Long before the pandemic, indie-folk duo the Fortunate Ones – led by musical and romantic couple Andrew James O’Brien and Catherine Allan – encountered isolation and uncertainty.
After achieving success with their 2015 debut album The Bliss, released on Rose Cousins’ Old Farm Pony Records, this hard-working pair experienced burnout. Two songs from their 2015 album, title track “The Bliss” and “Lay Me Down,” reached No. 1 on the then CBC Radio 2 Top 20. They won the Canadian Folk Music Award for Vocal Group of the Year in 2015, and were nominated for a JUNO Award for Contemporary Roots Album of the Year in 2016. In 2018 they released Hold Fast, after which they toured extensively, and saw their song “Northern Star” reach No. 4 on the CBC Top 20. They were exhausted, but appreciative.
In 2019, their lives changed suddenly, when an injury revealed a tumour in O’Brien’s hand. Surgery, and the subsequent slow recovery, left him unable to play guitar – forcing the duo from St. John’s, NL, to slow down even more. When O’Brien started working at the Inn by Mallard Cottage, he enjoyed the distraction of changing beds and booking reservations. “I was just working on the reception desk, and I honestly was relieved and happy to be doing anything other than music at that point,” he says.
Allan, worried for O’Brien, and their lives on and off the road, took some time to reflect. She wrote “Clarity” as a means of figuring out what to do. “I started writing that song out of desperation, just seeking something but not knowing what it was,” she says. What the couple was seeking, and finally found, was acceptance of their place in the world.
Their surroundings helped. They spent a pandemic summer residing in a beautiful saltbox house by the sea in the community of English Harbour. Allen describes the isolation as “purposeful” rather than “just being marooned by yourself,” while O’Brien found the experience humbling, and a good reminder that “we are not the be-all and end-all of everything.”
This deep introspection led to the songs on their new album, That Was You and Me, that express love and loss, and lyrics that are rich with metaphors inspired by the natural beauty of Newfoundland. For instance, in “Anchor,” love is compared to an ever-changing river, and time to an endless sea. The song also conveys the uncertainty of relationships and the importance of supporting one another, hence one lover is the anchor to the other’s line. Another standout, “Heavy Heart,” confesses to fear that the heaviness your partner is feeling might pull them away from you. As is evident everywhere on the album, love, trust, and letting go are the only ways through the inevitable hard times.
The pandemic complicated their recording timeline with Toronto-based producer Joshua Van Tassel (Amelia Curran, Sarah Slean), who devised a backup plan to produce the album with the Fortunate Ones recording – not just demos, but actual finished songs – from their home in the Maritimes. Luckily, they were able to record the album in person, making for some magical moments. Their single-take recording of “It’s Worth It (For Leo)” brought tears to Van Tassel’s eyes, since he’s currently a father of young children. And it’s no wonder why: O’Brien wrote the song to let his own ailing dad know he did a good job raising him.
That Was You and Me is stacked with deeply personal yet universal songs about family, love, and finding one’s place. Their harmonies warmly wrap around each other in a way usually achieved only by siblings, or by those with an undeniable connection (like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings). Paradoxically, the bittersweet lyrics both pierce and soothe, forcing the listener to feel their feelings, yet letting them know everything’s going to be okay. The result is music that’s both grounding and uplifting.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the chorus of “Day to Day”:
I’m learning to find my way
Own the mistakes I’ve made
Hoping to finally say
I’ve found some meaning in the day to day
The Fortunate Ones faced isolation and uncertainty by connecting to themselves, to each other, and to their love for music. As a result, That Was You and Me is a balm for anyone navigating difficulty – which is all of us, especially in this (post-)pandemic world.