Canadian duo Fortunate Ones return to their acoustic roots and look inward for lyrical inspiration.
St. John’s is the most easterly city on the continent of North America; the capital of Newfoundland faces out towards the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean from its position on the Avalon Peninsula, protected to the southwest by the fir and spruce forests of the wilderness reserves. The city is closer, as the crow flies, to Ireland than it is to Miami, and it is those ancient links with Europe and the musical traditions the early settlers brought with them that have commonly informed the music made there.
From the essence of folk music naturally grows not only instrumental skill but also the custom of storytelling. “Everyone and their dog here is a storyteller, a musician, or an artist”, Andrew explains, “it’s like, I’m the fourth-best guitar player on my street, it’s just I’m the one that decided to tour. St. John’s is a very special place for art and culture, and because people made this place a home in spite of better judgement or geographical sustainability over the centuries we feel deeply and innately compelled to tell our story. There’s a very deep pride here.’
Fortunate Ones are just about to release their third album ‘That Was You and Me’, a disarmingly honest set of songs that addresses the fragile human condition in vivid, relatable detail. Americana UK’s Paul Gibson spoke to Catherine Allan, at home in St. John’s, and Andrew James O’Brien in Halifax, having just run a half marathon, on Zoom to talk about early days on tour, recording the album through the looming presence of the pandemic, and the human need for connection.
Andrew, you’ve spent quite a bit of time in the UK.
Andrew: Yes, I toured twice as a solo artist, and a third time with Catherine. I actually did a semester of study in Harlow, which was my first taste of the country and I fell in love with London. The first time I toured there was in 2011, and then I went back again and opened for Sharon Shannon, which was a great thrill and we played some great rooms. In 2013 I came over and opened for Paul Brady, who is an absolute living legend where we come from. He’s one of my favourite artists so I was blown away. Catherine and I had begun playing together by that point so the deal was that she came and joined the tour.
Catherine: That tour was career-defining I feel, I was just dipping my toe into doing music professionally and I didn’t really know what a career in music looked like, so doing that tour and playing in those theatres was an important time.
What music did you both grow up listening to? What influenced you as you started making music?
Catherine: My dad was really into bands like Chicago, ELO, I didn’t start listening to singer-songwriters until much later. I have four siblings and they all had different influences. As much as I was listening to what my parents listened to my brothers were into metal so there was a lot going on in my house. I had piano lessons and joined a concert band, and then I joined a covers band with my brother, which is how Andrew and I met. Before that, I’d only ever sung in my bedroom but when we met the spark was there musically.
Andrew: When I was a kid my mother and my aunt would take my brother and I on road trips, and we had one cassette tape which was basically a mixtape of my aunt and my mum’s favourites. So even before I was listening to music with a critical ear as a creator, I was listening purely as a five-year fan in the back of a 1988 Volkswagen Jetta. The cassette had Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, The Band, The Eagles, and Cat Stevens and I remember being almost hypnotised by the melodies and the music. In High School, I was big into The Doors, Hendrix and I remember being blown away by Radiohead. There’s nothing more profound than hearing something for the first time and having it immediately blow you away. As a songwriter, narrative is king so it made sense that I’d be drawn back to Cat Stevens and Jackson Browne.
As a songwriter what did you take from them?
Andrew: I was drawn to the simple and beautiful melodies. It was the heart-on-sleeve, autobiographical songs, particularly Jackson Browne’s because he really highlights the beauty of mundanity and the complexity of what it is to be a human. He’s a master.
When did you both meet?
Catherine: My band was playing at a festival on the back of a flatbed truck in my hometown, and there were not many people there because it was raining.
Andrew: This was August 2009 and then around November that year I was rehearsing for a show with Catherine’s brother in my apartment in St. John’s. During a break in the rehearsal, Catherine started singing and I was reminded in the moment how great she was as a singer. I was going to be playing at The Ship pub in St. John’s and I said to her that if she could learn a set of songs she wouldn’t have to pay cover! She learned the songs, and although we never officially became a duo, inertia kind of took over and that was it.
So you met, you started playing together, and in 2014 you recorded your first album ‘The Bliss’.
Andrew: Yes, it came out almost a year later in February 2015. With the first record, we were keen to establish ourselves sonically as a duo, we knew that when we went on the road it would just be the two of us so we wanted to keep it sparse, and we toured the record for almost three years. When we came to record the second album, 2018’s ‘Hold Fast’, we had a bit more musical confidence so we wanted to make a record that was more lush, more sonically realised, and to push our boundaries.
Catherine: We wanted to follow every notion we had in the studio, and we consciously wanted to contrast the first record to show that we’d grown, that our tastes had changed, so it’s interesting with this new record that in a way we’re going back to basics.
What is particularly striking about the new album is how intimate and personal the lyrical themes are.
Andrew: We had done a lot of co-writing on ‘Hold Fast’, and I think that we’re just burned out after such relentless touring and the creative juices just weren’t flowing so we leant on some people we knew and respected to help. I find it tougher to get behind songs that I’m not a hundred percent invested in, so with this record, I was clear that I didn’t want to write any songs ever again that were not absolutely from inside me. That’s not the type of writer I am; I can’t write about fictitious people living fictitious scenarios; it’s just not compelling to me. And that’s what some of the songs are; four-minute lifetimes, a chronological experience between two people. I only want to write like that, I want to be able to sing these songs when I’m seventy.
Catherine: You can’t really avoid talking about the pandemic at this point, so I think it feels timely to be releasing this record now. The last couple of years have been a time of reckoning, especially for artists, taking stock and getting deep down into what’s important.
With the pandemic in mind, did you record the album remotely?
Catherine: We started the pre-production online. We had been housesitting in a really remote little town called English Harbour, where we found a lot of peace, and then when restrictions allowed we went to the studio in Toronto.
Andrew: We were supposed to record in May 2020, and it was October before we got to Toronto. Cases of COVID there at the time were at their all-time worst and we were really nervous going there. We recorded for eleven days and stayed in an Airbnb very close to the studio. It was pretty bizarre, but I look back now and I’m so glad that we had that anchor, something so positive to focus on.
The album title ‘That Was You and Me’ suggests that you’re looking back on something, perhaps from the vantage point of the future. What’s the context behind that?
Andrew: The title track is the final song on the album, the idea is a chronology of the seasons of an entire year. The thing that remained constant through each of those seasons, through the ups and downs, is us. We were the only constant thing during the tumultuous times, and the settled times. That was you and me, we had each other the whole time.
The album is released soon, and then are there plans to tour?
Andrew: Yes there are, and we must come back to the UK. People will always need to hear and be told things face to face, that need will never go away, we’re too social. There’s a Canadian artist called Hawksley Workman, and his great line that we used as a mantra through all of the uncertainty we’ve been through is ‘we will still need a song’. It’s true, there will always be a thirst and a need for a song.
’That Was You and Me’ is released via Sonic Records on 3rd June 2022.