Here’s another in our series of articles dealing with songwriting duos. This time, we’re featuring the acclaimed performers and songwriters Karen Young and Coral Egan, a mother-daughter team whose recently released album Dreamers is being described as a “two-voice exploration” by the team’s senior half.
It was written in the stars. It was only a matter of time. Coral Egan agrees, and Karen Young qualifies the statement: “We sang together on a recording before,” she says. That was before Coral began her solo career, and before the release of her 2004 album My Favorite Distraction, at a time when she was still learning her craft as a backup singer on her mom’s recordings.
Still, a duo recording bringing their voices together and featuring both their names on the same album cover? It had to happen, but why right now? “I often say that my best inspiration is called ‘last minute!’” Coral explains. “I believe that once you’ve said, ‘This is it, the time is now,’ something good comes out of it – because you don’t spend much time thinking. The result is genuine.” Karen adds that before thinking of making a duo recording, the Young clan was toying with the idea of making “a family album with my brother, folk and country singer, and his daughter. What we had in mind was a project for four voices, not just two!”
“But there came a time when it all clicked into place,” Karen recalls. That was in December of 2014 on Télé-Québec’s Belle et Bum TV program, when Karen and Coral were asked to sing Joni Mitchell’s “River”as a tribute to the 14 victims of the École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal 25 years earlier. Coral recalls that they found and rehearsed their vocal harmonies in the car on their way to the studio. “It was all so very natural, easy, and joyful,“ says Karen. “We love singing together!” That was the definitive moment when they both realized that making a recording together was a possible, and even pretty nice, thing.
So the idea of a duo recording caught on, in spite of the anxiety caused an unexpected illness for Coral. The young musician has “fully recovered” from the symptoms of the Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare auto-immune disease of the nervous system that seriously affected Coral’s mobility and reflexes, and forced her to stop working for a while. However, a duo concert last summer at the Festival international de jazz de Montréal re-kindled the duo recording project flame. The time to make it happen had come, and it took place in singer Louis-Jean Cormier’s Studio Dandurand over the holidays.
“I think that writing a song with someone else is something like a sweet dance. You have to find the right pace, the right dynamic.“ – Coral Egan
On the resulting Dreamers album, the two singers mix their strong, clear, nimble and perfectly compatible voices to create a superb sound. The two performers also chose the right material, a blend of covers (of a Catherine Major song, for instance), sacred songs and Brazilian music influences. The stunning performance of harpist Éveline Grégoire-Rousseau – who’s worked with Karen Young (as have Pierre Lapointe, Philippe B, and Ingrid St-Pierre) – provides a unifying element. “It’s a very interesting instrument,” says Coral. “It’s both harmonic and percussive, and the airy tone of the harp goes very well with our voices.”
Could it be said that this “two-voice exploration” is more a reflection of the mother’s musical universe than that of the daughter? “One of the influences you don’t hear on the album,” says Coral, “is soul music. I grew up listening to Stevie Wonder, and my love for his music still greatly influences my creative choices and my singing voice. Of course, Karen loves soul music too, but it’s not part of her musical influences. I think she wouldn’t have felt comfortable if I’d forced her to sound like a soul singer!”
“We did try that kind of duo for a concert. We worked on some sort of a soul medley that didn’t pan out,” Karen laughs. “But I truly love the songs. I ‘ve always wished I were able perform Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man,” for instance, but it’s not my strong suit. I believe that the eclectic choice of the album’s material is more like me, although what we were trying to convey was our whole shared musical life. Everything I gave her and taught her. It’s our personal musical history, in some way.”
The creative achievement here was in the search for balance, if not compromise, between two musical worlds that; they’re different, but linked together in a filial bond. That experience will definitely be continuing, since tour dates have been set, and a second album may be in the offing. Would they be tempted to write original songs together?
“There might be a reason why that’s not happening,” says Coral. “You can’t force it. The reason we haven’t written something together yet is simply that we’re not ready! But this album has taught us things we didn’t know about ourselves. I learned, for instance, that I can be forceful [in the recording studio], while my mother is more subdued, and more willing to trust the moment and the work of the musicians. Me, as soon as I get a flash of insight, I have to get it out right away, and to share it on the spot. I think that writing a song [with someone else] is something like a sweet dance. You have to find the right pace, the right dynamic.”
Just a matter of time, then?