Down to the Bones with Kim Beggs
“Canada is as rich and layered and as fucked up as any human being”
An on again off again conversation with Doug Heselgrave
Like many people, I have had a lifelong fascination with the Yukon. Growing up in Canada, my childhood hours were often spent reading Farley Mowatt’s dramatic tales of stoic Inuits and lonely trappers who endured the bitter hardships of life in the far north. As I grew older, I met people from Whitehorse, Yellowknife and other mythical cities from the Canadian outback and gradually came to understand that people who can live in places like that are different than the average souls who live safely on the south side of the forty ninth parallel.
Kim Beggs wasn’t born in the north, but she’s made her home there for the last few decades, and certainly paid her dues chopping wood and swinging a hammer on remote construction sites before devoting herself to making music full time. ‘Blue Bones’ is Kim Beggs’ third full length album, and is certainly her strongest release so far. Featuring a mixture of her distinctive original songs as well as a few well chosen covers, ‘Blue Bones’ has rarely left my CD player since I first heard the album in the spring.
I contacted Kim a month or two ago and requested an interview. For someone like Kim, the traditional question and answer interview didn’t really work very well, so after a few attempts at a ‘straight’ conversation, Kim suggested something I’d never tried before. She asked me to send her a few questions to ruminate on that she would answer via tape recorder while on a canoe trip with friends. Whether it was partly the influence of the early spring heat, the majestic scenery or the endless empty Yukon sky, Kim’s answers were thoughtful, poetic, revealing and always a delight to hear.
Kim is an artist who trusts herself and follows her own mind as is so beautifully represented in her creative deconstruction of the interview process. I hope you get as much out of reading Kim’s thoughts as I did first listening to them.
Kim: Hi Doug, I’m going to try this. It rained quite a bit on the river, so it has been hard to get the logistics right for talking about a few of the questions you left for me, but I did manage to find a sunny moment near Fort Selkirk and I found an old heritage desk and a bench placed out on the side of the river for some reason. I sat at the desk, looked at the river rush by, and I wrote your questions down. I wrote down my thoughts in my book and now I’m back in Whitehorse and want to give you some of the answers that I thought about while I was out on my canoe trip.
Doug: When discussing Canadian literature, landscape always comes into the conversation. There’s that famous quote of Margaret Atwood’s that all Canadian stories feature landscape as a character. Is that true of your songs? The far north is so big and empty with lots of room to expand into….Has this affected your music?
Kim: I really thought about this. I think it is true. Landscape is a character in some of my songs. The far north is really big and spacious with lots of room to expand into, however I had a very rich imagination growing up and that also fuels my songs. This isn’t to say that other countries and places in the world don’t have that sense of balance, but what makes Canadians so acutely aware of balance is that the country is so huge. It’s not filled up with roads and buildings. There’s a lot of wilderness and a lot of unknown, and when there’s a lot of unknown, there’s a little more awareness of fear. Wilderness is a taker and a giver. They say that about rivers and water, too. Canada has a lot of diversity – not just in culture, but in climate. We have four very distinct seasons. We have a lot of diversity in landscape from coast to coast to coast. Many Canadians have wanted to see this landscape, so it’s good that we have a good bus system here because all levels of society have access to travel. I figure that Canada is as rich and layered and fucked up as any human being, so it’s not a surprise that the landscape ends up as a character in Canadian literature and songwriting. I hadn’t really thought about this until you asked the question, but – yeah – it’s true.
Doug: So, you moved into Canada’s most extreme climate. Was moving to the Yukon in any way a creative decision?
Kim: I think moving to the Yukon really fuelled my creativity, but I have been creating since I was a kid. I had a wild imagination. I thought and wrote and dreamed – had nightmares – about post-apocalyptic existence and survival. It was depressing, but I think it was part of the generation I grew up in. There was a lot of fear about all of that in the environment. I also read a lot of Sci Fi and I believed there were other worlds out there in other dimensions and I didn’t really limit myself in terms of what was possible and what was impossible. I saw that the universe was so huge and we’re all just little specks on a little globe in a huge universe and how could I know whether something was possible or not possible, so when I was a kid, I had this tiny backpack that was ready to go to some other dimension or some other world. Maybe, in the end, it was a preparation for going up to the Yukon. In the pack, I had my toque, matches, some crackers and a little tin of some beautifully coloured beads. I took a needle, too, and figured I could make gifts of them with whichever aliens I met. I took some tea bags, too, so I guess I was crazy. I didn’t know what I was waiting for, but I guess I always thought something was going to open its doors for me.
Doug: Is playing music something you started looking into when you moved up north, or have you been playing since you were young?
Kim: I’ve been very musical ever since I was a little kid. I figured out how to play the piano, so I was signed up for some lessons. I lasted in lessons for a few years, but I soon got tired of it. I wasn’t very good at being in structured lessons. I didn’t really enjoy them. I felt too contained. That was how it was going to be for many years – whether I was taking lessons or playing the trumpet in school. It was always structure, and never about making things up. When I was a young teenager I made up a little tune. I forget it and then it comes back to me. No matter where I would have ended up at this time of my life, I think I would have been writing songs and it was just a matter of having the right trigger point. For me, a trigger point was hearing a concert on CBC radio. (Canada’s national radio station) I heard a concert by Iris DeMent. I’d never heard of her before. This was about ten years ago. I heard this show while helping a friend work on his house. I had to sit down and listen to the whole damned thing. I had this feeling right away and I said to my friend, ‘Do you ever have the feeling that a door has just opened?’ It was very soon after that when I started to write again and more in a way where I was really trying to say something in a song. Around the same time, I started to perform. I could have been anywhere in Canada when I heard that concert, but it was like somebody turned a tap on, and I thought ‘oh my God’, there’s so much I have to say. I wanted to say everything in a song. As I said before, I’ve been musical all of my life, but I’d never sang before hearing that concert. I might learn something on the piano like Greensleeves, but if I was going to play it for my family, I’d only play the instrumental part. I didn’t think anyone would want to hear my voice. I couldn’t’ stand my voice. A friend of mine and I were goofing around with a tape recorder when I was about twelve, and when we listened back I couldn’t believe what my voice sounded like. So, the idea of recording myself singing was – well – another twenty years would pass at least before I did it again. I think I would have been writing wherever I was. Now, I think one of the things that the Yukon gave me was the space to hear my own voice and share it. It’s very nurturing up here and people really make space for other people who are being creative. It’s pretty amazing. I was incredibly shy, so that even when I had to play trumpet at a school, I’d be so shy that I’d just laugh and giggle through the solo part I was supposed to play. It was a real problem for me doing things in front of people, so it took a while to overcome it. But, I wanted to overcome it because it was such an obstacle in my life. So, the will to overcome was part of the going thru that door and finding a way to feel comfortable expressing myself in front of people other than my buddies. So, yeah, I think the Yukon was a big part of it and I don’t know if I was still in Toronto, I’d be getting up and singing or trying to meet people who loved music the way I did or sang songs or wrote songs. I really didn’t know a lot of people like that.
Doug: You spend a long time developing each song you write. You seem to be in no hurry to rush anything. What makes a good song in your estimation?
Kim: A good song goes right to the bone. It’ll go there for different reasons. I listen to songs in layers, so that at first I might not hear the exact meaning of the song, but I hear just the melody. Then, I’ll hear the rhythm and the choice of words. Words are just sounds that the voice makes and do I like those sounds? Do they resonate with me? In some songs it’s more important for the melody to be really interesting and really intricate. In other songs, the melody is not so important because the meaning in the song is more important. But, I know a good song when I hear it because if I feel something when I hear it no matter how many times I’ve heard it, it’s a good song. And, then, there’s the mystery. Something unsaid in the song, I don’t have to know exactly what the song is about in order for it to resonate with ne or for me to like it. Most of the songs, the seeds from my songs begin with words and ideas and emotions. Melodies usually come after, but sometimes they come at the same time – usually when I’m driving. But, even then in order for the song to progress, I often refer to my black book or books and look for other ideas that would go along with the melody and words that came up in the car. When words and melodies come at the same time, it’s hard to separate them, tear them apart when they came into being at the same time. It’s like they were born together. Song writing is a very interesting process and I usually take a long time on songs unless it’s something that’s just been sitting right beside me waiting to come. ‘Longest Dream’ was a song like that and it has a really simple melody. I didn’t want it to be complicated because I really wanted the idea to come across. It was the last one that I wrote before recording the album. I couldn’t believe how that one came to me in just a few hours. Occasionally that happens to me. Many of the songs I’ve written have taken at least a couple of years to write from the time the seed first started to grow from the time when I was willing to try and record it. I spend a lot of time getting the words just right so they have the feeling I want to communicate. It’s like a puzzle. It can also take some time to get melody the way I want it and to have it interesting enough to support the lyrics.
Doug: Do you see yourself working in a tradition of Canadian or Yukon song writers or are you about something different than that?
Kim: It’s interesting to think about whether I am working within a tradition. I think it would be self-centred to say that I wasn’t, but I think there are many traditions. I’m probably more in the tradition of troublemaker. I don’t think of myself as any kind of fabulous musician, but I like to sing and I like to write my stories with a melody. I also like to remember other people’s stories and their melodies. I keep things alive in the way that I can. It’s not perfect and it’s not about preserving. In carpentry, they talk about renovation and restoration. In restoration, it’s about preserving something in exactly the way it came into being – you know keeping it exactly how it was first built. But, I’m not a good enough musician to preserve things ‘just as they were built’ – I’m more of a renovator. Some of the old songs that I’ve been singing they’re different from how they first came into the world, and though I actually feel pretty good about myself, I’m good at laughing at myself too. So, I can say that I’m a story teller and just another carpenter making bad renovations. I think that when musicians change traditional songs, it’s upsetting for other people and certain musicians who want to keep things the same. I don’t think people do it on purpose, but singers do change things with their bad renovations and that’s just part of how the world turns. For the most part I find that people and fellow musicians are pleasantly surprised at my interpretations of other people’s work. I like making people happy and I like making me happy, too. I was having a discussion with a fellow musician about music and old music and why some songs survive and some don’t. There’s lots of music out there and some of it’s pretty complicated like Bach and Beethoven all those fancy composers. Part of the reason their music survived was that it was written down. It would be very complicated for music like theirs to stay alive in an oral tradition. They were too complicated to simply exist in memory, and it’s very important and amazing that these complicated pieces of music were written down in such detail. There are other songs that survived that weren’t written down and survived as a part of an oral tradition. What was it about those songs that made people want them to stick around?
Over hundreds of years, these stories were passed between friends and family. When at different periods, people lost the ability to write even their names down, the songs that stayed alive were the ones they kept when they listened to their hearts. It was a case of a song being true, a person would make the decision to keep on singing it. Maybe things didn’t get too complicated musically, and it was the ideas contained in the songs that were important and helped people remember them. I’m sure that these songs evolved over time through generations of people singing them.You know, through the years and generations and centuries, we’re all working with the same twelve notes but what is it that can make music original in different earas? I would say there’s lots of repetition in music and people using the same kind of melodies, but what I think makes each generation or each musician or songwriter unique is that there is a different combination of influences at play every time someone writes a song. Each musician takes a mixture of the music they love or grew up listening to and everyone adds the music they were introduced to later on in life to that, and everyone is a mixture of what their influences are and however similar some of the combinations are, each player is in some way unique. My influences are a combination of Raffi, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, old country songs, and old traditional songs. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has that combination of influences, but some of it is also ‘what I’m made of’ and part of it is a reflection of my ability. I’m pretty much self taught on my guitar and as a singer, so I’m round in corners and doing the best I can with what I have got. In a way, I think that’s where creativity stems from – people doing their best and not knowing how to do everything. The best storytellers are not always the best musicians, and the best musicians are not always the best storytellers. If they’re both, that’s pretty lucky for the world.
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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Kim Beggs is on tour now. For dates please check out her website at: www.kimbeggs.com