There are many reasons award-winning singer-songwriter Gary Fjellgaard likes to perform in the Shuswap every fall.
“It’s one of my favourite places to play; great atmosphere, out in the country. I always feel good when I get there to set up,” he says of annual appearances with Valdy at Carlin Hall. “A lot of my audience is rural; people are so warm and friendly and laugh at all our jokes.”
Fjellgaard is hoping to get the same warm reception when he returns to the Shuswap in May – not to Carlin Hall where he says the ladies take such good care of him, but to the Prestige Harbourfront Resort for the annual Word on the Lake Writers’ Festival.
An accomplished guitarist, singer and songwriter, Fjellgaard will present a workshop on songwriting.
“It’s more than 45 years and counting that I have been turning out songs and making a reasonable living doing it,” he says. “I played in bars out of necessity; I never enjoyed it much, but it was a good way to go to school.”
As well as honing his craft on the job, Fjellgaard says he decided long ago what kind of songs suited him and his audience.
“It was the nature of the songs that carried us through,” he says. “Writing always has to have the ring of truth; people accept you for that. If you’re writing a lie, people will detect it and stop coming.”
Raised on a farm on the Canadian Prairies Fjellgaard’s songs ring of a frontier spirit.
The talented troubadour came to B.C. in 1953 and headed for the bush, finding inspiration for his songs over 20 years in the logging industry, his annual stints as a trail-riding cowboy and his travels back and forth across Canada.
But inspiration is only the beginning, he laughs.
“You might get that flash of inspiration, then the work starts,” he says. “You think it’s almost written itself, but no, then you have to try to put it into a form your audience will like, not just your mom.”
Then, there are the rules; the ring of truth is one, hard work is the other.
“It’s fun work, but songs don’t write themselves,” he says. “People might say they wrote a song in two minutes, but then there’s the weeks of rewriting.”
Fjellgaard maintains it’s not good enough to stand up on the stage and sing a song. First, the song has to be learned inside and out, and then the songwriter can add the emotion and energy.
“Emotional energy is the key to everything.”
In terms of lyrics, Fjellgaard says some people write great prose, but that doesn’t mean it will sing. And when the words do work, they have to fit the music.
“If you write a beautiful soaring melody, then the words have to fit,” he says, emphasizing “the marriage between the lyrics and the melody has to work.”
Of the several hundred songs he has written, Fjellgaard says he boils it down to 25 songs to take on tour, changing them every time, but always keeping a few favourites that he and his audiences love.
A master of creating a warm rapport with his audience, Fjellgaard says it wasn’t always that way.
“It took me a long time to feel comfortable with what I do,” he says, noting he used to be up-tight and subject to stage fright. “Being scared to perform is a very natural feeling, but it became a lot easier and now I enjoy getting out in front of people.”
Fjellgaard has led workshops before and is looking forward to participating in the Word on the Lake Writers’ Festival, which runs May 15 to 17.
He suggests those who are interested in his workshop pick some of their favourite songs prior to the festival and consider why it is successful.
“I will try to do my best get the songwriting thing across, why it works and why it doesn’t,” he says. “I have some literature and I touch upon the commercial aspect. One of the headings on some of the literature is ‘And then you work, and then you work, and then you work.’”
The 2005 Juno Award winner still tours extensively, retreating to his home on Gabriola in between. His lifelong love for his wife Lynne, their four daughters and their many grandchildren is lovingly illustrated in many of his songs.
For more information on Word on the Lake presenters, their writing contests, workshops, coffee house, banquet, entertainment, earlybird rates, bursaries and more, visit www.wordonthelakewritersfestival.com.
Prior to the festival, a fundraising ceilidh will be held March 28 at the Wicked Spoon, featuring an evening of music with Rough Pearl (formerly Cats and the Fiddle), the Circle of Friends band, dance, great food and a silent auction.