Kate Weekes - Shorter Bio -
Kate Weekes // Taken by Surprise
With the release of her third solo album, Taken by Surprise, singer/songwriter and guitarist Kate Weekes expertly maps the musical spot where landscapes and emotions converge via accessible, jazzy folk/pop inspired by the planets northernmost locales and the people in them. Alongside producer and multi-instrumentalist James Stephens, Weekes has created a dazzling sonic scrapbook of experiences which are buoyed by Weekes’ inimitable performance style and flair for storytelling.
Kate Weekes - Longer Bio -
Kate Weekes // Taken by Surprise
All albums are travelogues of sorts, deep dives into foreign (sometimes familiar) worlds undertaken with little more than a guitar, a notebook, and an unquenchable desire to explore. But few artistic journeys have been as expansive as the one mounted by Kates Weekes as she assembled Taken by Surprise, her dazzling third solo album and first to fearlessly chronicle not just the physical landscape around her but also the emotional one within.
The intrepid singer/songwriter and guitarist — now based in Eastern Ontario after more than a decade spent immersed in the Yukon’s vibrant music scene — drew on an astonishing array of experiences including (but not limited to) dog mushing-for-hire in Norway, touring China with a swing band, canoeing from Whitehorse to Dawson City and, notably, several intense personal relationships to write the by turns mournful and joyous Taken by Surprise.
That unique backstory explains why a one-genre description simply cannot capture the album’s musical scope. It’s more like: eclectic, lyrical, vocally propelled folk/pop with subtle jazz underpinnings buoyed by everything from organ to flugelhorn to trumpet. Yup, that’s a mouthful. But Taken by Surprise has many moods, vibes, and constituent parts.
Recorded with James Stephens throughout 2018 at the producer’s Stove Studios in Chelsea, QC — Stephens also adds mandolin, electric mandolin, fiddle, electric tenor guitar and harmony vocals — the crowdfund-supported Taken by Surprise charts an eventful (tumultuous?) period in Weekes’s life, dating back to 2015 and culminating with her recent relocation to home turf in Ontario.
“Taking your songs to someone can make you feel vulnerable,” Weekes allows, “but James made me feel comfortable and assured. We have a great musical connection. He and I will be playing mostly as a duo this winter.”
As Weekes will tell you, the new album is all about transitions and experiences and how they dovetail. As such, various workshops Weekes has done alongside marquee performers Stephen Fearing, Ian Tamblyn, Roy Forbes and the late Ron Hynes have influenced her writing as much as her globe-trotting adventures, which began the moment she finished high school and were richly charted in her 2007 debut Kate Weekes and on 2014’s acclaimed Frost on Black Fur.
Indeed, you might say Taken by Surprise is the ultimate sonic scrapbook of a bold life lived to the fullest. “Wherever I am traveling comes out in my songs,” Weekes confirms. “My first album was very much that way albeit very Canada-based and Yukon-based as I was heading up north for the first time.
“Similarly, my last album talked about dog mushing and canoeing and some political stuff. In other words, things at arm’s length.” But nevertheless compelling: the song “Sing it to the Hills” from Frost on Black Fur scored the prestigious 2017 Songs from the Heart Award from Folk Music Ontario in the political category.
Weekes continues: “The thing that caught me off-guard with this album was how much it deals with raw emotion and what I was feeling. That wasn’t at all my objective,” she laughs. “But that’s how it turned out. So while the songs are coloured by external experiences, they come from a place of what I was feeling when those things happened.”
Which is not to suggest that Taken by Surprise is a break-up album, exactly, though astute listeners will note that love lost and found figures perceptibly in songs like the self-described “jazz waltz” of “Love Becomes Less” which brilliantly sketches the intimacy of lovers sharing a bed (and breath) with disarming conversational frankness. “No wonder it feels like part of us had died when it’s over,” Weekes notes of the song.
And then there’s the loose-limbed, horn-goosed, vaguely funereal thump of “Imaginary Lovers,” a song that wouldn’t sound out of place on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. “I awoke in Norway from a dream about someone I loved many years ago,” Weekes explains of the song’s origin. “On the fjord were high winds and lashing rain, born perhaps from the undue emotion and urgency of the dream.
“How the songs are written really depends on what’s going on in my life,” Weekes offers. “I definitely do a lot of journaling and writing on a daily basis. [The jangly and acoustic] ‘Colombian Nightmare’ is a song that wrote itself on the day I got to Norway and was inspired by an exchange I’d had with a friend through email. The potency of the emotion we were both feeling resulted in this heightened state where the words just had to come out.
“By contrast, ‘Love Becomes Less’ was the hardest song to write, largely because I was writing for Home Sweet Home at the time,” she says, namechecking the traditional fiddle trio Weekes played in alongside Boyd Benjamin and Keitha Clark; they released two albums. Weekes also toured extensively with swing outfit Five Finger Rapids, later the Grant Simpson Quintet.
“Anyway, I needed an upbeat, catchy song that would work with twin fiddles but what came out was this jazzy, slow love ballad that is ‘Love Becomes Less.’ The song was totally inappropriate for Home Sweet Home, plus the lyrical content is pretty personal,” she howls. “So I was kind of fighting myself as I wrote it.”
Perhaps as much as any relationship, the splendour of the far north has impacted Weekes’s music and outlook, which is evident in songs like “Tea in Reykjavik” and “Cougar on the Mountain” with both vividly conjuring ethereal storybook vistas.
“I’ve always had a strong sense of adventure,” Weekes explains. “The north came up in my mind as a teenager listening to Ian Tamblyn’s descriptions of the Canadian landscape. When I was 17 or so I saw (then Yukon-based singer/songwriter) Kim Barlow at the Ottawa Folk Festival and that left an impression. Plus I had been reading a lot of Jack Kerouac.
“When I finished high school I was hitchhiking around Ontario and a number of people who gave me a ride mentioned the Yukon to me, describing it as transformative. It just kept coming up and not from me asking about it. I set my sights on Whitehorse and off I went. And it was immediately clear that I had found my place.
“I didn’t really understand what wilderness was until I did a two-week canoe trip from Whitehorse to Dawson City. It totally changed my way of thinking about life. I ended up doing a diploma in Northern Studies at Yukon College and looking at the world from a circumpolar perspective. Since then, I pretty much do everything I can to stay in the bush.”
In addition to filling her journals with lyrics and melodies, that remote home base led Weekes to dog mushing, which began as a hobby but morphed into a paid gig, ergo the fateful (songwriting-wise) trip to Norway from late fall 2016 to spring 2017 and, eventually, to Taken by Surprise. Now that the album is finished, Weekes has her sights set on plains a little closer to the 49th parallel.
“I hope to get my foot in the door of the Ontario music scene, to play with more people and to more people,” she says. “I certainly hope to be played on the radio, and I have performance goals around festivals I want to play. Hopefully, the album will create broader opportunities.”
Only a fool would bet against her.