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Christine Fagan: a collaboration with lyrics

Christine Fagan Once concert posterOttawa singer and artist Christine Fagan debuts her first CD, Once, at a concert on Friday, December 17 at the NAC Fourth Stage.

Christine has been singing jazz regularly at Ottawa venues like Molto Kitchen and Café Paradiso for many years; she is also a member of the women's acapella group Cantarra. Her most high-profile project was an October 2009 collaboration with the Impressions in Jazz Orchestra entitled When Joni Met Mingus, in which she sang vocal renditions of some of Charles Mingus' music, and music by Joni Mitchell that was inspired by Mingus.

OttawaJazzScene.ca editor Alayne McGregor asked Christine to describe her new album, for which she wrote the lyrics to music by composers ranging from Bach to Bruce Cockburn to Rob Frayne, and the path leading to making the album.

OttawaJazzScene: What got you interested in jazz and in jazz singing in the first place? Who have been your major influences?

Christine Fagan: When I heard my uncle Jimmy Fagan's recordings of Ella and Frank Sinatra on his big, loud stereo as a kid, I started listening and singing along to jazz. He was an audiophile, and lover of jazz. He would tell me what music to buy with my babysitting money.

OJS: Are you influenced by jazz instrumentalists as well as vocalists? Folk music influences?

Christine Fagan: I would have to acknowledge Joni Mitchell here. She definitely held my hand through high school. I loved her voice, lyrics and music. I loved her most when she worked in the jazz genre - the Mingus album, her rendition of "Twisted", the work she did with Pat Metheny, etc...

OJS: How have the local scene and local musicians here in Ottawa helped you with your jazz career and with this album in particular?

Christine Fagan: I've always loved singing, but it took me until the age of thirty to work up the nerve to take a lesson. I will always be grateful to vocal coach Gerry Childs and the Ottawa Folklore Center for encouraging me and pushing me out onto Dean Verger's stage at Rasputin's. Rasputin's!! It was right next to the Ottawa Folklore Center at the time on Bronson Avenue, and held regular open stages. Chris White was hosting that night, and encouraged me to pursue music.

I was very shy about singing when I started performing: singing easy, performing not. There also weren't that many venues, Back when Gerry Shatford became the house piano player at Ottawa's Café Paradiso, he was inviting me to sing there once a month, and that's really where I cut my teeth over a few years.

The other great thing that happened to me that I attended JazzWorks annual summer jazz camp and met a ton of jazzers and future collaborators.

For the Album, my friend Rob Frayne helped and supported me immensely, early on, at the conception stage.

OJS: Why the title Once? Does that mean you're not planning a sequel to this album, or is it about a milestone?

Christine Fagan: "Once" is the title track of the album, but yes, I have thought of it as having that double meaning. Recording a CD is something I wanted to do once in my lifetime - I wasn't in a great rush; It was more important that it be what I wanted it to be.

OJS: Is there a musical or a lyrical theme to the album?

Christine Fagan: There isn't really a theme, but more of an approach - that of writing lyrics to pre-existing music that I love. The song ideas are kind of all over the place - my visual arts practice has always been that way too. Hopefully the style of Rob Frayne's arrangements, and the singing and playing hold it all together - I think they do.

OJS: What gave you the idea of adding lyrics to existing jazz music? Were you influenced by jazz singers like Jon Hendricks (e.g. "In Walked Bud")?

Christine Fagan: Definitely. Annie Ross's "Twisted" (although I must admit I initially thought it was a Joni composition) was one of my favorites. I still perform it. But even recordings as recent as Cassandra Wilson's lyrics for Seven Steps, to Miles music, follows this method.

OJS: How long have you been writing material for this album? Did you start with finding music you liked in all cases? Was there any back-and-forth with local composers like Rob Frayne in preparing the material?

Christine Fagan: The first time I wrote a lyric was years ago at jazz camp - the combo I was in was to perform one vocal number, and one instrumental. Not wanting to be left out, and because I fell in love with the instrumental, I locked myself in my cabin, and wrote lyrics to Sam Rivers' "Beatrice" - it's on the album.

OJS: Which composers did you feel you needed the most hubris to compose lyrics for? Bruce Cockburn? Bach? Or musicians you know?

Christine Fagan: I think the musicians I know - they're the ones I can expect feedback from; so far it has been positive.

OJS: It's been more than a year since you recorded and mastered the CD. What barriers did you face in getting it out? How are you distributing it?

Christine Fagan: The main barriers are my inexperience, and the fact that I have a day job. I haven't worked out the distribution side of it yet, but I have friends helping me with that.

OJS: What can the audience expect to hear at this concert? Will the concert be similar to the album? Same musicians? Same material? Or will you be adding extra twists live?

Christine Fagan: The concert will mostly feature tunes from the album. Jamie Gullikson who is the drummer on the album is presently out of the country, but luckily Ottawa's Scott Warren will be stepping in. We will add a few seasonal songs, with a twist, for which I have invited local singers Saffron Bradbury and Peggy White to join us.

March 21, 2016: Corrected the spelling of Jamie Gullikson's name.