When it comes to music, Christine Fellows could almost be two people. “There is the anti-social songwriting me that lives in Winnipeg,” she says with a laugh, describing the more solitary practice that has allowed her to release four solo albums since “quitting her day job” a decade ago in order to pursue music full time. Then there’s Christine Fellows the performer and fervently engaged-in-the-world artistic collaborator, with more than a few creative projects on the go at any one time. “It’s a way of giving you more opportunities to expand your work,” she says, describing mixed-media endeavours that span dance, theatre, film and art, and fearlessly mash-up musical forms. “I guess, for me, it’s a way of not just working inside your own world.”
Not that Fellows seems at risk of navel-gazing. Instead, her most recent albums have been fed by in-depth research on a specific topic, allowing her to learn while she writes. Her whimsical 2007 release Nevertheless, for example, is anchored in the life and work of American modernist poet and “legendary spinster” Marianne Moore, but also includes a cast of unlikely characters, from artist Joseph Cornell to the Greek goddess Athena. “I like having something to spring off,” explains Fellows, her voice curling into an audible smile. “I get really inspired by that.”
A six-month residency and commission at Winnipeg’s Saint-Boniface Museum in 2009 became the inspiration for her current project. Due for release in March 2011, Femmes de chez nous will be a studio album and performance DVD inspired by the Grey Nuns who once inhabited the museum’s building. The commission resulted in a series of public, on-site performances in a tiny chapel, which were accompanied by overhead projections by visual artist Shary Boyle, with whom Fellows collaborates regularly. “The nuns came to see it,” she says. “It was totally moving — the direct contact between the work and the people the work is about. That’s always amazing.”
Fellows, who does most of her writing at the keyboard, also recently took part in the National Parks Project, an initiative that sent groups of musicians and filmmakers camping while they collaborated on films and soundtracks reflecting their experiences of the Canadian landscape. Fellows, who describes the experience as “life-changing,” worked with musicians Sandro Perri, Fellows’ husband, John K. Samson (of The Weakerthans) and filmmaker Daniel Cockburn at Bruce Peninsula National Park.
Indeed, though she enjoys her solitary writing work, Fellows admits she is less and less drawn to performing on her own. “It’s not fun for me,” she admits with a laugh. “The fun part is sharing the experience with other humans!” Fellows is also intent on continuing to collaborate, and is open to whatever comes next. “Every time you open yourself up to experimentation, you aren’t going to be disappointed. Even if it’s a total failure, you will have had a really transformative experience. And that’s what I’m looking for.”
- Fellows has been touring with the Correction Line Ensemble, a chamber group that blends classical and modern music, sharing the stage with John K. Samson and four classically trained musicians. Fellows says, “It’s like trying to find a common language.”
- She has created numerous live scores for performances by dancers Susie Burpee and Brent Lott, and served as composer in residence with Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers.
- She has toured across the country with the Pan-Canadian New Folk Ensemble, which includes songwriters Old Man Luedecke and Kim Barlow, along with musicians Alex McMaster, Jordy Walker and Alison Corbett.