“There was so much change in the air—all the things that people get really excited about in the ’60s. My parents were on the run from the Vietnam War and had escaped into communes in Canada where my sister and I were born. It was a crazy, adventurous time for everybody.”Frazey Ford describes that era as “a time that had no definition,” yet its effect on her family defined so much of who she became, both as an artist and a person. Whether it was her family’s emigration to Canada in the ’70s (where Frazey was born) or exploring Asia with her mother and sister in the ’80s, Ford is a soul well traveled. Best known throughout the last 10 years as a member of the critically acclaimed Vancouver trio The Be Good Tanyas, Ford is now ready to tell her own story with a solo album she describes as being “moved by motherhood, earth and land.” Obadiah is a collection of songs hand-carved by the hardships and exaltations of life, and stained with the rich colors of soul and folk music that fueled artists like Joni Mitchell, Ann Peebles, Neil Young, and Donny Hathaway. After a period of stillness, it’s the sound of Ford finding herself once again.
“I began to write just for the joy of it,” says Ford, reflecting on the past few years. “I realized that I was just me, and for the first time I understood that was enough. A lot of this album is coming out of healing that I’ve done. The knowledge that in all grief there is joy, and in all joy there is grief.”
Recorded during a blissful Vancouver summer at the studio of co-producer and multi-instrumentalist John Raham, Obadiah came to life with the help of an intimate assembly of guests. Trish Klein of The Be Good Tanyas lay down yards of velvety smooth electric guitar, while next-door neighbor Caroline Ballhorn, contributed vocals to “Gospel Song” and “Hey Little Mama.” Ford’s landlord even dropped in to play keyboards, as Cuban style chords go back and forth with warm Wurlitzer licks on the playful “Like You Better.” By putting her faith in an assortment of capable companions, Ford let the songs unfold naturally, embracing the little experiments and happy accidents that give the album so much character.
“Not being in a band allowed me to feel less worried about things working out in a certain way,” she admits. “I felt a lot of trust with the direction people were going in, and they added a lot of their own feel.”
In that way, Obadiah plays out like a fireside conversation with an old friend; rich with stories about love, loss and life that unravel at their own colorful pace. The gospel influence of Al Green and the soulful testifying of Otis Redding bleed through on the opening “If You’re Gonna Go,” while Ford’s vocals are delicately stacked like teacups over handclaps and kalimbas on the joyous “Bird Of Paradise.” On “Lay Down With You,” the reverb tails of Klein’s guitar hang in the air like fireflies while Ford asks her lover to “take me out to the slowpoke, buy me a rum and a Coke and help me forget myself.” Sweet and smoky like blackstrap molasses, “Blue Streak Mama” pours out slow with a mix of new soul and blues. If you listen closely, you can hear Ford call out the shifts between verse and chorus. It’s a subtlety that speaks volumes about the breezy, uncomplicated way in which Obadiah came together. No laborious pre-production and no spit-shined overdubs. Just good friends, good instruments, and reels of two-inch tape on which to capture it all.
“That’s the only way I know how to record,” says Ford of the sessions. “To me it’s easier. You have fewer decisions to make if you know you just have to get it right in that moment. I like that pressure and that immediacy.”
A true storyteller with a voice that defies comparison, Ford’s greatest talent is her ability to inhabit completely the mind of her song’s protagonists. On “Firecracker,” she’s a hard-drinking, deal making son-of-a-gun that talks to angels with a wry smile. On “Gospel Song,” she looks back on her family life through the eyes of country preacher. It’s a gift she attributes to her journey through motherhood.
“As soon as you’re caring for another human being, you’re outside of yourself,” says Ford. “You think about things in the long term. You perceive yourself as a foundation for someone else’s existence. That experience affected my songwriting to the point where it just felt like I had removed myself from being myself. I suddenly felt this ability to zoom out and feel people’s lives and then sing that story. I hadn’t done that before.”
Perhaps the most stunning and heartfelt example of this can be found on “Lost Together,” a song that speaks to the heart of the baby boom generation. Its cathartic poetry is written from the perspective of a mother looking back on her life, and features Ford’s mother’s harmonies right alongside her own: “Oh were we lost together, you know we were side by side losing everything. We were just a pair of kids. Oh, the stupid things we did. In the madness they were callin’ the revolution.”
Though in many ways Ford’s journey is just beginning, Obadiah is a lasting testament to a life fully lived, whether it be her own or that of a character from her songbook.
“What are the words I want to give people?” asks Ford. “What are the messages I want to leave about the story of my life? About recovery and healing?”
She pauses for a moment, as if to reflect on each of the 13 songs, then continues with a smile.
“I feel good about the messages that came through.”
Frazey Ford, who plays on the Canadian Lilith Fair shows, performs at the Iron Horse on Thursday, July 29th at 7PM. The Sweet Remains open. Tickets here.