The Queer Arts Festival (QAF) is Vancouver’s artist-run festival of queer arts and culture, held every summer at the Roundhouse Community Arts & Recreation Centre. Now in its 11th year, the QAF is a multidisciplinary affair, presenting an art exhibition and performance series, as well as workshops, artist talks, panels, and screenings. This year’s festival, which coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, is organized around the theme of rEvolution, and focuses on the transgressive and transformative potential of queer art.
In advance of the festival, SAD Mag spoke with Shaun Brodie, artistic director of the Queer Songbook Orchestra, a renowned national chamber ensemble that unearths the queer backstories and narratives in contemporary music.
SAD: Can you tell about the origins of Queer Songbook Orchestra? What was the inspiration? How did the ensemble come together?
SHAUN BRODIE: The QSO formed in 2014. It came about after about a decade of working as a freelance musician with many indie-pop bands throughout Canada, and finding myself post-30 and kind of at loose ends. I didn’t feel as though the work I was doing was necessarily sustainable for a lifetime and, beyond that, I wanted to find work that I could be more invested in. I’ve long had an interest in storytelling and little-known histories, and combined with my queer identity and background in music, the idea slowly formed to create something that would allow these elements to intersect and, hopefully, be of service to the community. I started calling up friends - I was fortunate to already know many fantastic musicians, queer and allied – to see if they would be interested, and they all very enthusiastically agreed. We did our first show at the legendary - and now defunct - space ‘Videofag’ here in Toronto, a small storefront-style space for queer art and performance run by William Ellis and Jordan Tannahill. That was March of 2014, and in the five years since we’ve toured all over Canada, worked with over 150 collaborators, and shared endless stories of queer experience from the stage.
SAD: From a performer’s perspective, what makes playing with the Queer Songbook Orchestra different from other ensembles or projects?
SB: I had never played shows prior to the QSO that were so centred around narrative. There’s always stage banter from the singer/bandleader and that type of thing, but with the QSO the audience finds themselves on a journey of queer lives and experiences. Some which may reflect their own, and some which might be quite different. There is a vulnerability to hearing these deeply personal stories shared, and it ends up feeling like all of us - performers and audience - are in a safe space where we are caring for each other. That’s a unique sensation.
SAD: How do you decide what songs to play? What’s the process of creating a show?
SB: Our repertoire is largely decided by the community. Since forming we’ve had a sort of general call out for folks within the 2SLGBTQ community to send us their stories of queer experience and the songs that are most deeply connected to them. So we will receive these pairings of story and song, and will go about building our shows from them. We also include historical narratives, usually of popular songs that have a little-known queer backstory. So there is often a balance of these approaches in a show.
SAD: Speaking to this year's QAF theme, "rEvolution": How has turning to the past in this way, unearthing or rereading queer narratives in music, changed your perspective on those eras – and shaped your visions or aspirations for queer futures?
SB: Digging into these histories and being trusted with the personal stories of our peers in the community, it’s a great privilege to carry these narratives with us and deliver them to audiences across the country. It also gives us an insight into the integrity and character of the community through the generations, and the beauty and brilliance of queer individuals even in times of great hardship and isolation. Of course we are not out of the woods in terms of hardship and isolation, and having this perspective on the past and an insight into younger generations, one can’t help but have a sense that whatever the BS of the current times and political landscape, there is within the community the strength to resist and persist towards a better and more inclusive, compassionate future.
SAD: What's the motivation behind putting these stories, told through the music of these past several generations, with modern, local narratives? How do you feel they enrich each other?
SB: I think it’s important to emphasize lineage. There tends to be a disconnect between generations in the queer community, and so to present an evening which places stories from the past alongside more contemporary narratives it can I think help to give people a sense of this lineage: who has come before us, and where we might see ourselves within it. The hope is that this can lead to more connections forming and people feeling they are part of a broader community.
SAD: What can audiences look forward to in this year's Queer Arts Festival Performance?
SB: We haven’t played in Vancouver since January 2016. In the past three and a half years the QSO has grown immensely and really developed our material. So, for anyone who saw us back then they can expect a very different show, but one that still delves deep into many facets of queer experience. For anyone new to our shows, they can expect an intimate, tender and joyous evening which explores and elevates queer lives and aims to unite the audience around these experiences. Additionally, we always look to the local community to find collaborators for our shows, guests to be our narrators and deliver the stories we are telling alongside the songs. So the audience can look forward to seeing their own local community and friends reflected from the stage.
SAD: What are you most excited about for this year's Queer Arts Festival?
SB: Sadly we are only able to be in Vancouver for the tail end of the festival, so what I am mostly looking forward to are the bits that we are actually able to attend. Those being our show on June 28 and the party following it. It’s really exciting to be able to present a show that is aligned with the Stonewall anniversary, and while I always look forward to QSO shows, this one just feels extra special. And, as always, I am excited to meet and work with our local collaborators!
QAF 2019 runs from June 17 to 28. For more information and the purchase tickets, visit the Queer Arts Festival website.