Venus Talks: an interview with Isabel Fryszberg (Part 2)
Yesterday on Roots Music Canada, we debuted Venus Talks, a new feature by award-winning artist Lenka Lichtenberg, which will feature in-depth interviews with female musicians from across Canada. Here is part two of her conversation with Isabel Fryszberg.
Lenka: Let’s talk about your first album, Hearts and Arrows. It came out in 2014 and received some great reviews. How many of the songs are based on your own experiences?
Isabel: All of them. There are stories that are inspired by my relationships. I did not create babies through my relationships, but they gave growth to my songs. Those are my babies. When I do write, it’s not like I am looking for a song; the song finds me.
Lenka: Lyrics or music first? A question often asked of songwriters.
Isabel: Both at the same time. They come at the same time. I hear the hook, and I chase it. Picasso said you have to run after beauty. When I have the hook in my head, I take the iPhone, sing into it, then find the chords.
Lenka: Are you then consciously trying to shape the song so people could sing along?
Isabel: It happens usually by itself! I like people singing along. I have to remember the melody so I can sing it back. Burt Bacharach describes two ways of writing music, lateral – shaping it on melody – and vertical: shaping it on chords. I shape it on melody. I am not a strong reader, so I have to remember it, learning by ear. For that reason, it ends up being singable, ends up creating an ear worm, because other people end up remembering it too.
Lenka: Are you disciplined as a creator?
Isabel: An excellent question. That has been my journey and challenge. … The discipline of music, of art … because I didn’t grow up with that. I knew the discipline of working nine-to-five. Everything that happened after work, I would have to learn how to be disciplined about, as it had to be squeezed in … to play an instrument, to develop a voice, the songwriting. My best teaching of discipline was our band, Sisters of Sheynville. That was my boot camp. (Lenka: Oh no! I take full responsibility for that.) I needed it. That was a strong education, and I value it. I had to learn so much, and today, that discipline is what I use to do what I do. When I’m tired, for example, I keep myself working on things, practice the guitar, the voice, write the new song. Otherwise, I have a more emotive way of creating.
Lenka: Today, are you at a place where you want to be?
Isabel: I’m never going to stop. I’m always growing. There’s so much to learn. Even right now, I feel my songwriting is changing. I’m not writing about my personal heartbreak. I’m writing about the heartbreak of the world. It is hard not to. I really feel it, see it. That is what is touching me the most now. My heart is already broken open, so I am so sensitive to these things.
Lenka: You have plans for another album?
Isabel: Yes, I’m in the process of doing a new EP in this new direction.
Lenka: Who are you working with?
Isabel: I am working with Steve Briggs a lot. He has been an incredible mentor to me. I keep taking guitar lessons from him. And my band, Isabel and The Uncommons: John Switzer, [a] great bass player and a producer himself [and] Rebecca Campbell, who I sing harmonies with. I play with Tony Quarrington and, more recently, with the incredible Wendell Ferguson, and I recently did a co-write with Mitch Gerrio, and he will be producing this new EP.
Lenka: You mentioned once that your (visual) art and music are competing. Who is winning?
Isabel: When I was working full-time, music won. … I needed it. … But after I left my job in July of last year, soon art has come back to me. I feel I have so much to express by painting. Something I just have to do.
Lenka: You find the two art forms complement each other? I know other artists active in both.
Isabel: Yes, for sure. I use my art also in the presentation of my music in many ways.
Lenka: What’s your ideal performance space?
Isabel: I love the Cameron in Toronto. We played there recently. It was packed, and everybody listened. Some of the feedback was, “Your lyrics are so good.” How great to hear that. Hugh’s Room [Live] is also a very special place for performing and listening to music. Dakota’s is a fun venue, with a great vibe, and places like the Burdock have a great sound as well.
Lenka: Tell me what is important to you in performance.
Isabel: To me it’s all about the connection. That’s the gift. Whether they identify, or like the melody, or sing along, whether it becomes medicine to them. Perhaps it’s a song that they need so that it is healing their heart as well as it did mine. Whatever the connection, I am grateful for it.
Lenka: What’s your best musical experience yet?
Isabel: I loved the release of the Creative Works Studio members’ album. It made a dream come true for so many people. My own album release at Hugh’s Room was another dream come true. I love playing the Burdock. There were some fantastic concerts we did with the Sisters band, special bonding times when we toured, Poland, San Francisco …
Lenka: What are you most proud of as a human being and as an artist?
Isabel: I’ve always gone for my dreams. … Some were pretty impossible. My vision for Creative Works Studio was a dream. I had no idea how difficult it was … and it has brought life and happiness to so many people. I hope to expand that in some other ways. For me, art and music [are] medicine, necessity. That’s where I argued with my father who didn’t see the arts as essential. But he did make me see that, if art should exist, then it has to be important. It has to be a necessity, like bread. Ironically, my father had a great taste, was considered an “artistic gentleman” by some, I heard recently. Yet to me, this was not present. He was just so critical. Art had to have a purpose and make you a living.
Lenka: Your aspirations? Plans?
Isabel: Music is in such a strange place today: global, accessible, but it is not an easy business to make money in. I still do want to continue. House concerts. Festivals. I feel I am still growing and getting better at my craft. I’d like to marry my art and my film-making with my music in some way. To me, art and life are married to each other. I’d like to get them all integrated, also with helping people. That is important to me. I know I am a late bloomer, so I continue to develop the craft of all these things. … Steve (Briggs) told me, you just have to be more of you in terms of all of those things. … The truth is, the Holy Grail of all the arts is to show more of yourself, reveal it, in whichever art form. That is what people connect with, relate to.
Lenka: I see you as a Renaissance woman. Would you agree to such a description?
Isabel: Yes, I am a Renaissance woman. Someone who has many flavours, a soup with many ingredients, both playful and serious. I live in many different worlds. This stems from the fact that my parents came from another world. This gave me such empathy to get into many other worlds. As an artist you always see things from the outside, then you go inside and take the inside to the outside. I am a humanitarian, always want to do something that will make the world a better place.
Lenka: Do you think the human race has a chance?
Isabel: It better. … I’ve been feeling more anxious these days. … We are living in different times, which can be good, because we have so much at our finger tips. But I think we need to slow down. We have to remember what has kept us alive throughout time. We need to go back to our roots, honour what has made us human.
Lenka: Do you believe in soul?
Isabel: Of course! What else is there?
Lenka: How about reincarnation?
Isabel: I don’t know about that. … I like the idea of it. I believe in God, in the Great Divine. I am a theist. My father and I would have great arguments about that. I believe that I am an instrument. I’d like to listen and hear where I can be best used.
Lenka: In the music industry, do you think you get a fair shake as a woman?
Isabel: I think as a woman, there are so many complexities you have to deal with. … I had guitarist boyfriends. They played. I sang. One of my break-ups taught me that I can’t depend on a guy to play for me. That’s what motivated me, so that in 2008, I started taking guitar lessons. In the earlier years, I was in awe before guy guitarists, enamoured [by] how great they play. I never thought I could do that myself. It looked too hard. As women, we deal with, “Can I be proficient? Respected?” I embraced whatever sensuality, sexuality I carry, and it’s part of me; you never want it to be the selling factor or the only part of you. You want it balanced. And as women, and as we get older, that is the other hard thing.
Lenka: Seems to me there is a difference in how aging males and aging females in music and arts are seen. When I look around, I hardly, if ever, see women my age still out there doing their thing. It’s shocking, actually, as there are many older guys in the music scene. What do you think?
Isabel: Absolutely. This is the dark side. … But then I think of my music idols … who were older, like Ola Belle Reed and Hazel Dickens, old Appalachian singers who continued ‘til they died. … There are others: my heroes, Sarah Vaughn, Ella. Their voice and strength – you never looked at them as cute young things. Nobody cared about that.
Lenka: I always thought that it depended on the genre. Folk, jazz, would be the two I thought provided space for artists of different ages. But I am not so sure anymore, now that I am experiencing it myself. … It is subtle, and I don’t know how right or wrong I am about this. Agism in folk? Only for females?
Isabel: I think this is our fight. I feel a responsibility to young girls to be who I am. I wouldn’t have been able to do the work I do now at 23 or 24. I didn’t have the same courage, depth, same life experience.
Lenka: Any advice to share with young starting out musicians, especially girls?
Isabel: Seek your truth. You’re there to seek and tell your story, to find your true voice. You’re more than your face, your body. You don’t need to be boxed in by what size or shape you are. We are living in a time that is even much harder on young women than when we were young girls. Girls are made to feel that they need to look a certain way, be a certain size. It is much more prevalent than it used to be, I think.
Lenka: In folk, jazz … the body size is not so important.
Isabel: But it intersects with pop. They are all businesses at the end of the day. I think it is more about image now than it used to be.
Lenka: Right. … In the older days, people would sometimes have the photo of the artist on the album cover as the only image available. Now, there are so many visuals to go with the music, you can’t escape it.
Isabel: Yes, and so we have surgery, anorexia. … Marilyn Monroe’s looks were manufactured. Looked what happened to her – it made her die. Now the media is everywhere, in our phones, all around. We need a new education, new value system that becomes part of our media. I think #MeToo is a good start. We as women need to rebel against it, rather than succumb to it. I don’t ever want to man bash, but the systems are designed by men, the way businesses, the industries operate, and we are still taking part in these. We shouldn’t have to look a certain way. As women, we have equal power to change that. We collaborate. We females as we age are the elders and the wisdom carriers. We have that responsibility. And I do think there is beauty in aging. … Wine, pearls, diamonds … get better with age.
Lenka: Anything that I forgot to mention, ask about?
Isabel: The Sisters of Sheynville? We were a powerful six! We toured, got an award (CFMA 2008). It was an important time. … We had our journey. It was a fantastic thing. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to play and learn with such dynamite women.
Lenka: I think it was like that for all of us! And people did love us. I loved us. … Thank you for your honesty, my friend. You’re probing so deep. I wish you all the success, and see you at your next concert or art show!
Isabel’s upcoming performances:
- Sept. 29 – One Path – W-O-M-A-N, Nuit Blanche, Spadina Museum, Toronto
- Oct. 31 – Isabel and the Uncommons, the Tranzac, Toronto
- Nov. 8 – Why the @#&! do you Paint?, Gladstone Hotel, Toronto