Featured Artist -- Fiona Dickinson (September 2014)

I have always appreciated the arts culture we have here in Kalamazoo. Growing up in here, it is impossible not to be exposed to the arts. My oldest sister is a skilled painter/drawer, my mother and I are both poets, in addition to two neighbor poets within a one block radius. The arts culture is an integral part of Kalamazoo. In many ways, the arts are Kalamazoo. 

As a way of continuing to celebrate and support this culture I've decided to feature a Kalamazoo artist on my blog each month coinciding with ArtHop. Stay tuned for visual artists, painters, graphic designers, photographers, poets, crafters, actors, and much more. Up first, we have the formidable singer/songwriter, Fiona Dickinson.

While she has a quiet presence, shy is not the word I would use to describe Fiona. Deliberate would be more accurate, and slightly intimidating. Born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and raised in Qatar, Scotland, and England, Fiona speaks with a soft, slightly husky, British accent. Fiona moved with her parents to the Kalamazoo area in 2000.

Her website describes her music as "Bjork-esque." I can see the resemblance. Fiona's debut album, Duende (2010), evokes for me a blend of Tori Amos' Little Earthquakes, Bat for Lashes' Fur and Gold, a dash of Bon Iver, and Pat Carroll's Glow in the Dark. Fiona's music is honest, intense, and refreshingly unapologetic.

I think of the term duende, which first came to me through poetry, as something which has a force to it. A power in and of itself that calls out from the belly. In his lecture, Play and Theory of the Duende, poet Federico García Lorca’s states, "The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, 'The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.'"

Duende means "little demon" or "ghost" in Spanish. And indeed, there's a haunting quality to Fiona's music and voice. As we sit down to talk about the album, this sound quality is the first thing I ask about. The answer? Reverb. Having never heard the term before, I find the concept fascinating. This technique is what gives Fiona's music its echo or "cathedral sound." A sort of "classical grooming up," as she calls it. Fiona loves what reverb can lend a song; she enjoys how, "there are notes that hide away and ones that poke through with the technique. It's great for harmony and also great at hiding any mistakes, say, if you're slightly out of pitch." Fiona argues that vocals are not always the most important component to a song (which is ironic since her vocals are so arresting), "Any technique is like a good conversation. You can't lay all your cards out at once; you have to ease into it." Reverb allows this blending.

The album is admittedly not easy listening. "It's a [emotional] release," Fiona tells me, "Duende is something that will make you cry, not make you thrilled. It makes you feel what is intense because that's what you need to feel. That's what I needed at the time from the music I was listening to and the music I was making." Much of the album grapples with coming to terms with her own experience of sexual abuse as a child. And indeed, a sense of suffocation and need for release comes through in her songs. Listening, that rawness is apparent. Songs Recalling Dreams and Do As I Please carry a strong theme of accusation and urgency in them, whereas the last song on the album, Winter is Coming, evokes a combination of both melancholia and rebirth.

Fiona says she left most of the lyrics pretty vague and instead wanted to translate her feelings and experience aesthetically. "I think one thing I enjoy that many female vocalists steer away from is allowing my voice to break, to be ugly. Even when the content is devastating, the sound [of other female artists' voices] is still often too pretty and neat. An overly polished sound is hard to connect with. I didn't want that with this album." Female artists I find who are skilled at this are Tori Amos, Ani DiFranco, and Neko Case, to name a few. It is a rare quality and takes a huge amount of risk. Will the harmony catch you? Will the intensity of the song carry the singer through that moment of letting go? For Fiona's music, the answer is a resounding yes. Her ability to match a moment of complete vulnerability with a gravely voice that catches at just the right point is consistently powerful.

Fiona started playing music seriously in 2009. Her intro to the music community here in Kalamazoo started at The Strutt. "I was performing there a lot and found myself among other artists who took me seriously and invited me to make music with them." Pat Carroll was one of the first to befriend Fiona at The Strutt. His music has had the largest influence on her work since the beginning. "He was a sort of musical soul mate in my eyes."

Other initial connections at the now defunct music joint included Grant Parsons, Andy Catlin, Grant Littler aka Gitis Baggs, and other members of the Double Phelix music collective. "I didn't know how to be at ease on stage-- there was more of a quiver in my voice--which is also where I was in my day to day at the time... It's hard to have something you write and think is good, but then think 'Can I perform this?' The community surrounding The Strutt helped me overcome those performance fears."

Samantha (Sam) Cooper was an early friend in the local music scene. When I ask Fiona if she has any "affairs" from her main projects she laughs, saying, "Sam is my affair. From whatever main project I have going on. And I'm passionate about it. For years now. It's great. Playing with her has given me much more freedom. Music theory is so mathematical. Sam helps with the practice of forgetting those boundaries."

What's next?

Currently in the midst of relocating to Grand Rapids (don't worry, she'll still be around!), Fiona is busy working on her second musical score for a feature length film from Brooklyn based filmmaker, Tyler Rubenfeld. "It's this weird trippy soundscape for a storyline where dreams and reality are quite blurred." She laughs, "Basically my bread and butter."

When asked what she enjoys most about singing/songwriting, she says, "I really enjoy pairing something ugly next to something pure. Beauty can't exist without something ugly, some shadow nearby. Beauty is in the flaws that we find."

"Duende was an Autumn/Winter album. I'm in more of a Spring/Summer space these days. Meaning, I’m finally opening up to working in the major key. The majority of songs being written for the new album have a real warmth to them. It truly feels as though I’m turning a new leaf."

I for one, eagerly await what comes next.
I highly encourage you to explore Fiona's music. Here is her website and facebook page.

Thanks for reading!

Don't forget to check out my facebook page and website.