Five Questions With… Monica Lee
Vancouver-based singer-songwriter Monica Lee uses her powerful voice, sense of humour and poetic chops to warm hearts as well as to share her pain.
By Jason Schneider
Vancouver-based singer-songwriter Monica Lee uses her powerful voice, sense of humour and poetic chops to warm hearts as well as to share her pain. That’s never been more evident than on her latest album, Farewell, containing 10 tracks that chronicle a tumultuous past decade in her life. Farewell will be officially released July 24 on all digital platforms.
From bad break-ups to finding a soul mate, starting a family while at the same time losing loved ones, the songs on Farewell span the breadth of human experience but ultimately celebrate our ability to survive. All of that is reflected in Farewell’s seamless blend of country, blues and jazz, co-produced by Jesse Waldman at Vancouver’s Redlight Sound. It marks the end of a long creative journey that included Lee needing to adapt to using hearing aids, but on the other hand, it’s the beginning of an entirely new musical identity.
The late John Mann of Spirit of the West once compared Monica Lee to Joni Mitchell and it’s easy to agree after hearing her ability to balance confessional subject matter with vivid observations of everyday life. Farewell is a statement both beautiful and soul-stirring, as well as a testament to following one’s muse. Find out more at monicaleemusic.com.
Congrats on getting this album finally out after working on it for so long. How would you say your creative process developed over that time?
Thank you, this record has been a long time coming for sure! These songs came from a well-played body of work. Having gigged with these songs hundreds of times in the seven years before we recorded them, we went in the studio and played them all live off the floor. Originally we laid down 24 songs, and the challenge was in picking the songs that went best together and letting the others go, at least for the time. Dark Angel is the oldest tune on the record, but somehow it only really found its full sound in the last few months of recording through adding layers of backup vocals and trumpet harmonies. The whole process was about being true to the songs, allowing them to both breathe and be held up by the added elements a studio can afford.
Do you feel these songs represent a time capsule of your life?
They really do! Listening to them takes me right back to particularly memorable nights at [Vancouver’s] the Libra Room where we played most of our shows. The smell in the room, the heat in the night air, the camaraderie, the sense of place. So many great memories from those nights, sometimes with crowds both inside and overflowing outside onto the street. The stage was set in the window and we could open it up on hot nights like a garage door. Some magic happened then. We grew up as friends, as a community in those moments. The songs carried us through both good and hard times as we forged friendships that have lasted a lifetime. Some friends have passed away that were a big part of that time. I can still hear their voices in the room.
As you were making the album you discovered you had been suffering from a hearing impairment for most of your life. What was your reaction to that, and how has it affected your music since?
The realization that I have been hearing impaired likely all my life was overwhelming, to say the least. It shocked me to my core and explained a lot of losses and missed opportunities from over the years. I have often wondered why some of my dreams were so hard to attain, why some relationships did not flourish the way I thought they would have. I have to wonder if I simply just missed things people said, had inappropriate responses or straight up ignored folks not having heard them. I know now that I must have missed a great deal of subtle communications over the years. It is a great sadness to me to think of these things, but there is no point in lamenting and lingering in this sadness.
Hearing the record for the first time with aids after it was mastered left me physically shaking. I had never heard the brushes that way, or the ringing of the high end of the guitar. It was mesmerizing and beautiful, I loved it! I have been supported by a lot of very talented people around me and they had all been hearing these elements all along, so there was nothing to change. Now that I am used to wearing them, I hear the dullness of the world I used to live in when I take them out. I love to play and sing with them. I really feel more powerful with them. I am bionic with superpowers!
You also have a thriving business teaching music to kids. Does that inspire your own music?
It does. I am constantly reminded of the power of music when I interact with children through performance and teaching. I see their authentic joyful expressions, reactions and movements and it keeps me on the path of creativity. Music is by nature playful and daring. My kids-focused music business is all about digging into the story behind the songs and the cultural context of each area of study. Every time I get into a topic I learn more about the craft and am inspired to continue writing and singing and sharing my voice.
How have you been adapting to releasing music during the pandemic?
I have been exploring new ways of connecting, sharing and creating. I had to let go of a big release show that had been in the planning stages for a long time. This was both sad for me and relief in a way as it was going to be a huge event. I then started to explore live streaming performance and video production instead. I am hosting a virtual party chat about the making of this almost decade long project with the band where we will be sharing some stories behind these songs as well as releasing music videos for two of the songs on the album. Covid has got us all improvising a bit and I kind of love the challenge. I feel really supported by my community and am super excited to share what I have been working on.