Rising spirits

The Be Good Tanyas' meancholy Hello Love is a strangely uplifting album.

On their current tour of the United Kingdom, Vancouver’s Be Good Tanyas have been keeping exalted company, if only secondhand. The night before the Georgia Straight reached singer and banjo picker Frazey Ford in the cathedral town of York, her group headlined London’s Royal Festival Hall, and their deliberately down-home sound proved a good fit for this classic example of modernist architecture.

“It was fun,” Ford recalls. “It’s an incredibly beautiful venue, full of history and stuff. We were asking the audience ”˜Who did you see here last?’ and they called out ”˜Bob Dylan!’ and ”˜Neil Young!’ and all these people, so we felt really honoured to be playing there.”

At home, however, the Tanyas have been enjoying some real-life celebrity encounters. This summer, they guested with fan Ben Harper at his Deer Lake Park concert after, metaphorically speaking, spurning his advances during an earlier rehearsal. Harper is on record as wanting to do a CD with the Vancouver trio; that might yet happen, but Ford and bandmates Trish Klein and Sam Parton aren’t going to rush into any such undertaking.

“We did get together with him when he came to town, and we did a bunch of playing together before we did the show,” Ford explains. “It was really a great experience. He was like, ”˜I want to make an album with you guys,’ and I was like, ”˜You know, why don’t we just play?’ He just seemed so busy, and so fast-focused, and I felt more like, ”˜Guy, it would be great to just sit down and have a meal and play for a couple of hours.’ You know, whatever came of it came of it.

“But there was a real neat chemistry between us all, especially because he’s such a phenomenal harmonizer,” she adds. “He had me singing melody, and he was harmonizing up high and fitting right in. It was great!”

If Ford sounds only slightly starstruck by her Harper encounter, perhaps it’s because the Tanyas are well on their way to genuine success in their own right, especially in Europe. The Royal Festival Hall show is just one indication that they’re likely to become the Nettwerk label’s biggest export since Sarah McLachlan; an even more ?potent sign is that their just-released third album, Hello Love, represents a significant artistic advance over predecessors Chinatown and Blue Horse.

Featuring better sound, increasingly confident performances, and some startlingly confessional songwriting, Hello Love can be confidently shelved alongside discs by such Tanyas favourites as Harper and Emmylou Harris. Despite all the good things that have been happening for the group, however, the songs themselves are decidedly downbeat. Chicago-based singer Jeremy Lindsay’s “Scattered Leaves” addresses the impermanence of affection, while the Parton original “Song for R” is a heartfelt but melancholy look at a family member’s “lonely struggle with addiction”. Sorrow, loss, and estrangement are the record’s principal topics, right down to its hidden bonus track—a wailing take on Prince’s tale of marital strife, “When Doves Cry”.

All is not rosy on the way to the top, it seems.

“I guess not,” Ford allows, sounding philosophical. “I’d say that we were all really lucky in our lives, but we’re also people who have experienced life, which includes a lot of pain. Personally, I’ve had a lot of difficult things that went on in the last couple of years. Not to say there weren’t joyous times as well, but those are the things that are getting expressed in this particular project.

“It’s all pretty real,” she adds. “We’re not sophisticated enough writers to be completely fabricating things. But in songwriting, you take little fragments of truth and you refract them and they come out in a different way. It’s not always based on actual reality; it has more to do with the life of the song itself.”

Perhaps the key to the new disc’s strength is that, while it deals with darkness, it winds up producing light. Hello Love is a great record to play if you’re feeling sad; listening to Ford, Klein, and Parton make music out of melancholy has, however perversely, an undeniably cheering effect.

“You come to music for various reasons, and part of what we come to music for is for healing for parts of ourselves,” Ford admits. “So if that’s what’s coming through, then that’s what we have experienced. But to me, it doesn’t mean that we’re not experiencing happiness.”

And experiencing it in a number of different contexts. The sound of childish laughter in the background indicates that the singer’s three-and-a-half-year-old son is on the road with the Tanyas, and Ford has just spent a pleasant afternoon showing him around the walls of York. She’s also readying an electronic project with the Berlin-based DJ and producer Hefner, while her bandmates are keeping busy, too: Klein with her Po’ Girl side project and Parton with production work for a number of her songwriting pals. The Be Good Tanyas may never entirely shake the blues—but at least they’re putting them to good use.


The Be Good Tanyas play the Commodore Ballroom next Thursday (November 30).