Frazey Ford review – an emotional, imperfect, lyrical balm

The cult Canadian country singer cooks up an exquisite livestreamed set with honeyed funk, buttery vocals and plenty of soul

‘I’m calling these times ‘Amish dystopian’,” the Canadian singer-songwriter Frazey Ford announces from behind her keyboard, on which a cup of water, and a glass of mescal, are balanced. The cult country-soul singer explains that lately she has been answering the question “How are you?” with “Yeah, I’m Amish dystopian”. It reflects how everyone has been “baking, whittling and hewing” their way through the fear.

Opposite Ford and her band, Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom is empty, save for an unseen smattering of friends, family and crew whose bonsai cheers erupt after every song at this livestreamed gig. Wearing a sparkly pink top and a fascinator, Ford assures her online audience she feels our presence “psychically”.

This perceptive singer also reveals what the recently bereaved should reply, when asked how they are doing: “Fuck you.” Ford, whose exquisite third solo album, U Kin B the Sun, came out in spring, was in mourning last year. She lost her brother Kevin to alcohol abuse – self-medication for the trauma of their chaotic upbringing. Ford and her three siblings were the children of draft-dodging US political activists, hiding from the FBI in various Canadian locales.

Firecracker is the song Ford wrote about Kevin on her debut solo outing, 2010’s Obadiah. Tonight it reverberates with uncanny foresight. “And I left the sober people with their cold hearts,” Ford sings, her excellent band eking out a slow, restrained lollop, her two backing vocalists supplying just-so heft. For the final two tracks of the night, the band are joined by members of the local Kingsgate Chorus.

Released over the last decade, Ford’s three opalescent solo albums are suffused with the emotions of her backstory, of which her fugitive family’s instability is just one aspect. In one interview earlier this year, she revealed that making music saved her life after a nervous breakdown, that the man she thought was her father was a violent alcoholic, and that the man she later learned was her biological father recently succumbed to cancer.

She told another interviewer that she had suffered abuse in her youth. The song Purple and Brown on U Kin B the Sun takes Ford’s mother to task for not protecting her – tenderly. Ford’s solo albums tend to be gauzy things that coat all this weight with soul balm, but she occasionally lets loose fiercer tracks such as Done – one of tonight’s highlights – that lob vitriol at others who have tried to steal Ford’s joy.

Listen to Azad by Frazey Ford.

Holdin’ It Down, off Ford’s latest album, spells out this artist’s hard-won self-preservation. “I have been holding it down long as I can remember,” she puffs, “you know the only thing I have depended upon has been me.” Everything down below is prismatic too: honeyed funk, Ford’s pointillist piano-playing, the assured pacing by her gifted jazzy-blues-soul bassist Darren Parris. What began as a slightly nervous gig, with Ford fluffing one intro, goes somewhere else entirely as a state of grace takes hold and Ford intently vows to seek out “The divine! The divine! The divine!”

Despite Ford’s slew of multi-starred reviews, this bone-deep artist has remained something of a niche concern. Passers-by might struggle to glean the depths of her charge – at least at first. She sings everything in a buttery smear of a voice, which can render her words abstract. But that is no barrier to loving Ford’s work: her voice can just be an instrument. Those slurred vowels are things of impressionistic beauty, connecting with a venerable soul tradition in which emotion transcends words.

Ford may have begun her career in the 00s with the rootsy trio the Be Good Tanyas, but her obsession with vintage soul coalesced magnificently on her second solo outing, 2014’s Indian Ocean, recorded with Al Green’s Hi Records band in Memphis, Tennessee. Ford joined a small coterie of indie country-soul artists – including Cat Power, who recruited Memphis players for her 2006 album The Greatest, Matthew E White’s studio-cum-label Spacebomb, the country-soul troubadour Hiss Golden Messenger – keeping this mellifluous sub-genre ticking over.

Frazey Ford performs with her band to an empty Commodore Ballroom.
‘There is no barrier to loving her work’: Frazey Ford performs with her band to an empty Commodore Ballroom. Photograph: Laura Krutz

But Ford’s work does stand out – not just because of her daubed vocals, but because she so clearly makes the link between beauty and healing. Tonight is all about hope and humour, too. Ford is, apparently, still waiting for the troubled soul singer D’Angelo to be her boyfriend. She covers his love song When We Get By, and makes it her own. The Kids Are Having None of It places its trust in a radicalised youth.

Just as moving is the song Ford says she wrote for her other brother, who had requested that it be upbeat, in the vein of Stevie Wonder. She also needed to work in a dragonfly. Ford ended up titling the song Azad, after their sister, and it opens U Kin B The Sun with dappled vitamin D. There’s “a situation” in the kitchen at midnight, one of “violent colour”.

But this loveliest of songs is there to urge her siblings, whatever the circumstances, to “call her name out loud”. As an exquisite key change kicks everything skywards, she urges them to grab at beauty with both hands.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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