of a pussy as far as being a rock star goes."

20070616_milly'scafe.jpgMilly's Cafe, Fred's latest cd, is a slower, more measured album than many of his past releases. "This was a much quieter time in my life, and consequently, I make quieter records." There really is a beautiful, languid qulaity to both the lyrics and the instrumentation on this recording. "I just have to do what's honest for me. Sometimes my audience is with me, and sometimes they're not. But there's not much I can do about that." He may be referring to Dusty, his 13th release, that met with certain consternation from his fans. "I haven't had to much flack about [Milly's Cafe] so far, but sometimes I'm off the mark for my audience."

I asked Fred what he himself was currently listening to as he embarks on his rigorous summer touring schedule. "I'm listening to black gospels right now. Old choirs, music that isn't so popular…that's what I'm into." But maybe popularity is in the eye of the beholder. For Fred and his loyal fans, it's on the fringes. As Fred says, "that fringe is a big fringe."

Fred Eaglesmith performs at:
Petit Campus (57 Prince Arthur E.)
Sunday, June 17 at 8 p.m.
Tickets are $20 and are available through Hello Darlin’ Productions.



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