April 2006 - It has been 20 years since songsmith Stephen Fearing released his self-titled debut. Over the following two decades, he has built up a very loyal and committed international audience, one sure to be delighted by his beautiful new recording.
Yellowjacket is Fearing's eighth solo album and as always it features a potent combination of powerful and affecting lyrics, pure vocals and masterful musicianship. Yellowjacket also marks something of a breakthrough in Stephen's approach to recording as he assumes the mantle of producer for the first time since his early albums. The result is a relaxed fluency vocal and guitar work and a unique sonic palette, which make this album distinctly different, again, from his previous releases.
Over the course of his career, Fearing has been able to learn from some of roots music's finest producers. English folk star Clive Gregson (Any Trouble, Gregson and Collister) produced his acclaimed 1989 album, Blue Line; Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) was on hand for 1994's The Assassin's Apprentice (a disc featuring fans Sarah McLachlan and Richard Thompson), whilst Stephen's close friend Colin Linden manned the console for 1997's Industrial Lullaby, 2000's So Many Miles - LIVE and 2002's That's How I Walk (which Fearing co-produced).
To record Yellowjacket, Stephen set up shop in the Guelph studio of noted musician/producer, Scott Merritt (Fred Eaglesmith), who engineered and mixed the sessions. Together, they have crafted a richly diverse collection of songs. These range from a rollicking guitar “march” that could have been written by John Phillip Sousa and Dr. Seuss (“Whoville”), to intricately arranged pieces featuring strings and female backing vocals (“Yellowjacket,” “Like Every Other Morning”), poignant ballads suffused with Salvation Army-style horns (“Johnny's Lament”, Love Only Knows) to full band workouts reminiscent of Blackie and The Rodeo Kings (“One Flat Tire”)
This diversity also reflects changes in Fearing's perspective on songwriting, and his ongoing experimentation with co-writing. “Writing songs with another person allows you to be a little more objective, a little less critical and a lot more productive and surprisingly, I've found that it really informs the material I write on my own”. “Collaborating opens up a whole other vista, it's like taking a walk outside of my own stuffy little brain”
Fearing's songwriting partner on four of the songs in this collection, is Josh Finlayson, from much-loved roots-rockers The Skydiggers. After one brief phone call they met at Fearing's home and immediately tapped into a rich creative connection, trading lyrics and melodies in an instantly productive “crazy rush of ideas”. This rapport is vividly illustrated on “Love Only Knows,” a tender portrait of a parent coming to terms with a child's burgeoning maturity - “Love only knows what happens now, Yesterday turns under the plough, Only a fool would not allow You to stand on your own.”
Yellowjacket's title song is a co-write with Stephen's close creative comrade, Tom Wilson. Spawned during a long drive in the rain from Nashville back to Ontario, a trek fuelled by 'yellow jacket' caffeine pills, it depicts a restless soul out there “following the big beat.” The protagonist is one of those young Jam-band disciples, a Deadhead perhaps, escaping some decaying Midwestern town and running out of youth.
As is customary on Fearing's records, the supporting musical cast is of the highest order. The list includes Dan Whiteley (Heartbreak Hill), Jeff Bird (Cowboy Junkies), backing vocalist Suzie Vinnick, Josh Finlayson, and Stephen's B&RK bandmates, Colin Linden, Gary Craig, John Dymond and Richard Bell.
The consistent quality of work produced over Stephen Fearing's two decades plus career has earned him a West Coast Music Award for Best Folk Music Recording and five Juno Award nominations as a solo artist and a faithful international fan base.