Kele Fleming’s new World in Reverse CD kicks off on the Crowsnest Highway, out in the hills beyond Hope, and winds up in Nova Scotia, surveying the remains of her family’s ancestral homestead. In between, it examines a variety of other landscapes, both physical and psychological. Yet somehow all the songs cycle back to one particular patch of blasted terrain: Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where sociopaths and sufferers collide, often to tragic effect.
It’s a world Fleming knows well, thanks to her volunteer work with the WISH Drop-In Centre, a local nonprofit that aims to bring beauty, hope, and comfort to the poorest and most vulnerable of the downtrodden: the sex-trade workers who ply the streets of the Downtown Eastside, and who provided serial killer Robert Pickton with the bulk of his seemingly numberless victims.
“I felt that as a citizen of my city I couldn’t be blind to what was going on,” the singer-songwriter explains, on the line from her home near Commercial Drive. “Hearing all of the stories and all of the press about the Pickton stuff, I started to volunteer for WISH. I was what you would call a frontline worker, where I was serving food and working in a makeup room, just helping to provide basic services for survival sex-trade workers in the Downtown Eastside.
“They’re a wonderful organization, WISH is, because they’re very nonjudgmental,” she continues. “They’re not there to judge the choices that the women have made, but to address their basic needs and to give them some sense of safety. So I guess some of the songs on this album grew out of those experiences, of having my eyes opened to the horrible risks to women in the sex trade—especially First Nations women in the sex trade, young women in the sex trade.”
That’s evident in World in Reverse’s opener, “Crowsnest”, a surging, enigmatic folk-rock number that holds out the possibility of escape before dropping darkly into the mind of a killer. And it’s even more clear in “Inescapable Jesus”, a truly chilling song that links fundamentalist Christianity to the abuse, exploitation, and murder of women.
It’s a theme that’s been on Fleming’s mind ever since the 1990s heyday of her former band Hazel Motes, named for a crazed street preacher who figures prominently in Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 novel Wise Blood.
“Her focus was very much on religion and what it does to people: how it tears people apart, or provides a false morality that people wrap themselves in,” Fleming says of the Georgia-born author’s approach. “At the time I started Hazel Motes, I was a bit fixated on the effect that I thought religion had on people’s lives, especially in the bigotry around the sex trade, and women’s position in society”¦.So I think I have a bit of history in my writing when it comes to focusing on those things. And the connection to the ”˜Inescapable Jesus’ image has to do with my immersing myself in the southern-gothic writing of the United States, especially William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. Some of the characters in that literature are tortured by a sense of this inescapable Jesus, this twisted morality that follows them around and causes them to do grotesque things.”
World in Reverse is more than an examination of violence against women, though. The other strands that run through this multifaceted work are family history and environmental destruction. As an occasional poet and would-be novelist, Fleming’s aim was to make a record that combined the depth of long-form fiction with the evocative qualities of verse. And if there’s an overarching concept behind the disc, it’s that the same willful ignorance that allowed Vancouver to overlook the Downtown Eastside’s missing women for so long is also behind our blindness to global warming and other threats to the planet.
It’s an ambitious project, but Fleming feels that popular music is mature enough to address complex themes. “I guess my approach to the pop song is that I want it to be more than a simple pop song,” she says. “I love the genre of pop because it’s so accessible and approachable, and I feel that if I’m tackling some of the more serious issues that we all face in the world we live in, it’s a good way to deliver it. Maybe more people will be able to hear it that way.”
More people are certainly getting to play her music: in her “solo” incarnation she’s backed by seven singers and musicians, including most of the members of her former band. That’s a little bigger than is the norm for the local indie scene—but, then, Fleming’s imagination operates on a similarly outsized scale.