Thunder and Lighten-ing
A decade ago, indie singer/songwriter Bitch discovered a serious hole in her record collection. The New York performer was opening for Ani DiFranco when the name Ferron came up; she drew a blank.
An elder on the folk and women’s music circuit, Ferron is one of Canada’s best-known folk artists. Her knack for delivering pointed and seemingly simple lines with an affecting gravity have earned her critical accolades, comparisons to Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen, and a deal with Warner Bros throughout her nearly four-decade career.
“Ani was freaking that I had never heard of Ferron or her music,” explains Bitch, who also performs under the moniker Beach. “And when I first heard her music, it really shook me. It just floored me. Her voice, her lyrics, the depth and life experience she can narrow down into one phrase is unbelievable.”
It did not take long for Bitch to turn ignorance into action. A year later, she was sharing a stage with Ferron and then somehow mustered the nerve to coax the 61-year-old out of semi-retirement and back into a recording studio.
“I said, ‘We have to work together. I need every person younger than me to hear your music the way I do.’ It was a very inspired, middle-of-the-night kind of call,” she recalls. “In hindsight, I can’t believe how bold I was, but in the moment I was so sure it had to happen.”
In 2008, she produced and released Ferron’s 15th album, Boulder, a collection of classics re-recorded with a roster of younger musicians she’s influenced: DiFranco, the Indigo Girls, Sam Parton and JD Samson, among them.
Although Ferron is happy spending her time in her garden at home in Three Rivers, Michigan, and in other non-musical pursuits, Bitch believed she had more to give as a singer/songwriter and conceived the album/documentary project Thunder and Lighten-ing with video artist Billie Jo Cavallaro.
The pair bankrolled the project in part through a successful Kickstarter campaign and released it last year via Short Story Records. Earlier this year, Xtra chatted with Bitch to talk about the making of Thunder and Lighten-ing and her mission to expose younger listeners to Ferron’s enduring legacy.
Xtra: You recorded an album with Ferron in 2008 but felt an urge to continue the collaboration. Was it that you hadn’t gotten something out that you thought she had in her, or did you want to put your own spin on her style? Or both?
Bitch: The album Boulder in 2008 was definitely a huge love project. I wanted to hear some of her songs produced in different ways, and it was an opportunity to get a bunch of musicians that have admired Ferron’s work for so long to play on her songs. Anytime I get to the end of a project, I think, “Oh man, I’ll never do that again. That was a lot of work.” Then all of the songs that I love that I didn’t get to put on that album start to creep back into my consciousness.
Ferron is older, a good friend and somebody I have developed this very intimate relationship with. I think of her as one of my spiritual advisors. That sage aspect was something I wanted to capture in the film, as it is something that’s hard to say with music.
What was the challenge in helping to evolve the sound of someone who is already so experienced?
When we first met, we were having such a fun time connecting and talking about the possibilities of recording together. Although she was at a place — and I think she’s still there — where she’s feeling like, “Oh, that’s over. That’s a side of me that is done now.” She talks about that in the movie. I was always very aware — and this was part of the dynamic of our relationship — that I was mildly forcing her to do something that she would rather have not done, honestly. On one side I think she was having a great time hearing herself in a different way, and on the other side she was like, “Oh god, let’s just make dinner, sit down and stop all this work.”
So it was an ongoing process of cajoling. Was there a turning point where she was like, “Let’s do this”?
We made the first album [Boulder] at her house. I would follow her around with my portable recording system and wait for when she was in the mood, and that would definitely take quite a lot of cajoling. Whereas for this album, we were playing a festival in Iowa and I knew a great little recording studio there, so I said, “Let’s just plan to stay there for a couple days after the festival and we’ll record for two days.” I think it helped that there was that time limit. No matter what, at the end of two days she would get to go home. And of course, being in the studio is always an intense experience. It’s very emotional, so there was definitely some cajoling going on, and me trying to talk her back into things and all kinds of different techniques to make her feel comfortable.
At one point we invited local musicians in, and she was having just a riot playing with this one guy, and we threw up mics and recorded it. That’s how we did “Belly Bowl.” It’s fun to try to capture that energy. She knows how to have a good time, and when she’s really keyed in musically to somebody, she really loves it and really enjoys playing. It reminds her of why she still does it.
You took an experimental approach to the documentary as opposed to a linear narrative structure. Why that choice?
A lot of that came from meeting [director] Billie. That’s her aesthetic. When we were talking to Ferron about the project, we said that she doesn’t think in a linear way. She doesn’t want to look back over her life and think, “Then in fourth grade I did this.” When I was interviewing her, I tried to get that timeline out of her, but she was very resistant to telling her life story in that way.
Why do you think that is?
She’s had such a strange life. Honestly, I wonder how much of her memory goes in a linear way, with what she’s been through. She’s so philosophical in the way she thinks that I think it would be really hard for her to narrow things down into a physical timeline.
Why is it important for you to expose her to a younger audience?
Because she is one of the great poets of our time. Obviously, she’s gotten a lot of respect from a lot of people. I have noticed in the US, for example, there are a lot more young people who don’t know who she is, but they know Bob Dylan. I see her on the same level [as Bob Dylan], so I want her to also have that place in folk history. We all do. I’m not saying that I’m making that place for her, which is why it is important for people in younger generations to hear and know about her music.