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February 19, 2014IM -
As a teenager, she got to sit in with one of her favorite bands, Canadian folk-rockers Spirit of the West, by simply asking, “so who’s playing fiddle tonight?” knowing full well that they’ve never had a fiddle in their lineup. Later that night, she joined them in their ritual of shotgunning a beer on stage—ironic, because she was underage and had to beg to get into the show in the first place.
And just a few years ago, she unwittingly launched her solo career at a folk music festival by striking up a conversation with Chip Taylor, who later became her mentor, musical partner, and producer. A few weeks later, she was on her way from her home in British Columbia to New York to begin recording her debut solo album, Rearview Mirror Tears.
Carson continued her collaboration with Taylor on her second album, Alright Dynamite. It shows off even more of her firecracker personality, fiddling chops, and sultry voice—all of which helped keep the album comfortably in the Top Ten of the Americana Music Association’s Airplay Chart for more than two months following its release in June. “It’s a pretty neat story,” Carson says. “It’s been an organic, natural progression.”
It’s a progression grounded in classical music, steady gigging, and the prairies of her native province of Alberta. When Carson was six, just a few years after she began her fiddle lessons, her brother, who is also a member of Local 247, played with a group called the Calgary Fiddlers. She was, once again, left to watch and listen from the sidelines. She says that her family caught her hammering out, by ear, the songs she had heard at her brother’s rehearsals.
When she was seven, her family moved to Victoria, British Columbia. Her mom ran into fiddler Daniel Lapp during a square dance at the elementary school, and signed Kendel and Tyler up for lessons with him. It was through Lapp that Carson got her first gigs. “Victoria is a big tourist town and busking is a big thing,” says Carson. “So that’s how we started, we just kind of put our case out on the street. You learn how to try to stop people and get them to want to hear you play.” One day, Lapp sent Kendel and Tyler to fill in for him at a local gig, Kendel’s first “official” gig. “We made like 50 bucks,” she says. “We could not believe it; it was the most exciting thing ever.”
Kendel studied and performed classical music throughout her childhood. At 12, she and Tyler were regular soloists with the Victoria Symphony during a concerts-for-kids series held on Sunday afternoons. The siblings also did some playing abroad—in such far-flung locales as Japan and Thailand, something Kendel insists was a “novelty or hobby kind of thing.” By 18, she was playing with the Canadian National Youth Orchestra, but it was to be her classical swan song.
“That was pretty much the moment I realized that, as much as I had loved studying classical music and I’m very thankful for the foundation that it gave me, my passion really lies in rock ‘n’ roll, country, folk, and all those styles. That’s pretty much what I’ve done since,” Carson says.
Later that year, she joined the Paperboys, a rowdy Celtic folk group from Vancouver. She landed that gig because of her earlier guest appearance with Spirit of the West. Geoffrey Kelly of Local 145 (Vancouver, BC) played flute for both groups at the time and asked Carson to join the Paperboys. “That was the band that really taught me what road life was like,” she says.
So, by the time she ran into Taylor, Carson was already an experienced fiddler and road dog. But working with Taylor transformed her into a vocalist as well. She sang harmonies for a few groups and the Paperboys duet “Fall Down with You,” but singing was never as important as fiddling until she started work on her solo album, she says. “Because I’ve played fiddle my whole life, I have a connection with it,” Carson says. “Chip said, ‘You have to sing like you play your fiddle—like nobody else.”
Taylor handled the majority of the songwriting on both of Carson’s albums. He is, after all, the man that wrote the 1960s rock hit and sports-event favorite “Wild Thing.” But Carson contributes many of her own ideas, which made their way onto four of Alright Dynamite’s tracks. She also started learning guitar last year, which she says is a much better writing tool than the fiddle. Lyrically speaking, she says, prairies and the associated imagery—particularly trucks—are a big inspiration. Alright Dynamite alone has songs like “Belt Buckle,” “Jesse James,” and “Cowboy Boots,” and her top single from Rearview Mirror Tears is “I Like Trucks.”
“I only lived out in the prairies for the beginning part of my life,” she says. “But often, the farm kind of scenes come up in my lyrics— wide open spaces and that kind of stuff. It stuck with me for whatever reason.”
Alright Dynamite also features a cover of “Mercedes Benz” by Janis Joplin, not because it’s another vehicle-related song, but because, by chance, it came on the jukebox at a bar that she and Taylor were at during the recording sessions. She remembered her dad playing it all the time. “Joplin was definitely one of the bigger inspirations for me,” Carson says. “I love listening to Lucinda Williams [of Local 433 (Austin, TX)], The Band, Emmylou Harris [of Local 161-710 (Washington, DC)], and Gram Parsons, those kind of folks.”
Carson joined the AFM when she was 14. Like many Canadian artists, she says that her local is a “huge help” in securing visas to perform in the US. Carson says that she enjoys the sense of community that the local provides, as well as the gigs that come from it. “I just know they’re a good source of knowledge if it’s something I don’t know about,” she says. “You can pretty much always call them and they’ll at least point you in the right direction, even if they don’t know the answer.”
For the foreseeable future, Carson will be focusing on her solo career, supporting Alright Dynamite, and beginning work on the follow-up album at some point. She still plays with the Paperboys when she can, though they both have busy schedules. From time to time, she’ll play with other Canadian artists, like singer-songwriter Dustin Bentall of Local 145, but there’s always somebody to jam with in Canada. “In the Canadian scene, whenever you meet up with other bands, you always end up sitting in with them, wherever you are,” she explains.