A rock star before rock stars were invented, Jack London committed to the idea of living fast and dying relatively young, finally burning out in an alcoholic haze at the age of 40. The American-born author behind such works as The Call of the Wild and White Fang has been dead and buried for close to 100 years, but his legacy lives on beyond those enrolled in creative-writing courses. As Winnipeg’s Christine Fellows learned after spending time in the Yukon a couple of years back, London still casts a long shadow in Northern Canada. No wonder, considering that his time there led to some of his greatest writing.
“Oh, my God, if you happen to see his autobiography, it’s worth a look-see,” Fellows says, speaking on her cellphone from the ’Peg. “That guy’s life, and what he packed into 40 years, is insane. In-sane! I mean, I knew probably about as much as you know about Jack London when I went up there. I knew that he’s a big figure for people in the Yukon.”
She wouldn’t realize just how big, however, until she began delving into his story. Along with her husband, John K. Samson of the Weakerthans, Fellows found herself doing a February 2011 stint as songwriter in residence at the Dawson City Music Festival. Major inspirations while in town would include London, whose writings eventually coloured her sixth and latest album, Burning Daylight, and her first collection of poetry of the same name.
“It was one of those things where you read the right thing at the right time, and then the sparks all line up,” Fellows recounts. “Especially ‘To Build a Fire’, which is masterfully written, and just so dark and great. That really stuck with me. I was reading the story to John every night as we were huddled up in the Dawson City Music Festival residency house. It’s a drafty old house, and I’m reading him this story of a guy freezing to death. It was minus 46 and howling, so it was very, very real to us.”
Burning Daylight is noticeably stripped-down when compared with early Fellows works, such as 2 Little Birds and Paper Anniversary, with songs relying heavily on spartan piano and the beautifully bleak cello-playing of Leanne Zacharias and Alex McMaster.
“I loved playing with them—the whole point of making the recording was to highlight those two amazing musicians,” Fellows says.
The other goal was to capture the flavour of life up North. Those familiar with her stellar past releases already know Fellows is one of the most criminally underrated songwriters in Canada. What hasn’t been obvious until now is her skill as a poet.
Inspired by a subsequent trip to Igloolik, Nunavut—and beautifully illustrated by visual artist Alicia Smith—the book part of Burning Daylight suggests Fellows is just as skilled with a pen as she is with a tune. Get ready to be amazed, whether she’s salting her poems with rotting fish heads (“Family”) or recounting the groundbreaking history of the first cargo ship through the Northwest Passage (“Nordic Orion”).
Given the power of the source material, it’s no surprise that Fellows initially had big plans for Burning Daylight, including spinning the whole package into a play. For her upcoming PuSh festival performance, however, she’s going to be letting the music and the words do the talking. Even if you’ve never been further north in Canada than Whistler, you’ll be transported thanks to songs like “The Last Stampede” and lines such as “In that snow-choked valley/Creeks run black in ragged lines/A thousand miles from nowhere.”
“I’m playing with the idea of intersecting some of Jack London’s writing,” Fellows says of her Vancouver show. “That was a huge part of what I was working with when I made the songs—the songs were a response to his stories. So I’ve brought his voice into it, which is something that took me a while to figure out how to do. So it will be some text and some music. Basically, a theatre piece without any actors.”
Christine Fellows plays a Club PuSh show at Performance Works on Saturday (January 24) as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.