Interview: Stephen Fearing

Stephen Fearing was born in 1963 in Vancouver, British Columbia and grew up in Dublin, Ireland. In 1981, he moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota and immersed himself in the music scene, learning the fundamentals of song writing and performing, while washing dishes to stay alive. Fast forward 30 years and he has released 10 albums as a solo artist and acclaimed songwriter. Add to the mix his “side hustle” as a co-founding member of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings with Colin Linden and Tom Wilson, and he enjoys even more success. In 1996, the Rodeo Kings came together to record what was suppose to be a one- off tribute album to the great Canadian songwriter Willie P. Bennett. While, all three members were deeply committed to burgeoning solo careers, that they had no intentions of putting on hold, they had no plans to turn Blackie into an ongoing concern. Now twenty years later, 8 albums , one Juno award and several Juno nominations under their belts, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings have organically evolved into one of the finest roots-oriented bands in North America and remains one of Canada’s greatest musical treasures. Post Covid, the Rodeo Kings are back out on tour, luring audiences back to theatres. I caught up with Stephen to chat about the challenges what comes next….

Mb: Hello Stephen
Stephen: Hey, let me put my jacket on and go outside so I’m not loud.
Mb: How’s the weather?
Stephen: It’s cold. We just drove from Huntsville last night down to Guelph and there’s a lot of snow on the ground. It’s been a bit of an epic tour… stuck in ice, had to be towed out of a truck stop in Calgary… you know. Winter, in Canada.
Mb: And not even winter yet.
Stephen: It feels like it’s pretty full on.
Mb: So, this tour is marking 25 years.
Stephen: Well you know, never let the facts get in the way of a good story. When we were going to celebrate 25 years in 2020, it wasn’t actually quite 25 years, but now it’s 26 and a half! (laughs)
Mb: 26 1/2…. It just doesn’t have the same cache!
Stephen: I know. I was trying to convince everybody that we should get t-shirts that said “26 1/2 Anniversary” but nobody thought it was funny, but me.
Mb: So after 25 years, you guys still friends?
Stephen: Oh god ya! (laughs) I mean, there’s tens of dollars to be made in this business, that’s the joke right? So… if we didn’t like each other, this would have ended a long time ago, because it’s too hard. Now Colin lives in Nashville, I live in Victoria… we’re really scattered. But ya, it’s still alive, this weird band. It’s the weirdest thing. Even after two and a half years of not seeing each other. We get together to play music. That’s what our friendship and everything is based around. It’s a very simple sentence, but within that is a whole world. But if there’s no music, you know we don’t see each other. We tried one Zoom session half-way through Covid and something went wrong technically, and that was it. It was like “OK, I’ll talk you in about two years when we can get this together again.” But as soon as we walk in the room it’s like “Boom! There it is!” It’s the strangest thing.
MB: What do you find to talk about after 25 years?
Stephen: Some of the same old stuff. You know, there’s “in-jokes” and stories that have been going around for 25 years. I still want to hear Tom Wilson tell “that” story about “the time” when “that” happened. It’s “that” stuff. It’s a family. It’s very much that kind of a vibe, but what’s really exciting musically is, we’re all learning. We’re all growing still. I mean, Tom’s gone through this amazing journey of discovery in the last several years finding out he’s a Mohawk, that whole story. It’s this ongoing thread for him and realizing that he’s a Mohawk. So that puts a whole different spin on our band. Colin continues to grow as a producer and guitar player and hopefully me too. There’s this sense that everybody’s busy doing their thing musically and when we come together the ingredients have changed. Everybody has grown a little bit, playing a little different. So we challenge each other, we push each other. It’s very much a work in progress, this band.
Mb: I checked your personal website, stephenfearing.ca to find you have some colour vinyl coming out. Talk about a throw back!
Stephen: No kidding. (laughs) This business… the music business is a strange, strange, world to be in right now. We’re all trying to figure out different ways to survive and create, and all that stuff. But, at the heart of it is, this real pleasure in playing music. With the Rodeo Kings, that just never went away.
Mb: Because, you’ve got two of your best friends in the band, and that goes a long way.
Stephen: Ya, it really does. I can’t really put it into words, other than that.
Mb: How many dates on this tour?
Stephen: We’re in the last leg now. We sort of started with the summer festivals and the last show is December 11 at the N.A.C. [National Arts Centre]. I think there’s another six or seven shows to go between now and then. Then we’ll see what happens next year. I mean, with Covid and what’s happened with the pandemic, and all that stuff, I think, like everybody in the music world, the last six months have been this tremendous sense of pent-up dates and schedules and expectations, and it’s all been jammed into the last six months. Once Christmas comes we’re into the unknown, as far as what’s happening next. But this tour marks, for me, the end of the first season “post-Covid” and it will be very interesting to see what happens next.
Mb: How are you finding attendance? Theatres seem to be struggling to fill houses everywhere.
Stephen: Ya. Uniformly, audiences are about 80%. That’s what I’ve been hearing from most of the places we’re playing. I think everybody’s feeling the pinch financially. I think that, certainly with the Rodeo Kings and my audience, the demographic is being a little more cautious about going out. And, people got used to sitting in their little caves and watching Netflix, you know? It’s our job to drag them back into the venues and say “Hey, you know what? There’s no substitute for live music.” Whatever the new normal is going to be, it’s going to take a couple of years for that to establish itself.
Mb: And of course, dudes our age hope we have a couple of more years to let it work itself out…
Stephen: Ya, I’m too stupid to change now, so I hope that the audience can last long enough. I figure I’ve got… I’m going to do this until they pull me off with a hook! (laughs)
Mb: It’s working so far… Looks like you have two dates here in Peterborough at Market Hall this time. This has always been a strong market for you guys.
Stephen: Yes, very much. It’s where Willie ended up in the last few years of his life, so Peterborough has always had a strong connection for us. And there you go. Some venues it’s difficult to fill them and other places it’s go go go!
Mb: I’m sure you have solid fan base in pockets all over Canada. Where are your favourite places… without any disparaging remarks…
Stephen: (laughs) It really varies. For me, it comes down to… the thing I like playing the most is a mid-sized hall, with these guys. Older venues, I like.. having said that we’re going to play the N.A.C. and that’s always extremely exciting. We played Massey Hall about a month ago…
Mb: That’s killer! Tell me about that.
Stephen: Ah, it was amazing! I hadn’t… I played there with the Rodeo Kings when Bruce Cockburn was being inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and that was right when they went dark. I think that was the last show at Massey Hall before they went dark, and that was way before the pandemic. And so I hadn’t been back since. So, it was very exciting to be there to see the work they’ve done and the fact they’ve kept it alive. It looks like it’s good to go for another 100 years!
Mb: So what else are you working on?
Stephen: I’m working on a live record that I’m going to put out sometime in April and then see what happens with the Rodeo Kings. I mean, we have two records that were released during Covid. One at the beginning of 2020 and the new one “O Glory” that came out a few months ago so… both my solo life and with the Rodeo Kings, there’s a sense of a lot of unfinished business. That’s what everybody is experiencing, so it doesn’t make me unique. I’m going to be trying to figure out how to keep moving with that music and body of work and at the same time how to build up a head of steam to create some new stuff, because, you know, the business is always about “What have you done lately?” Not, “What did you do in 2019!” (laughs) Which is two years ago! We’re all still in this place of “But two years ago…” It’s the strangest feeling to time travel because in the intervening two years I didn’t write anything. I didn’t create anything. The very last thing I wanted to do was create new music because it just felt like this great big dead end. Now it’s back. I mean, honestly, not to be too dramatic, but I wasn’t even sure it was coming back at all! Some dark days there. Now it’s a matter of picking up and trying to figure out how we move forward from this. It’s a very difficult time. Spotify and streaming has come along strongly during the pandemic because “contactless music” etc., but that doesn’t pay anything for the likes of me. There’s no money in that for artists and creators and so we’re all trying to figure out what the next move is. How do we make a living at this? Because if venues are at 80% of what they were 3 years ago and there’s no money at all in selling music then exactly how do we make a living? That is the big question. I don’t know how to update my website because I don’t know what to put on it!
Mb: A big button that says “Donate Now!”
Stephen: Or, just “Come to the shows!” What we all need is direct contact. We need to reconnect with people and I believe that people need to reconnect with us too. Us, as in, music and musicians. Live music brings something to the table that can not be replicated and I don’t think you’ll quite realize how much you missed it until you experience it again.

Blackie & The Rodeo Kings perform at Market Hall Performing Arts Centre in Peterborough Ontario, December 7 & 8, 2022 8pm. Click here for ticket and info