Karen Young is busier than ever—composing, organizing gigs in a myriad of styles, and gearing up for a five-concert series starting in February.
For our interview, Young was seated in a Verdun café, sipping her latte and reading a Nancy Huston novel. She had that glow we have come to associate with her, ever since we first heard her with the Bug Alley Band in the late 1970s. Her engaging stage presence, a mix of joy and innocence, her skill in singing scats, ballads and even Yiddish songs have won her admiration from musicians and fans.
We met to talk about her latest projects, and the release of two albums that speak to the range of her musical interests and talents.
You Make Me Feel So Young (URSH/Select) is not a play on her name, Young insisted, with a smile—merely her title track and top pick from among the varied selections on the album. It features two jazz veterans, guitarist Sylvain Provost and bassist Normand Guilbeault, both dedicated and talented musicians. They provide the highest level of support and enhancement, allowing vocals and accompaniment to fold together seamlessly.
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The second album is surprising for someone best known for her work as a jazz singer: Missa Campanula (URSH/Select), a liturgical polyphonic mass in eleven movements, written over five years, while Young was helping to care for her late mother, Lorna Bell Chadwick, declining with Alzheimer’s until her death in 2012.
An incandescent, spiritual and uplifting work, Missa features the Voces Boreales vocal ensemble and among the soloists, her daughter, the well-known jazz and pop vocalist Coral Egan. It is a follow-up in some ways to her Canticum Canticorum project, an oratorio based on the Song of Songs.
Both projects underline the range of Young’s musical impulses, her love of choral music, her vision for ensemble works and ability to convey deep emotions.
“When I just listen to music, I call it my blue hour—just after sunset especially in winter, when it’s all blue, that incredible colour of the snow and the sky. I listen to choral music and it just gives me this sense of peace. Life is sacred, and the world is sacred – and this music is sacred.”
Young recalled the moment when her mother was driving in Hudson and suddenly didn’t know what was happening, “She was hysterical and didn’t know what to do, so my sister Maureen and I decided it was time for her to move in with one of us. She had been staying at a cottage near the river in Hudson. After the incident, she came to live with Maureen, the one who always looked after mom.
“My sister kept her promise,” Young recalled. “I can’t tell you how much I respect my sister for what she’s done. She was always going to classes, teaching Yoga, then running home. My mother was always happy. We would watch old movies together. Maureen would take her to hear my brother’s country band and she would dance. She always loved music.”
Karen Young replaced her sister regularly to give her respite time, and her dog became her mother’s dog.
It was during this difficult time that Karen Young began writing the music in honour of her mother. It was not something she decided on doing, Young insisted, the music came to her from a deeper source: “Whenever I was there I just sat down with my laptop and worked ten hours a day.”
As she writes in the liner notes, “Composing this work was a lifeboat…My style of writing changed substantially, became more romantic, nearer my mother’s taste; the worse she got, the more full of hope the music became.”
As the writing progressed, she realized, “it was based on a bell-like canon sung by the women and trebles. I named it Missa Campanula, or the Bell Mass.” While recording the work in the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours chapel in Old Montreal.
“We heard her approval in the almost imperceptible ringing of the glass chandeliers in the silence after each song.”
Born in June 1951 and raised in Hudson, Quebec, Young’s romance with music was nurtured at home, with piano lessons. Then she taught herself guitar. Her uncle, Berkley Chadwick, founded the Elgar Choir in the 1920s and directed it for 30 years. Her mother sang in that choir as a teenager.
Young’s first adventure was with folk music, when as a teen she developed harmonization with friends at high-school hootenannies, then scoring a hit at 19 with her single, Garden of Ursh. She sang in several Montreal choirs where she says she fell “deeply in love with sacred music.”
The music industry, however, scared her, Young recalled, so in spite of her hit single, she and then-husband tried living off the land near the Rivière Rouge. When that experience collapsed, Young moved to Montreal with a son and daughter and founded Bug Alley Band as lead vocalist – a hip jazz combo, modeled on the pioneering Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross group.
Her career went on to teaching at Université de Montréal and duos with Montreal’s first-call bassist of the 1980s and 1990s, Michel Donato.
This year she sang Yiddish lyrics—music composed by Henri Oppenheim to poems by Montreal writers—as part of Tur Malka. Yiddish expert Rifka Augenfeld coached her on pronunciation.
“I’ve always needed that variety, because I’m a bit of a school dropout. I’ve learned everything on my own. I’ve cultivated curiosity and respect and I bring it into what I write. I really like having a large palette.”
She has three CDs with bassist Michel Donato on Justin Time, and a total of 11 with her own URSH label, and others with violinist Helmut Lipsky.
Young lives in Verdun in a condo overlooking the reservoir and spends long hours developing ideas and composing for choral ensembles.
She plans to write music for Five Songs of Leonard Cohen, free prose from his Book of Mercies, which would be performed in tandem with Missa Campanula, if and when Cohen agrees.
Karen Young is featured in a five-concert Invitation Series, or Carte Blanche, at the Côte des Neiges Maison de la culture, 5290 Côte des Neiges. Tickets are free. To reserve: 514-872-6889.
Jan. 26 • pianist Marianne Trudel accompanies Young in repertoire and Joni Mitchell songs
Feb. 9 • Young presents Brazilian music with piano, bass and drums
Feb. 16 • jazz and swing tunes in a trio with guest saxophonist Jean Derome
Feb. 18 • a tribute to bebop singers Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, with family, Doug Young,
Isabelle Young, and Lana Charbonneau
March 3 • medieval melodies re-interpreted with a trio, including singer-bassist Pierre Cartier