Instrumental: Christine Fellows Knows that Everything is Music

On the late November day she gets on the phone to chat about her custom Beardsell tenor guitar, Christine Fellows saw an owl. 

“A great horned owl,” she says from Winnipeg. “In my neighborhood. And I saw it the other day. The crows lead you to it, right? When you hear a bunch of crows, you’ve got to go walk toward the crows and see what they’re yelling at. And it’s usually an owl. But it’s still there, just like, three blocks from my house. Just hanging out. Doing nothing. Just hanging out in a tree. They look like a cat up a tree. They’re just living in the neighborhood — there’s just this big weird thing living over there.”

To be fair, by the time she reveals her owl experience, the chat had more or less been adhering to some of the intended subject matter. But, like Fellows’ vibrant, eclectic, and moving new album, Stuff We All Get, the conversation bounced from thing to thing in a natural and playful way, sometimes moving far from where it began, always gaining momentum. 

The first instrument Fellows learned to play was piano, and she wound up doing a short stint in jazz school at Toronto’s Humber College in the ‘80s. She was there the year they banned smoking on campus.

“All the desks still had ashtrays on them,” she says. “People were outraged: ‘This will never last,’ they said.” 

Guitar provided the gateway to songwriting, which she hadn’t really done on the piano at the time. Eventually, she put the guitar down and returned to piano, rediscovering an instrument she’d set aside for a decade or so. “And then as my hands started to get weird — and when I say “weird,” I mean arthritic — piano started to become a bit of a problem,” she says. “Painful. So I picked up the ukulele. That was my gateway to the tenor guitar — a long and winding road.”

On the similarly long and winding road of our conversation, things veered heavily toward the creative process and away from any nitty-gritty details about tenor guitars. We even headed back in time a few hundred years, when Bach laid some musical groundwork that Fellows connects to the present day and, in a quietly dazzling way, to the neighbour she had just run into. 

“The melodies are ultimately these little fragments of melody,” Fellows says. “There’s so much play where it’s moving from the right hand and talking to the left hand and then it starts to morph and change. The melody’s there and then — whoa! — goes and leaps over to this other place. But they’re ultimately very simple, which is the hardest thing to make. And I feel like for me, the more I write the more I become interested in the simplicity, not the ones that are really hard to play or hard to write. Those that are like the river flowing, like it’s bubbling up and you just kind of keep moving. You’re not hung up on the banks trying to pan for gold or something. You’re just walking along looking for owls.”

It must’ve been a motivating experience to be so familiar with piano, then develop that writing muscle, and return to the instrument with this whole other dimension at your fingertips.

The way you put it sounds way smarter than, “I was bored of playing.” It just felt like there was nothing on the piano, you know? And, of course, there are a million things on there. I don’t know what other writers think, but for me, the thing that works the best, the thing that engages me in writing, is not knowing how to play something. And then you have to go find the song on it. It’s like a scavenger hunt, where you’re like, “Alright, I’m gonna just start to tune the strings this way and that way and see if a song comes out.” And all the instruments have songs! They come with songs on them! It’s amazing.

Christine Fellows’ custom Beardsell tenor guitar. Photo by Christine Fellows.

Was there a learning curve with the tenor guitar? All I really know about them is that they have four strings instead of six.

Exactly. So I used a couple of different tunings. And actually, when Al (Beardsell) made the guitar—he’s made two ukuleles for me, and my husband John’s electric guitar that is so beautiful — it was actually John who wanted the tenor guitar. And it took Al some years, it takes him time. But then one day, he just was like, “It’s ready.” You know, 10 years later, or however long. And John did write a couple of songs on it, but then it was just sitting there because he’s really into textile arts right now. The way things go in our house is: we do music for a while and then we do a bunch of other stuff.

So I picked it up. And Joel Plaskett had sent John a bunch of tenor guitar tunings when he first got the guitar, and one of them is CFCF. And of course I had to use that one because it was my initials. That was sort of the door in and I was like “Oh, I can handle it if there are two pairs of strings tuned the same. You’ve got this lovely open chord — what are you going to do? Of course there’s a song. And it turned out there was almost a whole record on that instrument, which is great. I love playing it and it feels very grown up, almost guitar-sounding after playing ukuleles for so long. It has this rich, beautiful, bell-like sound.

My experience with tenor guitars is all through Joel’s music, and I’ve always found them to have to have such a rich, high clarity but without being piercing.

Yeah, the uke, especially when it’s amplified, can get a little pointy. But with the tenor, mixing it was very interesting, because it occupies a frequency range that’s all its own, that doesn’t really interrupt anyone else. And just sort of adds to everything — lifts up the drums, lifts up the cellos. It’s right in the pocket. The tone of it has this beautiful lightness. It just creates a whole world that made me want to make chords and build things kind of in waves. It’s almost like waves.

Yeah, like an even more significant carrying quality to the sound, as opposed to ukulele or guitar. And between all those and piano, you must make different writing choices for each.

With your arms at the piano keyboard, you’re going to make different rhythmic choices, right? As opposed to when you’re holding a guitar, and, like me, you’re not very good at it. There’s power in the limitations. 

You know, I think John also said something about the power of limitations when we spoke for this series.

Maybe it’s our household mantra. I know he really believes that the song is a ready-made form. We have these forms, and we can write whatever we want overtop of them and they’re there. I agree with that, I think that way, but I also love challenging what that form is, and pushing around, cutting out the edges of it, and seeing what happens if you just break up that rhythm and add a couple of extra beats in there. Or maybe the melody is a little bit unpleasant at this corner and then comes back. I like to push out a little bit to make it weird and then bring it back. Get weird, bring it back.

There’s such playfulness and precision to your lyricism. Especially on songs like “SWAG,” from Stuff We All Get, that feeling of getting weird and bringing it back comes through — it has such a barreling momentum, and always feels just shy of running away.

The runaway parts were there. They were there. They’re not there anymore. Editing is my friend. Everything was different before it got recorded. You know, like when you read a novel, you go, “Oh my God, how did they even do this? All these parts connecting and everything making sense.” But the process is messy. I think we forget that. Our own creative process is messy. And everyone’s creative process is messy.

And usually we only see the end results.

I feel like, as a young writer, that can be really intimidating. Or even a young instrumentalist — that idea of when you see something that just looks so effortless, you see someone play something, you know: “How is that possible?” It’s just time, just someone sitting there for a gajillion hours.

Yeah. It’s something I feel like I’m just learning now, after 25 years or whatever of making things. You work, and you wait, and you return to your practice, ad nauseam, until something effortless begins to emerge. But when you’re 20 years old, who wants to wait?

I was exactly the same way. And I feel like right now with the immediacy of forms, even the recording technology is just so much more easy to use and available, which is terrific. But it is kind of just a little too fast sometimes. I’m used to it now, but I remember it being really jarring because I started making songs in the age of the four-track cassette, you know, where you’re bouncing tracks until it just sounds like mush. Like, you’ve bounced so many tracks, so many tracks, and then you think, “Amazing, I’ve made that.” But it took a billion years, and so much failure. Now, maybe we don’t have as much tolerance for failure. But failure is the greatest achievement. 

The most important thing I’ve realized I have to tell myself at the outset of a project, now, is: “This will take longer than you expect and it will, by its very nature, be a failure.” 

There’s a writer [Gaston Bachelard] who talks about that exact thing, that you begin with the beautiful idea and you end by organizing your disappointment.

Do you believe any of your creative tools have a talismanic quality, or do you feel the opposite — that they’re simply tools?

The first thing that pops into my mind isn’t so much the tenor guitar or any one instrument. It’s the weird, broken things that you come across, that make an interesting sound. For years, my favorite go-to was the Casio SK-1 because it has all the hilarious sounds you could sample on it, and it’s just this very pleasing kind of… there’s sort of an airy human quality to that electronic thing. So I like those kinds of things — there’s humor, but there’s also something human about it. And on this record, I had this little broken harp, and it makes a cool sound when you hit the strings, it goes, “Mmeerr-ooonngg.” I just love that sound. It’s a great sound. And it’s only made by this one weird, broken thing. It’s not attached to any one instrument, but I feel like, yeah, you look around: water in a bowl makes its own sound. Everything is music.

The idea of a whole sonic ecosystem like that — which really blossoms on Stuff We All Get — reminds me of something a friend just turned me onto, a Japanese aesthetic-as-worldview called wabi-sabi. It’s sometimes explained as an appreciation of imperfection; there’s no hierarchy of beauty.

And maybe it’s akin to the recording aesthetic, too, that was born out of four-track recording on very low-tech, limited technology where you recognize that the sound you make is so ephemeral. To me it’s almost like, when I’m writing the song, the demo should be on the record instead of the actual finished thing that’s all polished. It’s that first time when you just sort of birthed it out at three in the morning and its edges are all weird and it still sounds like you’re learning it. There’s something very beautiful to me about that.