The singer, songwriter and guitarist, who charmed audiences around the world throughout the noughties with the rootsy Vancouver-based trio The Be Good Tanyas, is the second generation of her family who has used music to get through tough times.
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“I’m not saying that music is a substitute for medicine but it’s certainly therapeutic,” says Ford, whose warm, gentle singing provided the therapy for troubled souls in the rural community in the Canadian Rockies where she lived in her late teens. “I didn’t have a job back then but I was using singing as a means to keep me sane and people would come round and see me because my singing made them feel better too – that was my contribution to that close-knit society, if you like, and people responded. It was good feedback and it set me up for later when I became a full-time musician.”
Ford’s mother had sung around the house when Frazey was growing up in the 1970s. She and Ford’s father, a Texan, had had to flee over the Canadian border as a result of their political activism in response to the war in Vietnam. Although the family had Canadian citizenship by the time Frazey came along, she often heard stories from her older brothers about their father being pursued and spied upon by the FBI.
As a result of this their parents, who had started a family young and were full of hippy idealism, took refuge at first on various communes and then worked on a series of farms before finally settling in Toronto.
“My mum used to sing to deal with the things she’d gone through because, not surprisingly, she’d found living life on the run quite hard,” says Ford, who returns to Glasgow this weekend as part of the city’s annual Americana festival. “My dad used to write poetry so there was always music – or words – in the air at home. I must have been about five or six when mum started getting me to sing the lead part of songs so that she could put a harmony to it. She was really into Emmylou Harris and coming from French-Canadian stock, she knew a whole lot of Cajun songs, so that’s where I got my folk influences from.”
As a teenager Ford went travelling the world with her mother and sister and eventually wound up in Guatemala, where she decided to try out her singing in public for the first time in a small café. The gig went okay but emotional problems were building up and she suffered a nervous breakdown. It was at this point that she encountered for the first time the music that had a subtle bearing on the Be Good Tanyas but shines unmistakably out of quite a few songs on Ford’s recently-issued first solo album, Obadiah.
“It’s possible that I heard Al Green and Otis Redding back in the 1970s because my parents had all sorts of music at home,” she says. “But in my late teens I really got hooked on that whole Hi Records thing and the Memphis soul sound. Al Green is a big favourite, Ann Peebles too, and I actually sang in a few soul bands when I first moved to Vancouver but other influences have seeped into my songwriting style, especially with the Be Good Tanyas.”
To begin with, having moved from the Rockies with her neighbours’ praise ringing in her ears and having holed up in Montreal, Ford didn’t believe she had any kind of songwriting style. Determined to become a writer and prepared to endure whatever misery it took, she gave herself a year to come up with the goods, at the end of which she considered what she’d produced and initially thought it amounted to a pile of rubbish.
“It was a horrible year, brutal,” she says. “It was cold and I couldn’t find any work. I’m not sure what I was living off and I just wrote and wrote and wrote and felt I was getting nowhere.”
Six months later, by now ensconced on Vancouver’s thriving music scene and looking for songs to bring to the group she’d formed in the kitchen with assorted new housemates and friends, she went through the tapes and notebooks she’d filled up in Montreal and discovered that she’d achieved rather more than she realised in her make-or-break year. The Ford originals on the first two Be Good Tanyas albums all came from her Montreal sojourn.
Looking back on the nine years that the Be Good Tanyas spent together, Ford expresses shock that they stayed together so long. Not because they didn’t get on – fellow Tanya Trish Klein appears on both Obadiah and in Ford’s touring band – but because she herself has a severely limited attention span.
“Two years is normally my maximum for any project,” she says, “and after that I want to move on and do something else. But the thing with Obadiah was that I wanted to work with people I knew and trusted and the band feels like a travelling family because there’s Trish and her partner, John Raham, who played drums with the Be Good Tanyas and co-produced Obadiah, and the bass player, Darren [Paris] is an old friend from the Be Good Tanyas days too.”
Obadiah itself sounds like a family effort with the intimate air of sessions conducted in a log cabin with a wood-burning stove rather than a recording studio. Indeed, Ford’s mother dropped in to sing harmony on Lost Together, a song that looks back at the hippy era through a mother’s eyes, and there are contributions from Ford’s next-door neighbour and even her landlord. All the songs were written by Ford with one exception that’s another reference to the music she heard during her formative years, Bob Dylan’s One More Cup of Coffee.
“Desire, the Bob Dylan album that song comes from, was so much a part of the soundtrack around our house back when I was growing up,” she says. “And One More Cup of Coffee itself always reminds me of late nights. I’d been singing it a lot to myself around the time we made the album and when we’d finished recording I thought, we need to add a cover version of something, just so it’s not all me. And that was the song we chose. Writing and singing your own songs is great but if you can include one song by somebody else and still make it sound like yourself, give it your own stamp, that’s a really special feeling and I hope I achieved that.”
Frazey Ford plays the CCA, Glasgow on Saturday as part of the Glasgow Americana Festival. The festival runs from tonight until Sunday. For full details, log onto www.glasgowamericana.com