Last month was the 10 year anniversary of the release of my first full-length album, Fell Out of Oz. Wowza.

The album came out a year and three months after I had an abortion. In many ways, the album happened because I had an abortion. A half-hour after my injection of methotrexate, I pulled my car to the side of the road, sobbing and overwhelmed by the reality of terminating my pregnancy. I called my friend Aynsley at work.

“Where are you?” she asked.

“Around the corner.”

We met at a nearby park and I talked about the future fantasy that had only appeared the week before that I was now letting go of, the very real and important reasons for doing so (health and safety), and the question I suddenly didn’t know the answer to: if I’m actively choosing not to have a child (this was when I still thought a pregnancy automatically meant a full-term birth, a live birth, or even a healthy baby) what am I choosing to be or do instead?

“Didn’t you want to make an album?”

It was September 2004 and at that point I’d been back in Canada about a year since I spent one year in London, England. Oh, London, where I had my first gig ever, where newness and stubbornness and discovery and difficultly inspired my first good songs and where I wrote many. I’d played a few gigs in Vancouver since I returned to Canada, I was still writing, though less often, and I wasn’t thinking very deliberately about a path as a musician.

“I did. I do.”

What can I give versus what can I give up?
The answer to the former I’m afraid is “not much.”
And as for the latter it’s just a matter of not now.
So, the best thing I can do for you is write this down.

“Who was that guy who produced the Be Good Tanyas album?” Aynsley asked and then suggested I track him, Futcher, down. I think I spent three hours on what would have been a three line email to him; I was so nervous to ask if he would work with me. In what I eventually learned was true taciturn Futcher style, he replied:

heya
thanks for the kind words.
sounds good

And we began. I applied for my first FACTOR and Canada Council for the Arts grants and, not surprisingly for a beginner, didn’t get them (I did, in collecting letters of support for the applications, obtain a prized possession: an utterly charming and encouraging letter from Bill Richardson). Remarkably, a friend stepped in and lent me the $20,000 I would need to make the album. As I write that now it seems even more incredible than it did at the time. Nicky, THANK YOU.

It was just five months after that pivotal September day that Futcher, the band we pulled together (guitarist/atmospheric master Murray Atkinson, who had been my first and only guitar teacher whom I found via an ad in the back pages of the Georgia Straight, and who helped produced my EP Starter; drummer Niko Friesen, who Futcher had met as the boyfriend of a women he recorded some background vocals with; and bassist Michael-Owen Liston who I had seen and met one night at the Backstage Lounge when he was playing with Mark Berube), and I piled into the now-gone Smiling Buddha Enjoyment Complex studio and recorded the 13 songs that make up Fell Out of Oz. The title track was actually a late comer as we had planned to record only 12.

songe selectsThe 12 were selected from 18 demos I sent to Futcher who then picked his favourites based on his first impressions. He always trusted his gut reaction to a first listen, though he’d later love to tell the story of how he poopooed Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day” when he heard it in studio being recorded, thus tainting his confidence in the strength of his first impulse. But a couple of days into our studio time, he came in saying he’d listened to the demos again and had a new liking for “Fell Out of Oz,” adding that “it also gives you a way better album title.”  He disliked the working title Other Side Down and he was right to. Ultimately, the album became a reflection on coming-of-age with “Fell Out of Oz” a near thesis statement.

We recorded live off the floor, largely due to the fact that I was incapable of recording to a click track (and, to be honest, that hasn’t improved much over the years). That it was off the floor means you can occasionally hear my chair squeak in our unedited, simultaneous performances, and Brad Wheeler of The Globe and Mail might have nailed it when he described the album, that rawness, as “intimate enough that whiffs of Couture’s organic soap are caught.”

Though that scent could have more likely been due to Michael-Owen drying his laundry one day while we recorded:

mike & laundry2_5724

Nota bene: the album artwork lists 11 tracks, not 13. But there are 13. Upon completion of recording, Futch and I had (though later rescinded when it was too late to change our minds) doubts about the strength of “Other Side Down.” So we added it as a hidden track at the end of “Habitual” to downplay it. And then, with too much cleverness for our own good, Futch and I hid another track, “What Peace Is,” at the beginning of the album. That is to say, on a CD player (we were so forward thinking), if you let a bit of the first song play and then pressed and held the rewind button you would find that the time started to dip backwards into negative minutes all the way to -02:30. To tip-off anyone paying enough/extra attention to the existence of this Easter egg, I included the lyrics as track 00 in the liner notes. I don’t know if anyone ever found it.  You can get it here though.

We spent a leisurely 9 days in a row recording that album – days that ended up being more time than we needed – and added the extras of harmonies, percussion, banjo, accordion, and cello after capturing the core four of us together. It was such a lovely experience, and I have loved the making of each of my other albums since, very much, but there was something special with those people, that February. Maybe because it was my first, and you don’t forget your first, but more than that…very dear friendships came from the strangers gathered there, long term working relationships, too, and in that gathering I felt so much that we were all in it.

Niko, Futcher, Murrary, Michael-Owen, moi. Captured by Rosamond Norbury.
Niko, Futcher, Murrary, Michael-Owen, moi. Captured by Rosamond Norbury.

Ten months after those studio days, the album was released on Maximum Music with a kick-off at The Railway Club: appropriate considering the bar’s inclusion in the song “Jennifer Grey.” In a music industry/act of good faith fail, the label, Maximum, and I hadn’t yet signed an agreement. In fact, they handed paperwork to me that night at the venue and I spilled beer on it, later bringing that stained copy to my lawyer to review. The album was already in stores, at listening posts (remember those?); the label had already been promoting it, reviews were coming in, and…no signed deal in place.

Horrible font and HMV listening post; I cringed at the former and was so thrilled by the latter.

As we negotiated the terms, I had my first tour to promote the album. My experience with the label during those months unfolded negatively. I couldn’t get reporting from them, the financial terms (according to my lawyer then, though these years later I too could call it at a glance) were crap, communication was poor, and they lost their distribution with Universal. “Walk away,” was my lawyer’s advice and I struggled with it as the label had invested time and money, and despite the frustrations, I felt responsible to them. I made a decision and I don’t know how they saw the end when it came: I sent a “cease and desist” letter and we didn’t speak again.

The album was mine. All mine. A few hundred copies of it were sitting in a Universal warehouse somewhere and I couldn’t get them. I got a new run of the CDs manufactured and updated the artwork to my own label: One Foot Tapping Records. I’d release my next two albums independently in the same way.

Shortly after the album came out, I got pregnant again. Unplanned, again. I let the momentum the album was building slow on the side of the road as I stopped to consider a path of parenting for the second time. I was struck by the fact that I made the album in response to ending my first pregnancy, and there, with the album in my hands, felt I’d barely had time to follow through before having to make a decision about the subject again. I wasn’t ready, but I chose to carry that little one, my son Emmett, and wondered how music would stay in my life.

It turned out that it was Emmett who didn’t stay in my life and my second and third albums, since, have been full of loss.

In revisiting Fell Out of Oz on its ten year anniversary, I’m noticing that it held a lot of loss, too. It’s the album that holds stories not just of the abortion, but of having had cancer, of the childhood friends who didn’t survive the disease, of losing my leg, of living with disability. It holds the stories of my first heartaches of my twenties and while those hardly hurt now compared to what I’ve experienced since, I listen to “I Will” and “Habitual” and I stand by them still. The album grieves a loss of innocence, but seeing my young(er) self in these songs now I also notice a lot of hope. In remembering the recording, the joy and the promise I felt, the label mess, the shifting gears and making big choices, it’s good to remember that hope, to hold up what I felt ten years ago to what I feel now, and to look at my baby-face cover art photo and think: “You don’t know what’s coming, but you’re right to hold on.”

An outtake from the cover photoshoot, by David Wignall, and before I knew the value of hair and make up artists.
An out-take from the cover photo shoot, by David Wignall, and before I knew the value of hair and make up artists.

 

It’s no secret I’m an amputee, though it’s not something that comes up often. In the past few months people have said to me “you never talk about it” meaning I don’t write about it here, or in songs.

But I did! That’s the first album people, or a chunk of it – the telling of and reflecting on my experience with Ewing’s Sarcoma when I was 11, and living with disability since then, after the amputation of my left leg above the knee was the cure for that cancer. That was the press release in 2005 for “Fell Out of Oz”, that was the interview on Sounds Like Canada, that was the misinterpreted information when a listener called my label at the time and asked how I could play guitar with no limbs…

Two more albums down the road I’ve moved on to talk and write about other experiences.

But it’s no secret.

Some people notice I walk a little differently, especially on “bad” days (i.e. when I’m tired, have been walking a lot, or my prosthesis just isn’t fitting quite right) where my gait is more affected than others. Most often it comes up on stairs, which historically I’ve climbed and descended one at a time. “What did you do to your leg?” “Did you hurt yourself?” After 22 years of those questions I actually sometimes am still confused by the question, thinking some part of me must be dripping blood or something to suggest injury. “Oh! No I’m not hurt. This is just how I walk.” I don’t mind the question, I do sometimes forget why it’s asked. I’m used to this body.

The answer “I’m an amputee” doesn’t always click for people. Sometimes I dumb it down, “I have a fake leg.” Sometimes I pull up whatever I’m wearing and point to the foam and nylon cover, “see?”

While my sometimes lopsided stance is not a result of injury, I have lived with a lot of pain over the years, mostly skin breakdown. I would reach a point on most days where the socket of my prosthesis would break my skin, meaning each weight bearing step would be digging into sores. The less I could weight bear on the left the more work my right knee has taken on. By my early 20s I’d already had a a tear in the medial meniscus and since have accepted that my one knee was going to get worn out long before the rest of me.

Oh well. I would ride it out as long as I could.

I came home from my first European tour a year ago in physical agony, having to admit I’d crossed the threshold of pushing-my-limits into going-too-far. I considered that touring like that might just not be in the cards. Shit.

Once the thought “this is too hard” crossed my mind, “can it be different?” followed.

It’s a simple question, but it hadn’t occurred to me, in relation to my leg/disability, before. “It HAS to be” settled in my mind not out of determination but desperation. I just couldn’t live with it anymore. I went to my clinic and demanded three things:

  1. a height adjustable foot, which was actually a purely aesthetic request but after 22 years in completely flat shoes I saw an amputee with heels and knew I wanted that option too.
  2. a new socket that wasn’t going to cause me pain.
  3. the chance to try a microprocessor knee.

 

Boom. #3 is the crux of this tale. Wait for it.

Quickly (err, Couture? You’re not one for brevity…) I’ll tell you that #1 was enormously fun, mostly when it came to my FAVOURITE shoe designer, Mr. John Fluevog:

 

As for #2, after using a suction socket for the last 10+ years, I switched to a gel liner and I will spare you the technical, gory details but it’s no exaggeration to say that this shift alone changed my life. CHANGED IT. For the first time in my one-legged life I walked for hours, and when I reached my limit it was because my right leg and muscles were tired, not because I had open wounds on my left leg. WIN. I even started to walk, wait for it … for fun. FUN.

And the knee, WELL.

For almost 15 years I’d heard of microprocessor knees, of the benefits first and foremost, and of the cost – namely exorbitant and not covered by healthcare. Because of the latter I filed it under “not available to me” (a list that includes things like “smooch David Bowie” and “see the effing 3D Magic Eye image for once”).

Then I met a congenital amputee who described trying a C-Leg (which is a microprocessor knee. I know, I know, the “leg” part confuses things) as the closest experience to what she imagined having two legs was like.

And THAT was intriguing.

At this point, I didn’t think I remembered what it was like to have two legs when more of my life – my entire adult life – has been lived on one. That the first 13 years were travelled on two legs had drifted into blurry, forgotten childhood moments.

Which is not to say I didn’t and don’t miss that. I decided I wanted to find out if the C-Leg could engage my imagination.

In fact, it illuminated memory. One of the benefits of these knees is the ability to go down stairs step-over-step. The first time I stood at the top of the 5-step “staircase” at the physio clinic, my physio therapist holding onto my arm, all I could say was “I don’t believe you” to her while she said, “just try it.”

I went down the 5 stairs step-over-step and a light switched on. I remembered. I remembered ease, I remembered automatic.

I was hooked.

But I was also hooped. The knee remained out of my grasp financially, and after a month of getting to trial the C-Leg I had to return it to the manufacturer. The day in January that my prosthetist was switching my knee back to my ol’ 3R60, I posted this to Facebook:

Christa Couture at prosthetic clinic

This past month I’ve spent a lot time at my physio and prosthetic clinics while getting to trial the “c-leg,” a micro-processor knee. The un/learning curve has been steep and at first really challenging. But then so much fun.

Today I have to give the knee back. I feel like I’m about to turn into a pumpkin.

‘Cause, you know, I’m one for the sharing and documenting. I did not expect the outpouring of support that occurred, a response that lead to this –

– and the launch of cc-kneeraiser.org, spearheaded entirely by my dearest of dear friends Susan, and pulled off with the time and efforts of many other dear friends. Getting it off the ground was the work of Susan, Shawn at Virtuous Giant (and IgnitionDeck) and Lisa and John at Paperny Entertainment.

But it takes a village. I didn’t even know I HAD a village. I knew my neighbours as it were, but holy smokes, a whole city of people made the kneeraiser a success.

In three days we raised our first goal of $15,000. On the last day of the campaign we tipped over our stretch goal of $25,000.

What had been my initial hesitation around launching – beyond the layered feelings of asking for support, and what money can complicate, which is a different story than this one – was that while I don’t hide that I’m an amputee, I’ve never wanted to sensationalize it. I worried that fundraising for a new knee might create an unwelcome spectacle, that I would become less known as a writer-singer-type and more as that-chick-with-one-leg. My friend Wes fairly pointed out “but you ARE a chick with one leg” and I am so grateful that the experience, the response, from within my community and the reach the campaign exceeded, and from the media, only integrated that fact. It never felt that it became about That One Thing, it was only ever about community, support, and change. Phewf.

In the meantime I started to try other microprocessor knees – the Genium and the RHEO – and spent a lot of time with my INCREDIBLE physio therapist Linda, and doing my best to test the knees in as many settings as possible. I took the RHEO on my last European tour – those cobblestoned streets and the lack of elevators make for very good challenges – and ultimately decided it was the one for me.

Why did I pick the RHEO? I had ruled out the Genium for being too big and heavy. The choice came down to the fact that the C-Leg’s default is resistance, and the RHEO’s default is free-swing and that that difference was most noticeable to me on stage. I felt that while I had to adapt to the C-Leg since it’s completely consistent, I could make the RHEO adapt to me – it has the potential to be variable, once you learn how to use it.

And I’m learning. And I love it.

And this week I’m writing a cheque to buy it.

248 people contributed, 19 artists donated work as “perks” for the campaign, thousands of people watched the video, shared, “liked” and spread the word.

“You must feel so loved” a number of people have commented. And I do. Mostly I feel loved by Susan because she has spent countless hours for the past three months managing every detail of this campaign. I also feel especially loved by Eddie and Natatlie who put in a week of their lives, and a night in their home, for the delectable, delightful house concert and celebration at the end of the kneeraiser. Also Barber Prosthetics, who gave me enormous time, skill, patience and thought while I went through the decision making process – above and beyond BP!

But yes. By every person who was moved to give what they could and to spread the word I feel so taken care of.

It’s changed my life.

And that’s no secret.

Christa Couture in Lynn Canyon

 

I’m continuing on my digital clean-up here, this process of getting ducks in a row and online. Thank you to everyone who downloaded “Starter” and let me know. It felt a bit in the interest of posterity to post it in an official way, and I’m glad I did – *check* on the list.

Three years after “Starter” I recorded my first full-length album “Fell Out of Oz” with Futcher here in Vancouver. I adore Futcher – he is one of my top five make-me-laugh-the-most people in the world and making the album with him was fantastic fun.

In the interest of amusing only ourselves, I think, we put an “easter egg” track called “What Peace Is” on the album (more…)