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Songsmith Eaglesmith

Award-winning Canadian musician to play one show at Resurrection Lutheran Church Sunday night

Posted: Friday, May 08, 2009

In discussing song-writing, Fred Eaglesmith describes a paradox of the artistic process. His songs are original and wholly his own, formed by his imagination and experience, and yet seem they to come out best when he is able to forget himself entirely.

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Courtesy Of Fred Eaglesmith
Courtesy Of Fred Eaglesmith

In his younger days, such self-effacement was made easier through unhealthy habits.

"I wrote really good songs when I was hung over because I was feeling so awful I would get myself out of the way," he said.

Getting past preconceived ideas and expectations is part of the battle, he said. Many times he'll start out with an idea only to have it change dramatically once he starts to fill it out.

"If (a song) ends up being what you thought it was going to be ... it's probably not that good." he said.

Eaglesmith comes to Juneau to share his songs with a small crowd Sunday at Resurrection Lutheran Church. Well-known in his native Canada, where he has been nominated for three Juno awards (the equivalent of the American Grammy), Eaglesmith's name is somewhat less familiar to American audiences, though he does have a devoted - bordering on fanatical - following in some areas of the country. Reviewers of his albums often use comparisons to convey the sound of his music and measure of his ability, and they cover a wide swath of musical territory: Bruce Springsteen, Ry Cooder, T Bone Burnett, Steve Earle, Woody Guthrie, John Prine, Del Shannon, Link Wray and even Led Zeppelin. And then there are the combination comparisons, like this one from "The Calgary Herald" that describes his latest album, "Tinderbox": "It's Tom Waits meets Pink Floyd meets Hank Williams."

Such comparisons don't seem to bother Eaglesmith, who says that his style tends to change from album to album.

"If you're having a bad day with your voice, you're Tom Waits. If you're rocking out, you're Led Zeppelin."

But Eaglesmith is his own man, and such analogies are no substitute for hearing him first-hand. His songs could be assigned to several genres - alt country, rock, folk, Americana - and often have the imaginative pull and resonance of short stories, such as "Carmelita," a song covered by the Cowboy Junkies, about farm workers in Southern Ontario.

"Tinderbox," one of his Juno-nominated releases, sprang from a single line in the title track that evoked an entire character.

"I wrote this song, and the hook of is 'Somebody's crying in the very back row.' As soon as I wrote it i said, 'I want to write an album for that person.' So I made an album for that person and all of their struggles."

The album has been described as alt-gospel, but Eaglesmith says anti-gospel is closer to the truth.

"Its not a gospel album, its really written for people who are back-sliders and don't believe - they're having trouble with believing," he said.

"Tinderbox" is his 17th release. Now 51, he began writing songs when he was 10 or 11, and remembers the very moment he decided he wanted to be a musician.

"When I was 12 years old, I saw Elvis on television and I said 'That's what im going to do with my life.' And that's what I did. ... I wrote songs all the time, endlessly."

At first, the songs were not very impressive -- in fact they were really, really bad, according to Eaglesmith. But by starting at such a young age he had the advantage of taking plenty of time to perfect his art before putting himself out into the world.

"I got 10 to15 years under my belt before I really took them out," he said. "I had more time to practice, more time to get the bad out of me."

Eaglesmith, one of nine children, left his family farm at 15. He hitchhiked around and hopped freights, beginning what would become a lifelong affinity for being on the move.

"Im not wired like other people," he said. "I sort of have to travel."

This will be his second visit to Alaska.

Buddy Tabor, who will perform a 15-minute set to open Eaglesmith's show, said he's been an Eaglesmith fan for about 10 years.

"He's good. And I'm pretty jaded," Tabor said. His personal favorite albums are "Things is Changin'", "Lipstick Lies & Gasoline" and "Drive-in Movie"

Tabor said that the church where the concert is being held only holds about 150 people, and that admission is on a first-come, first-served basis. Tickets will be sold at the door only,



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