Politics and popular music have always been diametrically opposed. Yet there have always been proponents of the latter attempting to blur the two (and vice versa if you take into account John Kerry's early 1960's surf outfit The Electras).
So leave it to a couple of Torontonians living in New York City to follow the lead of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Billy Bragg, and capture the election year in song. While not as overtly political as the above, Chris Brown and Kate Fenner have nonetheless injected a degree of peace, love and understanding into the 2004 US presidential race with their limited edition EP Go On. Featuring five full-band arrangements that speak to the conscious as well as the eardrum, it's a small gesture in the context of a greater intent.
"The spirit of our songs is always based in compassion rather than politics," says Fenner prior to the duo's recent appearance at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto. "We sing about what's happening in society, which is the root of a democratic ideal. It's based less on a righteous indignation and more on compassion, kindness and eventually, hope."
Brown adds, "To me, the genre of 'protest music' has always been kind of mystifyingóI don't see it as being so ghettoized. I think a lot of it comes from the fact that the press are afraid of artists who take on social matters. It's OK to be militant if you're marketed as a gangster rapper or an aggro-rock artist but not otherwise. I heard Steve Earle recently on National Public Radio in New York and he said, 'What is this thing about musicians being entitled to political views? I thought that was our JOB!' I totally agree. Whether musicians are speaking directly to issues or simply pouring their hearts out in a way that's sincere, the effect is the same. It's a vote for humanity either way."
While Brown and Fenner have lived in New York City since the mid-1990's, they are best known in the GTA as founding members of the much-loved Bourbon Tabernacle Choir. Over their 10 year existence, the Bourbons' blend of saccharine soul and bottom-fed rock and roll won over audiences across Canada. Since paring down to a duo and moving stateside, Brown and Fenner have released half a dozen CDs of decidedly more introspective andódon't hate me for saying thisómature music. It's only natural then that issues internalized should play a larger role in their writing process.
"With any song, you write it because it's unavoidable," says Brown "There's a feeling and there's a reaction to that feeling. We're musicians so the inclination is always to apply what we do. We try to be strategic about it but of course, we also tend not to be too strategic about our business efforts. Our whole career has been pretty scatteredóan album on Sony, two albums came out in JapanÖ the focus has always been on the production, not the commerce. And continues to be so."
The focal point of Go On is a track called "Resist War". Written in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorists attacks, the song became an anthem of understatement for peace advocates worldwide after Brown and Fenner posted the song online. Within months, "Go On" had been downloaded over 15,000 times, began appearing on various compilations in North America and beyond, and ultimately became the most well-known song the duo ever recorded. Not bad for a piece of subtle reactivity!
"It was written during one of those heightened moments of dread," says Fenner. "Certainly for anyone who was even remotely paying attention, there was so much opposition to the US involvement in Iraq. And the opposition wasn't just from the people; it was coming from members of congress and members of the senate and so on. The schtick that Bush was putting out there was so elaborate that it was literally like watching something fall apart. Chris and I started thinking a lot about this stuff, and he eventually wrote 'Resist War' in response. We tag-teamed a bit on the lyrics and figured that we'd include the song on our next record. But then a friend of our was insistent that people needed to hear it nowóand they did. We put it online and it quickly had a few thousand hits plus we started to get a lot of mail from supporters."
"Besides all the people that downloaded it, the song ended up on all these compilations so thousands and thousands of copies of that song ended up around the world," says Brown. "The reach of 'Resist War' has just been amazing. We were playing this gig in Salmon Arm, BC last year and these kids from Australia came up to me afterwards and said, 'We didn't know that was your song'óit had ended up on this peace compilation out of Australia. It's a definite indication of the positive impact that the internet and technology can have. It's really wonderful that a song can have a life like that, completely unmitigated by commerce."
Brown and Fenner recently appeared at the Leading Through Change conference in London, Ontario. Led by Canadian journalist Avi Lewis in conjunction with the release of his documentary The Take, the conference focused on the impact of globalization and other economics issues on rural communities.
"For us, there was an interesting parallel in terms of by-passing institutions that are dysfunctional, like record companies," says Brown. "All these farmers and other rural dwellers were basically asking how to approach government because their schools don't get the attention that the urban schools get, etc. A lot of their problems are based on the centralization of finance and the destruction of transportation and public goods like water and electricity. It was definitely an interesting thing to be part of, and we felt pretty honoured to have been asked to perform."
If you take one thing away from this article, have it be thisóChris Brown and Kate Fenner are NOT protest singers. They speak from the heart rather than from the lectern, using Fenner's viscous vocals and Brown's arrangements as their weapons of choice. Brown says the goals of the duo are deceptively simple, in spite of the context in which their music has been framed.
"We aspire to do something honest in the face of all the wretchedness in the world and to not toe the line and to not be glib and to not be ironicóthat's our goal."
For more information about Chris Brown and Kate Fenner, please visit their official web site at www.chrisandkate.com
Writer: Cameron Gordon