Musical history can seem quaint when there's so much to be excited about now, in the digital era. But the Queer Songbook Orchestra is a reminder of the very practical, healing benefits of looking back at decades worth of songs with a 2016 point-of-view.
Founded by musical director Shaun Brodie, the QSO's mandate is to “[take] a look at the last hundred years of popular song with the queer lens intact, revealing the backstories and personal narratives behind much of this music.” With 10 members and a rotating circle of celebrated Toronto artists like Simone Schmidt and Casey Mecija, the QSO transforms classic hits and songbook standards into enchanting chamber pop.
Brodie's aware that the project probably couldn't exist at any other time in Western musical history. That's why he's using this position in time for the benefit of artists who couldn't speak out. “I think it's important for the history of the community to draw attention to these narratives and the contributions of artists who lived in less tolerant times.” Far from being simply revisionist, the QSO also includes the stories and experiences of their members to keep the performances contemporary and personal.
Does a song have to have queer themes for the QSO to play it?
Not necessarily. It just has to have resonance for someone in the community in order to make its way into our repertoire. For example, we play Nina Simone's “Don't You Pay Them No Mind'” which, as far as I know, is not based on queer experience. But the sentiment of feeling people point and whisper as you walk down the street with your partner is something many LGBTQ people can easily relate to.
How does the QSO decide which songs to play?
We arrive at our repertoire choices in two ways. Since forming the ensemble we've been asking members of the queer community to suggest songs that have particular significance to them. Several of these suggestions have become part of the songbook, accompanied by personal stories. The stories and songs are usually presented together at our shows.
The other way we decide on songs is to explore queer songwriters and performers who have made significant contributions to popular music, but whose personal stories are largely unknown. There are innumerable queer backstories to pop music of the last hundred years, and this project is one way to shed light on these stories and pay (often overdue) respect.
At our Christmas show we invited people from the community to share personal stories of queer experience based around the holidays, a time of year that can be very weighted. All of the stories were very moving, and it felt like a real camaraderie developed amongst everyone in the room. I shared one of my own stories that night, which had to do with a Christmas holiday several years ago. My mother was very ill, we were aware it would be her last Christmas, and I fell in love for the first time with a man. The contrasting emotions and abundance of love I felt over those weeks was quite overwhelming.
Why did you decide to reinterpret the source material rather than cover it?
I come from a classical background in terms of my formal training, but have spent most of my working years freelancing in the indie-pop/rock world. I'm interested in the intersection of different styles and blending familiar elements with the unexpected, and sometimes experimental. Reinterpreting songs also allows them to be heard from a new perspective which, combined with personal narratives, [feels more impactful than] simply playing the songs as they were originally recorded. By commissioning these new arrangements, it's also given us the opportunity to collaborate with a number of incredible contemporary composers and arrangers from across Canada. That's been a really exciting element of this project.