Uncharted is our weekly showcase of independent artists we think you should hear. This week: Fiver, the pseudo-solo project of brilliant Toronto singer/songwriter Simone Schmidt.
“Fiver’s a solo project in the way that Neil Young is a solo project or Bob Dylan is a solo project or Phosphorescent is a solo project,” says Schmidt. “The Highest Order is a band like Crazy Horse or The Band.”
No matter what name she’s performing under, though, there’s a throughline to everything she does: a beautifully lyrical, narrative-based approach to songwriting that’s steeped in the traditions of folk without letting them tyrannize it. She’s studied her George Jones tapes carefully, and learned firsthand Toronto’s underheralded bluegrass workhorses, the Foggy Hogtown Boys, but she brings a critical edge to the tropes that she’s internalized. Schmidt’s songwriting is vital, modern music with a conscience.
“I love to record to tape and I also think old techniques in songwriting are important,” she says, “but I think ‘throwback’ music can be dangerous if it shirks the responsibility of integrating any of the lessons that we’ve learned over the past bunch of decades.”
We sat down with Simone Schmidt on an unseasonably warm Toronto patio for a fascinating, wide-ranging discussion about the limits of “confessional” songwriting, how failing health relates to sickness of the land, biblical allusions in professional wrestling, and why she feels out of step with both the modern indie scene and the traditional folk and country scenes.
You’ve said that a lot of the songs on Lost The Plot are about both personal sickness and the sickness of the environment. Would you call this a concept album?
I have had to think a lot about sickness and health and about caregiving in the past seven years of my life, from my early twenties into my late twenties, and care for a few friends and a partner who were sick with cancer. And coming from the political framework that I come from it’s very hard to know how to engage with the culture of cancer and cancer industry. I remember my lover getting leukemia and being given pamphlets at the Princess Margaret hospital. None of them covered what causes cancer, but there was one for Run for the Cure. Though I’m very grateful for the treatments that exist, I think that the causes of cancer are fairly evident, and it feels hypocritical to be at once running for the cure and then living in a way that is utterly destructive to the environment, from the way that I dress to the way that I get around the city to the amount of electricity that I use.
So there’s too much focus on the cure, rather than on prevention?
Yes. And then in combination with a new awareness that I think people are getting through the Idle No More movement of the relationship between environmental rights, land rights, and indigenous title to the land, to the ways in which the Canadian state only guards corporate interest and not the interests of our first peoples, it means that there has to be a link drawn between indigenous sovereignty, indigenous title to the land and our own settler environmental movements. And then of course a link between our own environmental movements and our health. I think about that all the time. I think about the violence that’s enacted on the land and how that cycles back towards us. I think it’s obvious. It’s all I can think about.
Are there any songs in particular that really engage with that theme?
“Rage of Plastics” is the story of a woman who gets asked to run for cancer during her lunch break at work. I envision the song as her response. She works at an oil refinery and she’s nursing her husband through cancer. She herself has become infertile. And she refuses to run for cancer. She’s talking about why she won’t participate in the hypocrisy when she’s still going to keep her job working at the oil refinery. The tagline of that song is “making this living just brings about dying.” I don’t blame her. I don’t see her as unique. She’s representative of many peoples’ condition, even my own. I don’t think your job needs to be totally tied to the oil industry in order to have negative impacts on the land.
I think cancer narratives really do focus on people who suffer directly from sickness, and that makes full sense, but many other people have to deal with caring for people who they love. Chemotherapy can be very transformative for everyone. I was very young taking care of people who were very sick, so I didn’t feel like I fit into all of the narratives that were being thrown at me about what it is to care for someone with cancer. I felt very deficient, resentful, hurt because what’s presented is the cancer hero, the cancer patient who beats cancer and is supported by their loved ones and then they move on stronger than ever. This is not, I think, the condition of most people, and I resent that being the narrative. So I wanted to provide music that could gracefully try to understand not so graceful narratives.
Where does “Undertaker” fit into that? That song's about the wrestler, isn't it? I had a wrestling phase, like many boys my age, but hearing you describe it in concert, it sounds like a classic American myth.
It’s kind of a nod to the tradition, but the stories of the WWE are probably more relevant to people’s lives and psyches than John Henry or Jesse James or any of those old folk tales that are traditionally used in folk music. A lot of the stories of the wrestlers are biblically based. Like, the Undertaker’s brother’s name is Kane. But it’s also a play on words, so I don’t think that the song necessarily has to be read from the perspective of the Undertaker. I think that it could be someone who takes less than they deserve, like the under-taker in a relationship. If you look at wrestling terminology, a lot of it is metaphorical. "Heavyweight," "certain fate rounds," things like that.
You tend to write about themes that are close to you, but from the perspective of characters rather than your own. Is that because you come out of a folk and country background, or is it a way to distance yourself from the music?
I’ve never liked to listen to people’s confessional music, so it never occurred to me to do it. I think that you have to write a very compelling journal in order for that to be the source of your music. I don’t doubt that some people do that, but I certainly can’t. I also understand certain feelings that I have or ideas that I have by recontextualizing them in another. I don’t really feel like I’m trying to give people a sense of who I am, but that’s because I don’t really feel like it’s that interesting to know who I am. I think this cult of personality that people expect you to cultivate is so indicative of an individualism that is causing the death of the planet. So I don’t want to contribute to that. I think that if you focus your week on making your art then the most interesting thing you make is going to be your art and not your life.
What do you think doing interviews? One of the things that’s expected of you as a musician, rather than a poet, is that you’re expected to talk a lot about your art after you’ve made it.
You’re supposed to generate content that isn’t your artistic work, which I do resent, because I think what it does to a culture is it diminishes the amount of time making the work and then depreciates the quality of the work. But I think that it would be a really hard go to be a poet only and not have song as a vehicle for the words. I feel like I’m lucky that I love music and I love production and I love to sing. To study guitar or voice is the most beautiful manifestation of the infinite, because you can get eternally better. And it’s not scary. Whereas the infinite usually is very daunting.
I was watching this NFB documentary about Irving Layton in 1986. He talks about feeling like the poet has become completely obsolete in a culture that only cares about the production of computers and cars. He no longer has a purpose except to engage with his peers. Sometimes I kind of feel that way.
Are you saying you feel out of step with your contemporaries?
I don’t really feel comfortable in either the folk or indie rock scenes. I don’t really feel like I belong in the traditional scene, because I’m not a great picker. Though I admire great pickers, I’m a songwriter and I deal with issues that I don’t think are generally dealt with in the folk scene. I still see much of the subject matter as throwback or explicitly political in ways that I think are great but that don’t jive with the way that I write. And there are very conservative elements. You’re supposed to wear a dress, or you’re supposed to just behave in certain ways that I don’t feel comfortable with.
I think the really traditional folk and bluegrass traditions allow people not to be songwriters, to be virtuosic without being singers. That’s what the spaces between verses is for, shit-hot picking. And as a result it’s a tradition that you can grow in. Whereas a lot of the people I know who start playing indie rock, there’s nothing that compels them to master an instrument.
I think there’s an aversion to being really good at your instrument in indie rock. For a while at least people seemed afraid to put in something like a guitar solo because it signified the kind of hyper-competent slickness they were rebelling against.
This is why I despise indie rock. I think it to be so boring and sloppy and totally melodramatic. There’s a lack of that skill so you don’t get, in that arrangement, any subtlety. Because if you don’t have any dexterity on your instrument, you will just have volume. You can only move in dynamic.
So you get bands that are just constant crescendos.
Mmm hmm, and I feel very manipulated when I listen to that kind of music, very annoyed. But also I don’t feel comfortable in the indie rock scene or necessarily in the rock and roll scene because I think there’s a deep ambiguity that’s going on there in terms of subject matter and in terms of cultural expression. People don’t want to hear guitar solos, yeah, that’s part of it, but people are pretty apathetic about what they’re writing about.
That’s true. Your music can be very political, and you’re right, you don’t see that a lot in indie rock.
Even in new punk music you don’t see that a lot. You see people reserving the right to party. And we live in an apartheid state, essentially, in terms of the segregation that exists with First Nations people. And that’s the condition of our life. And we’re also living within a huge environmental crisis where many of us are actually being affected directly because we’re getting sick. And I don’t see people touching that in what they write about. It seems culture has become a place for distraction, rather than expression. And I can dig if that’s what you want to do, but I don’t end up necessarily fitting in. You start to feel like you’re irrelevant to a degree because if you’re doing something that people aren’t familiar with, and their ability to even know that you’re doing decreases. It’s just about cultural literacy. Like if people don’t read, they can’t read.
And if people aren’t hearing that kind of music then they don’t know how to…
…listen, yeah. And so in a lot of ways I don’t know how if it can be heard right now.
And that comes through in the reviews, too.
Yes, that’s another thing. Even though I feel like I have always existed in a fairly fluid gender, the older I get the more I feel aware of the limits that I have because I’m a woman, the expectations that exist because I’m a woman, how I’m read because I’m a woman that doesn’t dress in certain ways, who I can possibly reach because I’m a woman who doesn’t dress in certain ways, and how much more important my appearance is than actually how I sing or what I’m saying is.
Then you look at music journalism and how many men are assigned to review your record. And I’m not saying that a man can’t understand the music that I make, but I don’t know that many men who self-identify as feminists and this point, and I’m writing feminist music. And I’m writing about the intuitive concerns of the women who, on this record, have to care for men. And so I’m not surprised when a record is reviewed and the content isn’t discussed, because I don’t know that, given the way that we’re formed culturally, men are encouraged to think about those things or expected to think about those things or expected to be in positions where they’ll feel any of the things that I’ve felt. So it becomes quite evident that possibly you wind up feeling irrelevant as a woman musician because of who’s going to end up reviewing you.
Are you planning to continue with both Fiver and the Highest Order?
Yes. I write all the time, and I write towards both. For me Fiver will just probably be the outlet that I have to do things that I want to do. I don’t think I’ll start to rap or something, but I think I’ll exercise the freedom to play and record with different people, or play and record in different styles. Who knows, maybe in three records it’ll have revealed how fickle or diverse it is.