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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Lots Of Pastries - A Wildy's World Interview with Mike Ford

Mike Ford has a gift for writing funny songs about serious subjects, and sometimes even serious songs about funny ones. In his early days in popular music he helped front the musical madness that was Moxy Fruvous. Since then he has embarked on a career of educating students on civics, history and geography through song. This has resulted in enough material for four albums to date, with the latest, Canada Needs You, Volume 2, being released in June of 2008. We recently had a chance to sit down and chat with Mike about his goals, dreams, ambitions, ships, and pastries.

WW: Okay, so you have this 12-year career with Moxy Fruvous, and you all reach a point where you have other things you want to do. How difficult a transition was it from being part of a band to going solo?

MF: It was certainly scary at first. I have the blessing of a wonderful partner (Therese) who believes and supports what I do – that was HUGE. But still, coming from the scheduling ‘auto-pilot’ that being in a full-time band requires, it was hard just to get up and at it. I found myself in Libraries a lot, gradually building the approaches and concepts that now define what I do. Also, live performance is vastly different. With Fruvous, one could just coast every now and then for part of a show, knowing the others would be there. Solo is quite intense.

WW: How did you come to writing songs about people, places and events in Canadian History? Was this a conscious choice or did it find you somehow?

MF: This came and grabbed me. The two biggest reasons were My Dad and Touring. In my teens and twenties, my Dad ran his own business creating Audio-Visual educational resources, much of it about aspects of Canadian History. So there was an office at the house I could wander into and pour over images, books, maps. I was hooked. After high school, I travelled across Canada for French Immersion, Mountain Climbing, Tree-Planting, and just general exploring. This, followed by a decade of very intense Fru-touring, introduced me to amazing places, people and stories across Canada, so the songs just started coming out. That I’ve embraced it so fully is in no small part due to my feelings that we suffer in Canada from a great lack of historical awareness and interest, which becomes a great weakness as regards civic participation, the common good, ecological health, personal freedom, minority rights, etc.

WW: Can we talk about the creation process for a moment? Did you sit down and decide to write songs about someone like Joey Smallwood, or did you have a melody/progression that suggested Joey Smallwood as a good subject?

MF: With my history songs, it almost always starts with the thematic concept, and some simple lyric sketches – then it goes back and forth between music and lyrics until it’s done. A few of the tunes on the new CD (Creeping Barrage, The Giants) were melodies I had around for a while and came back to mind while I was studying the historical themes.

WW: Are there more tunes from the Canada In Song project that we've yet to hear?

MF: There are a lot of topics I’ve only gotten first drafts started on – some of these will blossom eventually. Most of my study at present deals with First Nations (I believe Amerindian is the common term in the USA) history and related social issues. Some of that will come out in my upcoming French CD, some will have other lives.

WW: Your last album, Satellite Hotstove, included some songs from The Laker Music Project. Can you tell our readers a little about that?

MF: David Francey is an amazing songwriter – one of only two performers I’ve ever written a ‘fan-letter’ to. (The other is Pete Seeger!). He’s become one of the most sought-after musicians on the festival and folk scenes all over the English-speaking world. He’s a wonderful guy, and as a result of that fan letter, Therese and I have become friends of David and his wife Beth. A few years back, David decided to pursue his love for the great Lake Boats of the Great Lakes, by getting to stay on one. I’ve always been fascinated by the Lakers as well, and the immense Lock system that carries them into the heart of our continent. With some arts funding help, David and I where ably to live 2 weeks on a 720-ft Laker (The Algoville) as she sailed from Montreal to Thunder Bay and back. Awe-inspiring. Since then, we’ve been writing songs all about the Sailors, Freighters, Ports and Locks of The St. Lawrence and Great Lakes. We’ve done some Laker shows, with our stories and projected photos, and later this year we’ll be recording them all on one Album, and then performing Laker shows through 2009 – the 50th anniversary of the opening of the modern Seaway. It’s something we are both extremely passionate about. The whole world of it, the people, the structures, the vast inland sea itself, is endlessly fascinating – and yet almost totally ignored in modern media. The album and shows, by the way, will also feature two multi-instrumentalists, Craig Worth (who is David’s musical partner) and Geoff Somers – brilliant musicians. We look to be recording as a foursome this Winter.

WW: What's it like to live on the water for a (period of time) and just focus on writing songs?
MF: Unless they’re tied up in Port, Lakers are floating beehives of activity 24 hours a day. David and I barely got time to sit at our guitars as we were constantly zipping about on board, trying to catch everything. It was like being a kid. We had lengthy interviews with all 21 crew members, got to sit up in the dark Bridge through the night (sonar beeping, Doppler Radar buzzing, hailing frequencies over the radio, and the occasional salty limerick from the 3rd mate). Having always lived in Southern Ontario, being on the boat was like experiencing the geographic inverse of my life. A few songs did come while we were aboard, and since then they keep on coming, inspired by the indelible images of that fortnight afloat. We developed an undying respect for the sailors of the Seaway and Great Lakes – I think a lot of that comes out in the songs.

WW: You've been in the public eye for a number of years now in one capacity or another. What is one thing that fans might be surprised to learn about you?

MF: I eat a lot of Pastries. A. Lot. Of. Pastries. Well maybe it’s not that surprising. Also, I used to be a baker. Probably a good thing, girth-wise, that I got out of that line of work. Another bit of info probably not widely known is that I am one of 9 children (which probably helped gird me for those long tours in the Frubus!)

WW: Are there any other projects on the horizon for you? Or is there anything new musically that you'd like to tackle eventually?

MF: Two that I’ve alluded to herein. I am extremely excited about getting to record the Laker Project songs with David Francey – this winter if all goes as planned. We want people to be taken on a journey with this Album – a journey into the oft-forgotten, oft-ignored Inland Sea at the heart of this continent. It’s a major thrill to be able to work with David (and Craig and Geoff). Another project, simmering on the back-burner, is the creation of my first French language CD. It will be called “Le retour d’Étienne Brûlé” – a historical person who is usually referred to as the first non-indigenous person to see Southern Ontario, Toronto, The Great Lakes, etc (he lived in this area from 1610 to roughly 1630, left behind his European ways for a ‘Native’ life. The second half of the Album will be about an imagined return by Brûlé to our present era, and his impressions on our modern life. So, in song, I’ll be exploring a whole range of ideas. The fact that it will be my first ‘long-form’ creation as well as entirely en francais does set it up as a hefty challenge, I suppose.

WW: On the new album you have a song entitled "Canada Doesn't Need You". This seems reflective of conversations going around the world about "illegal immigration", and attempts for countries to control who comes through their borders. The song is very melancholy and almost ashamed in tone, whereas the previous "Canada Needs You" was the consummate sales pitch. Do you find yourself emotionally invested in this issue, or are you just a neutral observer in this case?

MF: Unless one is an Indigenous ‘Canadian’, then immigration has figured in one’s presence here. Until quite recently, being let into this country, or the circumstances under which one was let in, was a matter of race. The song “Canada Needs You” is a bit of a spoof on the gung ho sales pitch of 100 years ago. While studying that theme, it became quite clear that the free 160 Acres et al was actually only being offered to pink or pale –hued people. The song ‘Canada Doesn’t Need You’ looks at the same theme in three different snapshots – verse one is Canada’s total refusal of Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Europe at the start of WW2. Verse 2 is about the internment (and total property theft) inflicted upon almost every single Japanese Canadian after Pearl Harbour. Verse 3 is about the forced removal of the vast majority of First Nation’ (Indigenous) children from their homes and put into residential schools in order to, in the government’s words “kill the Indian inside the Indian”. There are many lessons to be learned from these atrocious segments of Canadian history. As someone who sings about that history - the happy parts, the quirky parts – I’ve definitely got to focus on these swept under the rug parts as well. Interestingly, I find that those stories are the ones that get the biggest welcome – suggesting that there is a great readiness to understand and act on these themes today. Also, my wife’s family experienced first person the scenarios of Verse 2 above. Hearing their stories inspired me to research and write.

WW: I know a lot of your songs both as a solo artist and even in your Fruvous days had political themes -- some of them very passionate. Do you think you'd ever have the stomach for politics?

MF: I’m certainly fascinated by Party and Mainstream politics, and come election time, I’m often found canvassing door-to-door for a candidate I believe in, but no, I don’t ever see myself taking that kind of plunge. On the activist/educational side, I’m often quite involved politically. When I’m at work doing Songwriting workshops in the High Schools, I like to think I am facilitating political expression – the results from the students are astounding.

WW: If you had to pick one issue in the political realm that means the most to you, what would it be and why?

MF: Justice for Indigenous Peoples. I don’t think it’s ‘bleeding heart’ to admit that the rapid conquest of this continent (through the 16, 17 and 1800’s) was based on thievery, deception, lies, broken promises, and most glaringly, European concepts that the Indigenous were not fully human. I can only really speak to the Canadian situation. The majority of Canadians are hugely uneducated as regards First Nations history, society, and the EXTREME poverty faced by perhaps most of these communities today. Among other things, Land Claim Issues will not simply vanish, and need to be faced, understood and equitably resolved if there is a future for this country. It’s about justice that can’t be continually run away from. I also believe that the conquest mindset of the preceding centuries is alive and well today and at the heart of our ecological crisis, not to mention the apparent feeling that lives lost around the globe to starvation or disease are somehow lives less worthy than our own lucky ones. Okay I’ll shut up now.

WW: Okay, a couple of lighter questions now. Of the songs you've written, what is your favorite at this moment?

MF: Probably “Open For Business”, my subterrainian-homesick-blues-esque commercial for the wonders of neo-con-Sell-Canada-to-the-highest/lowest-bidder-ology! It’s fun to sing and play.

WW: What's the worst song you've ever written, regardless of whether anyone has heard it or not?

MF: Hmmmm. I don’t mind the song “Half As Much” on Fruvous’ Thornhill, but my singing on it is atrocious. Making it my least favourite! The other guys must’ve been just being polite in the studio. I mean, take a breath and sing less annoyingly, lad!

WW: Who are your musical heroes/influences?

MF: Stevie Wonder / Jacques Brel / Gilberto Gil / Randy Newman / The Band / Beau Dommage / Felix Leclerc / David Bowie / Joni Mitchell / Stevie Wonder / David Matheson / Alf Claussen / La Bottine Souriante / Bob Dylan / Israel & Jacob Gershowitz (the Gershwins) / Loudon Wainwright III / Ron Sexsmith / Puccini / Sheesham & Lotus / Sinatra / Caetano Veloso / David Francey / Stevie Wonder etc…..

WW: If you could share the stage with any one performer, living or dead, who would it be?

MF: Stevie (Wonder), circa 1973. I’d be playing the shaker.

WW: Obviously your Canada In Song cycle plays well with Canadian audiences. Any thought of ever taking your act on the road south of the 54-40 again, or are you done with big touring?

MF: Actually. I’ve only been North of the 54-40 3 times in my life (twice to Yellowknife NWT, once to Whitehorse in the Yukon. But if you mean ‘touring into the USA’ , I look forward to appearing at a few festivals next summer, stateside, if all goes well, and I’m hoping to land gigs in Ann Arbor and Buffalo before then. As you notice, very timid in terms of touring – but alas, we did an awful lot of it through the 90’s and I’m much happier closer to home. But…we’ll see.

WW: Okay, one more politically charged question that I have to ask. On Canada Needs You, Volume 2, there was a Moxy Fruvous reunion of sorts. Is there ever any thought of reviving Fruvous even for a few shows for old times sake?

MF: I sure hope so. I wasn’t a big fan of our band the first few years we existed, but once we got touring, I think our sound and abilities really clicked. Frick, by the end, I though we were AWESOME. So, yes, even for a few gigs it would be great. Hmmmmm….

WW: Okay, last chance. The last question is whatever you want to say to the world, to your fans, to a public figure, anything. Tabula Rasa and all that.

MF: Here comes Autumn – pile the leaves high, run through them, skip off work, stare out at the Lake / Ocean / Puddle. Make Art out of refuse. Stay out in the woods all day. Pack a Lunch. Include Martinis.

Mike Ford has released eight albums as a member of Moxy Fruvous and four more as a solo artist (including Satellite Hotstove and Canada Needs You, Volume 2, both of which have been reviewed on Wildy’s World). For additional information about Mike Ford please check out You can order any of Mike Ford’s solo CDs through

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