Review and interview: Christine Fellows’ Femmes de chez nous
Review and interview published in Exclaim!
Take a black-and-white photograph and bring it to life — that’s what Winnipeg, MB’s Christine Fellows did with her fifth and most innovative release, Femmes de chez nous. The 13-track record and accompanying DVD, Reliquary/Reliquaire, were written during, and inspired by, Fellows’ six-month residency at Le Musée de Saint-Boniface. Femmes de chez nous, which translates to “our gals,” celebrates Franco-Manitoban history, delving into the lives of nuns, a mermaid, a troubled runaway and a small-town stenographer crowned beauty queen. Some characters are real, some imagined, but all are connected through their experiences. Fellows memorializes her characters, telling their stories of strength and fortitude via brilliant, theatrical instrumentals. The lyrics of “Dragonfly” unsettle the soul, while the title track announces Fellow’s sympathy; she holds these women close to her, as if they’ve been placed in a locket and worn around her neck. On “Reversed Arrow,” Fellows sings: “We trip and cringe and cry/We hold our hands up to the light/We speak in languages and gestures just like yours.” Her loving voice rises above the background gang vocals and serenading violin, bringing together two languages and listeners through songs of decidedly different natures yet universally similar sentiments.
Who are the femmes de chez nous?
That’s why I wrote the record: to express these people, real and imagined, in song instead of writing stories about each or making up people. Femmes de chez nous is actually based on a book of the same name, published by a small house here in Manitoba. It’s this fantastic book; it’s basically a photograph, with a little caption and a brief history on all of these women from the French community here. I just took that format and borrowed some of the real women’s names and captions that went with them.
What kind of connection did you feel with these characters?
The museum [I spent a six-month residency at] used to be a convent. It was the home of these incredibly strong women. The first four nuns came by canoe from Montreal in the 1800s, so I felt the spirit of that building was very female and I wanted to locate the work right from that point — from those first four nuns. It’s funny because my last record was all about solitary characters and playing on that word spinster, and this was a happy accident, coming upon the idea of working on the history of nuns. I’m a completely secular person. I wanted to memorialize these women before we forget.
As you mentioned, your last album, Nevertheless, drew from the overarching theme of spinsters. Why the focus on women?
When I was in my 20s, I rejected the idea of being a feminist. I thought we were post-feminist, and by saying that it felt like a step backward in time. In my wise old years, I’ve come to realize that being a feminist is more necessary now than ever. I never, ever would’ve predicted that we would be going backwards instead of forwards, as far as women and their sense of self and empowerment. Especially in music, women are infantilized. [My music] is not a confrontational thing; it’s more about me and my work and the way I present myself, musically. It’s more from a position of strength.
Did you initially attempt to tell the stories lyrically and then add the arrangements or was it the other way around?
It’s never the same — each song comes from its own place. This project was very much research-inspired. In fact, the very first day of my residency, going to the museum, I was on the bus and I wrote a list of everything that I was interested in that I might want to write about and damned if I didn’t write about 12 of the 15 things I wanted to research. I feel like half of the work is being done by your subconscious all the time. Most of the residency, I just sat there in the building. There was a lot of research and reading, but everything just kept springing out. Writing songs is just sitting there, waiting for them to show themselves. There is no first, but you know when you’re on the path.
Your album has an accompanying DVD, Reliquary/Reliquaire, inspired by, and filmed at, Le Musée de Saint Boniface, where you also did your six-month residency. What is a reliquary?
Reliquaries are actual physical remains, like bones, teeth or hair of the saints, if you have a saint that is your primary [object of] worship. You actually carry a piece of them with you, either in a locket or a little shadow box. Most of these, in the Catholic tradition, are super-decorated, and in the centre is this tiny fragment of bone. It’s really fantastical [to be] around something so earthly or grotesque. That’s why I called [the DVD] that. At the heart of everything I love, whether it’s visual art or books, there is something about it that is absurdly human, tactile and kind of grotesque.
Why did you decide to make it a bilingual album?
This is the first time for me. I’m not a native French speaker, but I spent part of my childhood living in the south of France. I hadn’t actually spoken French in years, so this was very amazing to go back into that as an older person; it was a great experiment. The museum is in one of the oldest French Canadian settlements in Winnipeg, so I had to do it. I knew right from the outset and I was totally terrified. But I love it when people who come from other language backgrounds speak English to me, because it’s so surprising and amazing to me how people use languages that aren’t their own. They come up with amazing ways of saying things and expressing them. Whatever, we’re just all communicating.
History is a point of interest for you. Do you see yourself continuing to explore other facets of history on future albums?
I don’t know. I wouldn’t even say it’s history that’s the primary focus; it’s the people. I will probably continue to write about people. I’m really fascinated by them. Maybe there will be people who are no longer living, which will make them historical, but definitely the humans, I’m going to keep writing about them.