In April, I tried something new.

I stepped onto a stage (The Capitol, in Port Hope, Ontario) and up to the mic, and I spoke.

I didn’t sing. At all.

I talk a lot during my shows, you know that. Telling stories between songs has always been as important as performing the songs themselves. That telling makes bridges and offers moments of reprieve, a chance to respond to that exact moment, and a chance for us to know each other a little better in another way.

As important, but not the goal. I sing for you; that has always been why I take a deep breath and step up to the mic. It has always been my job, my joy, and the means through which to open my heart and yours. That exchange is a magical thing we do together.

Since my thyroidectomy last year, I have not performed. Instead, I’ve been writing, staying in one place (sleeping in my own bed All The Time!), and working as an associate producer in digital at CBC. It’s been a good year, one where I have missed and gained many things.

I had, not long after the thyroid surgery, performed at ideacity in Toronto last June, and as a solution to the problem of my shaky voice, I spoke for half my time and half-talked through the parts of the songs my voice couldn’t sing:

 

That was an unforgettable day, and I knew from then that my voice needed a break; a chance to recover.

In January, my friends at Greenwood Coalition asked me to be part of their annual Imaginate. I said yes. Then I panicked.

I wasn’t ready to sing. So what could I do?

Trying to answer that question became the conversation. I spoke to Nana Aba Duncan on CBC’s Fresh Air about trying to figure it out:

And then on April 13, I stepped out from the wings with no guitar in hand nor piano to turn to, and I told the ears and hearts there what I’ve been trying to come to terms with with my voice.

It was something new. And it was wonderful.

Here is part of what I shared with the audience that night.

Tonight in Port Hope! I’m really honoured to be part of this.

A post shared by Christa Couture (@christacouture) on

I’m going to tell a few stories about names. When my mom was pregnant with me, I was named Matthew. She was sure she was having a Matthew.

When I was born, and Matthew no longer seemed a fit, it took her a few days to think of an alternative. Eventually: Christa. Christa Faye. She thought it suited me, and she was right! I have always felt like a Christa. 

And I have always loved the stories behind names and the meaning of names. I want to know how your name was chosen for you, or how you chose it for yourself. Middle names are often ripe with backstory: there’s the great aunt the middle name is after or the first sight a parent saw on the day of your birth and so on. And there’s just something about these stories that I have always found so enticing.

So the story of my name Christa started with Matthew. But I also have another name.

My mother is Norwegian and Swedish, my father was Cree. And when I was two-years-old, I was given my traditional name.

In my Cree culture, in many Indigenous cultures, our traditional names are given in ceremony, and they speak to our role in our community. They speak to our gifts, and they speak to our duty to use those gifts.

My traditional name is Sanibe.

Say nee bay.

It’s not actually a Cree word because the elder who gave me my name was Arapaho, we were in that territory, and you work with what you’ve got… and so my traditional name is Sanibe. And it means Singing Woman.

At my naming ceremony, the elder Raymond told my family: “She’s going to sing a lot, and she’s going to talk a lot.” And that is a story that I heard over and over when I was growing up. “Oh Raymond told us, she’s going to sing a lot and she’s going to talk a lot…” I loved that story.

As Singing Woman, I have been writing songs for as long as I can remember. And for the past 15 years, I’ve been recording those songs and performing them on stages across Canada and Europe and doing my job — being true to my name.

Singing songs has been not only my job but also how I have survived the hardest parts of my life. I am a person who has experienced a lot of loss. The loss of my leg to cancer, the loss of my father, the loss of my two children who have both died, the loss of my marriage after that.

I write about those losses in all of my songs. And in getting to share those stories through music, I have felt seen and heard. And with grief in particular, which is such a lonely emotion, I have had moments with you where I have felt less alone.

Someone asked me recently, most specifically to the loss of my children: “How are you okay?” And that’s hard to answer simply because like anyone I’m not in a fixed state. Sometimes I’m okay, and sometimes I’m not okay, and that’s human. But I did say that time passing helps, and singing and writing helps.

Which is the reciprocal part of Sanibe — that the name speaks to what I can give, but it has also been a huge part of what I’ve received.

Now a year ago, I had two surgeries on my neck: one to remove thyroid cancer, and a second to address an arterial bleed that erupted. And those surgeries changed my voice. They changed my singing voice. I can still sing, it’s just different, and I haven’t quite figured out how to use this new voice. Earlier this year, I was struggling very much with that reality.

How can I be Singing Woman if I’m not singing songs? That’s the whole point! And I was actually here in Port Hope, on my way to meet David and Beth Sheffield to talk about Imaginate, to talk about this exact moment, and Raymond’s story that I’ve heard so many times came to mind: “She’s going to sing a lot, and she’s going to talk a lot.”

For the first time ever, I heard the second half of that teaching. I’d always heard the “she’s going to sing a lot,” that part is obvious. And I had thought “she’s going to talk a lot part” just meant that I was chatty.

But for the first time, it occurred to me, that “she’s going to talk a lot“ was also a part of being Sanibe. That it could also be part of why I’m here and what my role is.

I felt a huge relief to consider it that way.

So instead of writing songs, I’ve been writing my stories down, and I’m going to read one of them to you now. This is a story that I have told in songs, but it comes out a little differently on the page….

…at which point, I opened my notebook and read one of the chapters in progress of my book. Reading to an audience felt raw and new, exciting, too. But also familiar — it turns out stepping up to a mic and opening my heart doesn’t need a guitar or piano or melody to be the invitation to listeners that singing always has been.

This piece got some unexpected attention online yesterday, and while it was the basis of that story I did on DNTO in 2015, I never really shared the written version two years ago when it won third place in Room’s nonfiction contest.

Perhaps it would have ranked better if I had employed a copy editor or known then how to reel in comma splices and better place modifiers… ahem. BUT, in all its grammatically error-ed glory, “Wallflower, Late Bloomer.”

Sitting on the edge of the tub I look at the large, red sore on my stumpthe edges of its oval shape roughen in the heat of the shower, small bumps push to the surface.

“What do you call your amputated leg?” H asked, years ago.

“Technically ‘residual limb.’”

“That sounds like something you can’t wash off.”

“Also stump.”

“Like you’re a tree?”

“Like part of me is.”

 

Read the full piece at roommagazine.com.

It’s been two years since “The M Word: Conversations on Motherhood” was published and editor Kerry Clare has been posting follow up pieces from contributors on her blog Pickle Me This.

This opportunity came up just before I left on tour and I wasn’t sure if I would have time for it, not just time to write it, but to feel it, too. Writing about my kids asks for space. And Kleenex.

On the flight from Vancouver to Toronto, I wrote my two-years later post; my part of the ongoing conversations on motherhood. You can read it over at picklemethis.com.

This is the fifth in a series of posts catching up writers from The M Word, and finding out what they’re up to now. (Find out more about The M Word and read its rave reviews right here.) From previous weeks: “Kerry Ryan on Wishing and Washing“; “Heather Birrell on Talking to her (M)Other Self”; “Dear Me, by Nicole Dixon“; “Kerry Clare on Motherhood and Abortion.” 

In her essay, “These Are My Children”, Christa Couture introduces readers to her sons, Emmett and Ford, and recounts how she has mothered and related to motherhood since their deaths. Here, she considers what’s changed and what hasn’t in the two years since her essay was published… 

I recorded an album!

Over seven and a half days (tight sched!) at the newly relocated Henhouse Studio, in Nashville.

With producer Steve Dawson.

(and with thanks to FACTOR funding)

For those of you following along, I made my last album, The Living Record, in 2012 with Steve at the Henhouse when both were based in Vancouver.

But the man and family since moved their home and business south and so I pointed myself in that direction to work with him again.

This album, Zookeeper, Lovely Like You, Normal HeartacheMidnight Friends, title-to-be-revealed-below, will be my fourth full-length and it has felt a long time coming.

That said, there are a few parts left for Steve to record and then it will be mixed in April. I don’t know yet when I’ll have it mastered, much less released, and so it has a way to come yet.

I don’t want to rush it.

But it is moving along.

I went into recording this album neither more nor less prepared than I have been before, but less certain. I was still finding/waiting on some lyrics until a few days before heading into the studio.  A few of the songs were only written a couple months ago, instead of my having a tidy, complete set, months in advance, road-tested and raring to go.

For the meandering pieces that were falling into place, I didn’t feel entirely sure how they’d fit together.

Other than that I made them.

And by working with Steve, with Gary Craig on drums, and John Dymond on bass, that they would be a whole, shaped by our working together.

I have always loved these Ani Difranco words:

“People used to make a record

as in a record of an event

the event of people making music in a room”

The music that I love most sounds like people made it. Skilled, creative, collaborative, present, masterful, imperfect, breathing humans. I love that sound.

Christa Couture in studio with Gary Craig, Steve Dawson, John Dymond

 

With a different band, on a different day, the songs would sound quite different. But for three days, the four of us recorded 12 songs, capturing them like photographs specific to our thoughts and hands in that time frame. The likes of Gary, Steve, and Craig get to dabble in that kind of magic all the time. But at the rate of making an album every 2-4 years, and not being a side player otherwise (save for the occasional bgs session – and I’m always available for bg sessions, note!), it’s a lucky, special few days for me, every time.

Here we are figuring out the intro to “The Slaughter:”

Those three days of getting “the beds” avec band were a relaxed – despite being jam-packed – fun, and exciting time. Holy smokes I’m just about the luckiest and most grateful wee singer-songwriter around for the experience of working with these fellas. John and Gary have a seeming psychic link, thanks to their years of working together, and it was a delight to see it, moreso to have it, and their talents, on my songs. In addition to being super profesh with mad skills, Gary was also a maker of excellent juices and fresh ginger fueled our days. Working with Steve remains a pleasure – the man is a master – and in our tight time line, he captained us smoothly on track.

Listening back to drums and bass on “Separation/Agreement” with Steve at the helm and engineer Shannon Swords nodding along.

 

It was a mighty fine time, I tell you.

After that followed my overdubbing piano, guitar, vocals, and harmonies, which just Steve and I did together, up until the final moments before I had to load up the car and leave town. Whewf!

This is a bit of what I look like while recording harmonies (well, here, I’m doubling a line in “That Little Part of My Heart”):

I’m a hand-talker.

And here’s Steve and me, happy record makers, on my way out the door on our last day:

Steve Dawson and Christa Couture

While I was feeling some uncertainty going into the studio, now I’m so excited about what we made. It’s different than what I’ve made before, sonically, emotionally. It’s something I didn’t expect. I can’t wait to share the finished album, and I can’t wait to play the songs live (most of them only a handful of people have heard).

It may be a long time coming but I can tell you now it’s named:

Long Time Leaving

Coming to ears and hearts near you soon(ish).

xoc

p.s. Thank you Michael for filming the studio stuff.

It’s no surprise of course that I get asked often about grief. My press release, bio, blog and, last but not least, music all speak to some of my experience with it and generally that’s what media is curious about.

As I’ve described before, some exchanges and interviews are meaningful, others can be abrasive. But being included in the latest issue of Room magazine was the former, and an honour.

It’s a beautiful issue on the theme “mythologies of loss” and I recommend finding it (and me on the last page) at a shop near you or online at: roommagazine.com/magazine.

Thank you Rachel Thompson for the interview!

…and probably not the last?

For the Songs and Sonics blog, Jeff Boller created J-Bot who randomly generates five interview questions. From what I understand, it’s given some basic information – like that I’m singer-songwriter, not a guitar-slinger – to narrow down the questions it draws from. I confess, I kept hitting resubmit once I read that if you don’t like the questions you can get J-Bot to ask you a different five, but not because I didn’t like them, but because I was curious! Eventually I ended my curiosity and replied. It was fun. Thanks Jeff and J-bot!

Interview: Christa Couture

Folk songwriter • guitarist • vocalist • keyboardist

What’s your writing process like?

It’s like that part in “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” about how to fly: “There is… a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.” Which is to say, at its best, it catches me off guard; it picks me up and swings me around; it just comes. Or not. I try not to overthink it – for me, thinking is the end of writing. I’m a bit artsy fartsy about it in that respect – I just start to sing when I’m moved to do so, and the muse doesn’t always have the greatest timing, but I do my best to accept her when she arrives. I can also sit down, be deliberate and say “I’m going to write a song about this now” as I have the tools to do so – but I’m never connected to those works in the same way as I am to the ones that reveal themselves to me on their terms. And for me, the connection is what makes it worthwhile.

What’s something you refuse to write about?

That seems like a trick question! Wouldn’t telling you be the end of my refusal? That said, there are things I keep private…

Well that’s the first part done then.

We spent four days at The Warehouse studio this past week getting much of what will be my new album recorded. Those four days were a long time coming, nearly a year in the making (more if you count the years that the songwriting spans), and after all of that preparation and anticipation, all of the piecing together of puzzle pieces, the near aligning of stars, those four days went by in an instant. A densely packed moment that left me both filled and drained.

There is more recording to come – next month Steve and I will continue to record more of my vocals and guitar, more of him playing guitar, and whatever other bits we deem necessary, like some accordion here, a little cello there, you know – so the process is far from done. But, this initial stage has been a biggie.

I can tell you now that is the best project I have ever been involved in. It sounds AMAZING.  And I’m not one to use all-caps lightly. The core players – Chris Gestrin, Niko Friesen, Rob Becker and Steve Dawson – are nothing short of fantastic. My songs and I are downright squee-ful to keep such remarkable musical company on this record. And the studio! Well, the Warehouse Studio’s Twitter bio of “the best studio anywhere” is not an exaggeration. Incredible gear, incredible space, top-notch crew…

Much of my view of the studio was of obscured by pop filters:

But you can see a bunch of other photos up in this Facebook album. Here’s one of my favourites – the lot of us attempting an aloof “rockstar attitude pose” photo:

Adorable, non?

It’s pretty special to get to make music with people, I love that us humans do that.

I love this record already so much.

________________________________________

I’ve been feeling speechless (despite my wordiness here), almost stunned, maybe just depleted… a kind of post-recording funk perhaps, aka the coming down phase. As mentioned, it’s not over, but the four long, busy, exciting, fruitful days were heart-rending too and while adreneline and dedication carried me through the weekend, I’ve been crying a lot since. A kind of release, and also the tears that I fought back so often while in the studio in the interest of time and vulnerability.

I managed one good cry in the lounge while others set-up on day two – thank goodness for that small exhale… Niko ate leftovers and listened and, because he’s the philosophizing type, we wandered into a conversation of our big human emotions in the face of our tiny human existence. As these things go…

The saddest song I’ve ever written is on this album, and completing it, coming close to completing it, feels like taking a step that I’m not quite ready for. A kind of admission, or acceptance. Recording that song is making the story true, more true – I’ve had my share of magical thinking in these past few years and recording is cracking those thoughts open.

________________________________________

It would have been wise to book time off directly following those studio days. Instead Monday morning was up and at ’em for some work at RPM, followed by teaching a workshop on grantwriting for Songweavers Studios… which was great (thank you Songweavers!). But I felt that the momentum of the weekend could have used a natural slowing to a halt, that I would have reveled in a fade out. I feel that I jumped tracks when I needed simply to ride it out.

Tuesday I found some balance between obligation and needing space by working on my laptop but refusing to leave my bed. And Tuesday is when I began to cry, thankfully with no time constraints, and no strangers to witness and wonder.

Today, I have finally had a chance to find some solid ground, thanks to a long shower, a soy chai latte, staring out a window into a sunny day, and the task of folding laundry. Phewf.

Here, me, Tuesday afternoon, hiding, thinking, remembering:

xoc

The time is nigh! In three weeks we head into the studio to start recording The Living Record.

I’ve been rolling out details of the recording on Facebook  – so far that Niko Friesen will be joining me again on drums (he played on both Fell Out of Oz and The Wedding Singer and The Undertaker) and Rob Becker will be playing bass, electric and upright for those wondering. Also that after starting with a list of 20 songs, and recording demos of 14, Steve (that would be Steve Dawson who’s producing the album) and I narrowed it down to 12 that we’ll take into the studio.

Phewf.

Steve and I have started hashing out some ideas – here he is at his studio kindly tuning my guitar for me:

(Confession: I find changing the tuning on my guitar like playing Jack in the Box – a tense game of anticipation! It’s not often a string breaks, but the times it does it always manages to startle the bejeezus out of me).

Meanwhile, I’m practicing more often then I usually do (I can be terrible at such things) and because it was a cold winter day, lit a candle to warm my music room up a bit:

Isn’t it amazing how much heat can come off one little flame?

Upon lighting the candle, seated at my piano, intending to practice one of the 3 (of the 12) songs that are piano based, I instead began to sing something new. Always one to jump on distraction and procrastination, I followed that tune to its conclusion and then put it to tape – er iPhone – to share.

So here I am with that passing moment, that candlelit song – Come Here Little Shadow:

Lyrics:

Come here fire
Here candle light
Help me to stave off the cold
I’ve been singing for hours now
Trying for these songs to take hold
The good part I guess is that playing makes sense of these fears

Come here secret
Comer here little shadow
It’s time to pack up and go
I’ve been waiting
They’ll all be waiting
For us to put on a show
Ready, get set, practice makes perfect
And the best part still is that we get to make sense of our fears.

Well we try to.

 

Now back to work…

An unexpected thing occurred during my artist residency at the ISLAND Hill House (and a funny thing on the way to the forum) – I made my first video blog. Artists do it all the time, I watch them all the time, and I carry my little flip video camera every where I go. But I’d never been compelled to use it in that way.

Something about being alone in the woods, something about finding a way to still connect with the world, something about having lots of time to think – and once I got started, I really liked it.

Which is to say I think I may be a budding video blogger. I may also be a budding nudist. Here are the nine video diaries in a row:

(more…)

It’s official: I’m making a new album called The Living Record.

Since I made my last album, the concept of “pre-sales” as funding has reached a whole new level of awesomeness, for all concerned, as “crowd-funding” has taken off with the likes of Kickstarter, FundBreak and IndieGoGo.

Thus, it is also official: I’ve launched a campaign to support the making of The Living Record. (more…)