Every year Artistic Director James Keelaghan writes a series of 12 articles for the Owen Sound Sun Times previewing the Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival

By James Keelaghan

I was skinnier then. I know that much.


Stephen Fearing and I met at the Jasper Folk Festival in 1986. We were both young, western singer-songwriters, both claiming an Irish lineage and sharing a lot of musical heroes, so it’s no surprise we became friends. Through those early days, we slept on each other’s couches when we were in each other’s towns and traded gig info, contacts, and a lot of pleasant time together when our paths crossed.


He doesn’t sleep on couches much anymore. Stephen, one of the beacons of the acoustic music scene, is loved and lauded for his soulful voice, blistering guitar work and evocative lyrics. Over the past thirty years, he’s released eleven solo albums, six albums with super group Blackie and the Rodeo Kings and another two with Belfast’s Andy White.


That discography speaks volumes about Stephen. Always a jammer, he loves digging in on a session—live or in the studio—generously sharing the stage and his recordings with new talent and with veterans such as Richard Thompson and Bruce Cockburn.


Though life began in Vancouver, his formative years were spent in Dublin, Ireland attending the same school as future members of U2! That trip, from Canada to Ireland became immortalized in Fearing’s epic, Longest Road—one of his most finely crafted songs.


In his heart, Stephen is a creature of the road. Returning to North America in his late teens, he spent time in Minneapolis before finding his way to Vancouver once more. He has since lived in Guelph and Halifax before finally returning to the West coast last year. Touring compulsively, it seems that there is hardly a night without a Fearing gig somewhere.


Now entering his third decade as performer, Stephen seems as effortless and light on his feet as way back when in Jasper. Certainly, he still has the same fire. A Fearing performance is like an approaching freight train with the rumbling of the tracks as the flawless rhythm rolls from the guitar, his voice like a distant, mournful klaxon. The intensity builds until it fills the space, theatre or field, with an unstoppable sound.


We run into each other every now and again, often in passing—a few stolen moments for lunch or an afternoon beer when our schedules magically coincide. He’s the same Stephen I met all those years ago, though he remains lanky and I do not.


Rose Cousins, I met in a different way. While Stephen and I were up-and-comers together, I heard of Rose Cousins long before I ever met her. Some artists are like that, with a reputation and music that arrives well ahead of their physical presence—the breeze that precedes the storm. Rose is a writer of exceptional ability and sensitivity who possesses a wit so dry that it’s practically arid—the voice of an angel with a mesmerizing presence.


When I finally met Rose, it was under the best of circumstances. We were both part of the songwriter’s house at the Celtic Colours Festival in 2008. The festival had decided to push the envelope from largely traditional music by including songwriters in a meaningful way—having us come to the festival to write. Every song that she penned, in collaboration over those six days, was a gem. I got to watch her write up close, note the attention to detail and the exhaustive search for just the right word or turn of phrase.


Rose was born and raised in PEI, lives in Halifax and has forged deep roots in the fabled music community that orbits a club called Passim in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But, wherever she is, the reaction to her voice and songwriting is universal praise throwing light on some of the dark places in our hearts—a soft, diffuse and sympathetic light. She has that rare gift of being able to take the intensely personal and make it universal.


Brave—did I mention that she is brave? Rose was enjoying the kind of success a lot of singer-songwriter’s crave. In 2013, with lauds from the press and lots of bookings, Rose realized that she had reached a limit. Living in fear of burn out, feeling the pressure that performance can place on the craft of writing, she decided to stop touring, with the exception of a few select dates. In order to refill the creative tank, she concentrated on other artistic endeavours, including her other artistic passion— photography. She spent time shooting, developing film, and printing photos using the dark room at the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design.


Rose also held a deep desire to develop skills in co-writing which she began to work on in Nashville during the fall of 2014. From then, and throughout the following year, she traveled to Los Angeles, Nashville, Toronto, Ireland, and Boston where her focused creative time yielding dozens of songs, photographs, relationships, and a much needed change of pace. Her goal was to connect with artists, writers, and producers to make songs in new ways, new sounds with new people, not knowing where they would go and not needing to know. The result of all that creative work was her latest album, Natural Conclusion.


You’ll be able to enjoy the music of Rose Cousins and Stephen Fearing at the Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival, August 17, 18 and 19. You can listen to music by Rose and Stephen, find out about tickets and much more at summerfolk.org.


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