Christa Couture turns heartbreak into optimism on The Living Record

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What fresh hell is this?

Christa Couture could be forgiven for echoing, on occasion, Dorothy Parker’s famous complaint. Over the course of her 32 years, this criminally underrated singer-songwriter has endured enough tragedy to fill several lifetimes—and while we don’t want to dwell on that, let’s just say that the central theme of her 2008 release, The Wedding Singer and the Undertaker, was the most painful of bereavements.

Since then, she’s experienced another cruel and inexplicable loss. But her new disc, The Living Record, is suffused with a groundedness that borders on optimism, as Couture explains by phone from her Vancouver home.

“This time,” she says, “it’s more like ‘You know what? Shit keeps happening, and life keeps unrolling, and I’m working with it—and doing the best I can.’ ”

Couture is still conscious of being “a witness of catastrophe”, as she bravely declares on the lilting, waltzlike “Lucky or Lost”. But rather than fend off sorrow with gin and cynicism, as Parker did, she’s piled her woes into a batch of songs that are as rich in acceptance and compassion as they are full of heartbreak.

In part, that’s because Couture’s drawing on some of the older events in her autobiography. The Cajun-flavoured “Good Bayou”, for instance, documents an end-of-the-millennium affair, but any bitterness Couture might have felt at the time has been transformed into a sweet memory.

“I’ve dated a lot of musicians and other artists, and especially with songwriters, if you’re dating a songwriter, you get into this thing where they wrote you a love song, and then you try and top that love song,” she says with a laugh. “And when you break up, it’s ‘Who’s going to write the better breakup song?’ So I had dated this artist from the States, from Louisiana. While we were together he had made me this incredible painting, but I never did anything for him, and I felt really bad. So eventually I wrote that song—and now I hope we’re even!”

Similarly, “Pussycat Pussycat”—given an infectious Stax-Volt twist by producer-guitarist Steve Dawson—recalls the singer’s days as a free-spirited Canadian in London. She got lost, she got mugged—and yet she also fell in love. Writing about those days, she explains, is not so much an exercise in nostalgia as a way of bringing that old energy into her new circumstances.

“For a while, I’d look back and think, ‘Oh, 10 years ago, I was so much happier. I was so carefree, and so lighthearted,’ ” she admits. “But with something like ‘Pussycat Pussycat’, now I can actually create those feelings again in my life.…And I think that’s what has amazed me over the last few years: despite how dark and awful things can get, there’s still surprising moments of joy. And I live for those moments, I guess.”

At this point, it’s probably fair to unveil the latest calamity that Couture has had to endure: the loss of a second child in infancy. (The death of her first son prompted the writing of The Wedding Singer and the Undertaker.) It’s hard to contemplate how forlorn this must have made her feel, although some sense of it is conveyed through the bleak intelligence of The Living Record’s “Pirate Jenny and the Storm” and “Hopeless Situation”. Remarkably, though, those tracks are counterbalanced by the naked tenderness of “Paper Anniversary”, a love song to Couture’s husband that features a Sinatra-grade cameo from local legend Jim Byrnes.

“This is another album about loss, which I thought, after the last one, I wouldn’t do again,” Couture says. “But then there was more loss, so I didn’t have a choice. Still, I think I’m now in a place where there’s more acceptance and integration, I’ve kind of been owning it.

“I’ve had enough of looking at the past and trying to understand it,” she adds. “Now it’s like, ‘Okay, fuck it, let’s just look forward. What can we do now?’ I’ve talked about it, I’ve cried about it, I’ve had hours of therapy. Now what?”

In the short run, there’s the album-release party for The Living Record, which will find Couture teaming up with Dawson, keyboard genius Chris Gestrin, rock-solid bassist Rob Becker, and nimble drummer Niko Friesen. Then there’s a cross-country tour on which she’ll lead a trio with Redgy Blackout multi-instrumentalists Scott Perrie and Jeremy Breaks.

Who knows what will follow? But one thing’s for sure: having turned the lousiest of hands into an exceptional body of songs, Couture’s ready for further—and happier—adventures.

Christa Couture releases The Living Record at St. James Hall next Thursday (September 6).

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