How Annabelle Chvostek overcame hearing loss to make an album inspired by Uruguay
Since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March of 2020, our world has been turned upside down. At the beginning, the Government of Canada closed its borders to many non-Canadians while announcing repatriation flights for citizens stranded in foreign countries. What ensued was a mad scramble as many Canadians around the world tried to find increasingly scarce flights home.
This part of the pandemic story is all too familiar to singer-songwriter Annabelle Chvostek, who was in Montevideo, Uruguay with her spouse, Ximena.
For the past number of years, Annabelle has been collaborating with Uruguayan musician/arranger Fernando Rosa, whom she first worked with on her 2012 album Rise.
For Annabelle’s new recording String of Pearls, Fernando gathered together a group of musicians with expertise in tango and classical music.
“I’ve been going to Uruguay for the last 12 years or so with my partner. We have a bit of a life down there,” Annabelle explained, speaking from her Toronto home. “The songs (on the album) have been working themselves through me for a number of years. I went down to Uruguay to workshop them with Fernando. (He’s) become this amazing collaborator and co-producer, and [he] introduced me to all sorts of wonderful musicians and styles of music. I really absorbed that for this record. We went down last February to do a bunch of recording and do some videos with the musicians we’ve [been working with] on a bunch of songs. March 15 was the last day we were allowed to hang out with people because of the pandemic. And then flights started getting cancelled! We weren’t stuck for too long, but it was this very worrisome moment of, ‘Will we get home? What happens next?’. But we got home, we quarantined, we survived.”
The pandemic panic aside, the trip to Uruguay was very productive for Annabelle.
“There’s this very specific niche we got into through Fernando,” she said. “I took a song down that I had started writing in French. I didn’t quite know what to do with it or how to make it evolve. Fernando listened to these lines of music and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a jazz manouche (gypsy jazz) song. Let me call in my friend Federico.’ He’s a tango guitar player but also a follower of Django Reinhardt and that whole legacy of gypsy jazz. So [Federico] brought in the Selmer Maccaferri guitar, we started playing together and it just made a lot of sense. Coming back home, I wanted to keep going with this idea, so I started looking up people in Toronto. Of course, everybody’s here, so I happened to find Debi Botos, this young woman who is a Hungarian/Roma woman who plays in the Django/gypsy jazz style. So that was this incredible journey of going so far away to find the world at home!”
The task of melding together the recordings from Uruguay with those done in Toronto was put into the hands of producer David Travers-Smith.
“We worked remotely the whole time through,” said Annabelle. “I would be racking here with him, and Fernando was down in Uruguay dreaming up parts and writing arrangements and recording them down there. So David was able to pull in all these parts and influences – and [he] also brought in some of his musical people as well – and make sonic sense of it to perfection. I think it was a feat to take all these things from all these different sources, recorded in different ways, and unify them sonically and make them blend properly. He did such an amazing job on that. I’m so happy with it!”
Another reason Annabelle is happy with the release of String of Pearls, her first album in six years, is because she’s had issues with her hearing. It’s not a subject many musicians are willing to talk about for fear of losing performance opportunities. Even legendary producer George Martin didn’t want people to know about his hearing loss. Instead, he brought in his then-teenaged son, Giles, to act as his “ears during recording sessions to tell him how certain instruments sounded, ie, if they were in tune.
“It did slow me down and cause me to re-assess how I was going to operate my career, basically,” Annabelle said. “I had an accident in a sound check in 2008, which caused hearing loss and tinnitus that hasn’t gone away. Then in 2014 or ’15 I woke up one morning and the loss had turned into total deafness in one ear. Then I [also] have hyperacusis, which is extreme sensitivity to sound, plus long sounds for long periods cause the tinnitus to get louder. So it’s been a real challenge to work, tour and do things that are sonically tiring.
I feel like I’ve been in the closet about it in a way. Finally, with this record [I’m saying] here’s the reality. Life has completely changed, and that’s OK, but it’s different. It’s like you just want to put on a positive face and not let on that there’s anything different that might affect your ability to put on a good gig. It’s stigmatized, I think, having injuries like this in music. I relate to that, and I also feel like this is my moment to come out about that. I know there are many of us, and this kind of injury in ‘music work’ is real and common. So, I feel I’m opening this door to hopefully have some really good discussions about it in the open.”
To work around her hearing difficulties Annabelle changed her focus when it came to musical endeavours.
“I sort of slowed down a lot,” she said. “I didn’t want to tour as much [or] at all. I took some time to just sink in locally. I didn’t want to stop making music, so I sort of moved my focus over to other things. I became an artist-in-residence with Echo Women’s Choir, which was a wonderful, nurturing experience. Alan Gasser and Becca Whitla took me under their wing and mentored me in the arts of arranging and conducting for the choir. I started playing locally with a bunch of other parents as well, in kind of a funk band. Quieter, slower pace, more local things kind of happened, which was very enriching. And then, eventually, I wanted to make another record and started the ball rolling on that in a very well-paced, slower paced way than I have worked in the past. It’s been a luxurious, creative process and supported so kindly by FACTOR, Canada Council and Toronto Arts Council. It’s been a long time getting here and I’m thrilled to be finally releasing all this music!”
To find out more about Annabelle Chvostek and String of Pearls, go to: annabellemusic.com