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Christine Fellows Takes to the North

The singer and author creates music whose themes tell the stories of women from the Gold Rush era.

Klondike culture has revered a certain way of being: strong, tough, and often masculine. In the early part of the twentieth century, writers like Robert Service and Jack London wrote about the North as a dangerous place against which the macho man could struggle for both authentic existence and fortune. Local legends like the “Mad” Trapper of Rat River, who fled the RCMP over an approximately 250 kilometer manhunt, and who could not live in society with others because he was so damn tough—continue to swagger across the region’s mythos.

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So when some dude on vacation in Dawson City INTENTIONALLY SWALLOWED the human toe that tourists pay to kiss there before doing a shot at a bar called the Downtown Hotel, no one should have been surprised. This is the kind of daring adventurousness the weirdo had probably been reading and hearing about since he was a kid, or at least since he started reading his Lonely Planet guidebook.

Myths can grow and change, though, and Christine Fellows’ new record, Burning Daylight (which is also the title of a Jack London novel), has discovered new treasures in the land of the midnight sun. Fellows gives us a fresh look at nature in the North—and at the women who have been relegated, by some of the region’s most celebrated writers, to a silent backdrop in front of which male adventure fantasies played out. The Gold Rush-era characters she inhabits are strong and tough as hell. “Spring / is a fearful, / raging river / you think / winter / was hard / think again,” Fellows sings on “Grit of Women.” But we also see sensitivity and kinship. “You frostbitten warriors, / bounding / for glory / I howl for thee / You frostbitten warriors, / bounding for glory / Howl for me,” she howls on the title track, in part an ode to sled dogs.

Fellows’s new album and book come beautifully packaged together, and have been released by Winnipeg’s ARP Press. As usual, she’s busy writing and recording and performing, but she had time to talk to Noisey about songwriting and the wild days of the Gold Rush.

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Noisey: When and how did you first become interested in the idea of the North?
Christine Fellows: In the back of car, en route from Whitehorse to a songwriting residency in Dawson City, Yukon in February 2011. The windows were completely covered in frost, and I was crammed in the back seat in a giant parka with nothing but my imagination to keep me occupied. I wiped a hole in the frost at one point and had an incredibly vivid hallucination of a character peering back at me. She became the main character for the Burning Daylight song cycle. That car ride was the beginning of a three-year project that led me to researching about everything from Jack London’s writing about the Gold Rush, to winter wilderness survival, to present-day mining projects in Baffin Island and the opening of the Northwest Passage to shipping traffic in 2013.

So, did you know right then that you wanted to frame her in conversation with Jack London’s work? Or did that come later, with the research?
The framing came later. I found a couple collections of London’s short stories at the bookstore in Dawson and became immediately obsessed with them, in particular “To Build a Fire,” which is a story about a man freezing to death on a winter trek. His Klondike stories are very much centred around the idea of survival and peril, of men among men, men among animals, with female characters being represented as peripheral, inscrutable. That became the entry point for me—a desire to have a conversation with his work.

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Some writing about the Yukon was really successful. I remember learning that Robert Service was one of the “top-grossing” poets of his day, an idea that seems almost preposterous now.
The fact that Jack London came back from the Klondike with literary gold as opposed to actual gold is part of what I find so compelling about those stories.

What do you think it is about that danger-filled backdrop—which is also strangely empty in some ways—that has been so appealing for readers and writers?
Well, the Gold Rush was a heady collective madness, and it seemed to have seized pretty much everyone. So many outrageous and weird stories came out of that time in history. It had it all: adventure into the wild unknown, man conquering nature, the promise of wealth beyond one’s wildest dreams.

I imagine that being up there in February would have helped you to get a feel for the place, and the cold, which is obviously important?
As a Winnipegger, I know a thing or two about winter, but, as I discovered, -46 in Dawson is very different from -46 in Winnipeg—which is part of the reason that story “To Build a Fire” really resonated with me at that particular time.

Are you an outdoorsy person?
These days, not so much. When I was in my twenties I kind of overdid it on the sleeping outdoors front, and now I prefer to sleep inside.

When you were in Dawson, did you manage to get out of town much?
As part of the DCMF residency, we did a community tour, which took us all over the Yukon, including up to Old Crow, which was a remarkably rare opportunity, because it’s so isolated (no road access). The history of Old Crow and the Vuntut Gwitchin people is completely fascinating. Whereas Dawson has been Parks Canada-fied to the extreme, in Old Crow you’ll see fish drying on racks outside the houses, dogsleds and snow machines barreling down the tiny streets, and the other ubiquitous aspect of the far north: the Northern Store and over-priced crap food (one of the things about the North that is incredibly unjust—the access to nothing but terrible food).

Your songs have bumped up against lots of other kinds of media and art—Shary Boyle’s live drawings, Alicia Smith’s art in Burning Daylight, and the printed page itself. What keeps you looking outside of more conventional ways of transmitting songs?
Well, for one, I happen to live in a small, but really diverse artistic community. When I was first starting out in music, I fell in with the modern dance community, and was exposed to that wildly experimental, collaborative art form, along with some exceptionally talented artists. That set the bar for me, I think. In fact, I workshopped the Burning Daylight songs with a wonderful (formerly Winnipeg-based, now Fredericton-based) choreographer, Lesandra Dodson, who happens to be one of my favourite living artists. At one point, we were hell-bent on staging it as a musical.

That would be amazing! Any chance that could still happen? There would be dialogue and story in addition to the poems/songs?
Partway through the workshop process, Dodson and I realized that we’re not terribly interested in creating a traditional theatrical narrative, but we hit upon something weirdly compelling that we’d like to revisit at some point, definitely. For whatever reason, this particular project has had a life of its own since I started working on it. If you’d asked me back in 2011 how I thought this project might manifest, I would never have guessed that it would turn into a book

Henry Adam Svec is an actual doctor who is on Twitter.