Making Beautiful Music

Cumberland producer Corwin Fox’s unique style has musicians vying for his services

 Corwin Fox’s casual Cumberland recording studio is a hot spot for musicians from the Valley and beyond.  “The population here is not that large but we have all kinds of talented songwriters and musicians, <a href=

" says Fox. “Really, really high level players. It’s exciting.” Photo by Boomer Jerritt” src=”×401.jpg” width=”602″ height=”401″ />
Corwin Fox’s casual Cumberland recording studio is a hot spot for musicians from the Valley and beyond. “The population here is not that large but we have all kinds of talented songwriters and musicians,” says Fox. “Really, really high level players. It’s exciting.” Photo by Boomer Jerritt

For someone who found it hard to fit in at an early age, musician Corwin Fox certainly seems right at home in Cumberland, a town he has called home for last five years.

“The Comox Valley embraced us immediately,” says Fox. “It just enveloped us and we met some great people right away.”

It wasn’t always so easy for him. Born in Halifax, he moved to Ottawa at a young age, spending most of his childhood there. His creative ideas were always a little different—weird even—making things difficult for him in the regular school. Fortunately, he ended up in the art-oriented Canterbury High School.

“It saved me from a bad path,” says Fox. “At Canterbury you could audition in whatever form of art you wanted. You had to maintain your academic standards, but the teachers would give you some leeway. I was in theatre—I performed as a juggler. There was one problem, though. I was in love with this one girl in my regular school, so for my sake it was best that I went somewhere else. Then when I got there I discovered that she was enrolled there too!”

Despite his creative leanings, Fox never actually got into music until he was in Grade 11. “It was 1992 when I got my first instrument,” he says. “It was a bass and within a few months it just took over. By the time a year rolled around I could play several instruments. I just knew that was it—that’s what I was going to do for life.”

Fox started out playing punk for two years, which was all very well, but when he joined a friend, Jordy Walker, in a progressive rock band called Big Fish Eat Little Fish, it was time to learn some of the finer points, such as music theory. He taught himself by reading books and with some mentoring from his bandmates while on the road.

“We toured quite a bit as Big Fish Eat Little Fish and we put out several albums. It’s funny; I was just looking at the tour journal from 1996. It was so different then. There was no email—everything was booked with phone cards. Without the communication that you have today a lot of things fell through by the time you got there. We were on tour for months and by the time you got to a town the venue could be under renovations. About one third of our shows ended up cancelled.”

Unfortunately, Big Fish Eat Little Fish’s days were numbered and they split up in 1999. Fox’s fellow member, Jordy Walker, moved out west to Smithers. Fox stayed in Ottawa, but it wouldn’t be long before he was reunited with his good friend.

“Jordy told me he had met this 50-year-old version of me in Smithers,” says Fox. “I wanted a change anyway, so I thought why not go out and meet this older version of myself. I had planned this mushroom picking trip with my three younger brothers. We headed off and picked pine mushrooms throughout northern BC. Unfortunately, while we were travelling, the guy back in Smithers passed away, so I never did get to meet him. But I did end up in Smithers and I lived in his house, on a farm up on the side of a mountain—a dilapidated old house where he was born and lived all his life. For about a year I was up there reading all his books and playing his guitars. Living there I got to know him by looking through his photo albums, getting to know his kids and his community. My brother, Taylor, married his daughter and now he lives in that house.”

Fox formed a new band with Walker, Let’s Get Fat, and worked the festival circuit in northern BC. It was during this period that he fell in love with recording—a love that he decided to pursue by enrolling in Fanshawe College. At the London, Ontario institution he studied recording engineering. At the same time he also launched yet another band, Balls Falls, as well as his own solo career.

“While I was at school in London I started a record label, Coqi Records. It was just for our own music primarily. Wax Mannequin was the only act that wasn’t ours. Coqi Records got a grant and were able to tour Australia. I was pretty excited because I had just put out my second solo album and the first pressing of it actually sold out in Australia. That was a first for me, so that was encouraging.”

Fox wasn’t exactly enamoured with life back in Ontario and he couldn’t wait for the opportunity to move back to BC. Walker wired him money from Smithers to make the trip out. What followed was a rather unsettled point in Fox’s life that saw him crossing back and forth across the country.

“I first met my wife and her baby when I was in Smithers,” says Fox, “and I fell in love with them both so I took them both to London with me when I went to school. There was a time there when we were bouncing back and forth between BC and Ontario. By the time my son was two years old he had crossed the country six times.”

Although they dearly loved Smithers and northern BC, the family wanted a little less winter, so they came to the Island, settling at first in Victoria. They had another child, quite by accident, and ended up staying in Victoria for seven years.

“When we first got to Victoria I would do odd jobs and some gigs. But we now had two kids and needed a stable income, so I got myself a job at the Public Library. I like books and it was quiet, so I enjoyed everything about it.”

Victoria, however, proved to be too much city for the small town-minded Fox, so he and his wife decided to seek out somewhere quieter, somewhere closer to nature. On the other hand, Fox still wanted to pursue his career in music and was therefore looking for a musically-oriented community.

“I had done a gig in Cumberland with Sarah Noni (Metzner),” he says. “Plus we had friends who ran a bike shop in Victoria and they liked to come up to Cumberland for the mountain biking. So, we had gotten to know Cumberland, and we loved it. The Comox Valley is so beautiful and stunning. My parents moved to Comox after we moved here. Two of my brothers moved to Comox. It has almost everything you need. Courtenay is more the commercial centre, whereas Comox is more quiet. And Cumberland, well, you can just hide out here. But there is so much going on. Our kids are taking circus classes in Courtenay. There are so many opportunities for kids and for young families. And we can just kick the kids out of the house and leave them to go and play. You can’t do that in place like Victoria, but here all the neighbors look out for one another.”

The Foxes quickly settled into their life in Cumberland, comfortable amongst the other young artistic families that rub shoulders with the more rustic old-timers of this former coal-mining town. Fox found no difficulty pursuing his calling as a producer, the thing that he is now probably best known for. This was an aspect of his music career that had started years earlier with the singer Sarah Noni (Metzner).

“Sarah and I had worked together,” explains Fox, “so she asked me to produce her second album for her. I didn’t really know what producing was. When I started talking to people I realized that everyone has a different idea of what a producer does. Even music producers—they all have a different approach. So I told Sarah I didn’t know what I was doing but she said she had a good feeling about it. She wanted me to take her songs and put them through the filter of my music.

“So that was the first album I ever produced for anyone. I really enjoyed it. I got to use my skills as a recording engineer and an arranger. Anyway, the album won her two Western Canadian Folk Music Awards, one for best new artist and one for best song. After that I got a lot of requests to produce. I’ve produced almost 50 albums to date. It got to the point where I was able to wean myself off my work at the Public Library, even though I actually liked that job.”

In order to both record his own material and produce music for others, the Fox household required a few modifications. Fox has a studio set up in their new home in a room that was once used as a cross-fit gym.

“We were in the last place for about five years. I had a little bedroom that I used as a studio. It was fine, it sounded really good and I had all kinds of people through there. Believe it or not I recorded 61 albums there. But this new studio is unbelievable. It’s so big I could record an entire symphony orchestra. In fact, I just had a 63 voice choir in here—the Comox Valley All Sorts Choir.”

That latter recording was for Shoulders, a song by Shane Koyczan and the Short Long Story that was made for the David Suzuki Foundation. Fox has also produced Remembrance Year for Koyczan, which includes To This Day, a piece about bullying that went viral last year. The two also collaborated on Instructions for a Bad Day, a project that involved students from G.P. Vanier High School making a video in response to a number of local suicides.

“I like to work with youth,” says Fox, “as well as other musicians. Living and working here I feel I am capturing a moment in time. I am capturing the sounds of the artist in the Comox Valley. I’m keeping a record of 2014. What people are playing, what they are singing about, that’s all being documented here in my studio, and then being put out to the world. It’s pretty exciting that I can contribute to the community in that way.”

Musicians from across the country and beyond will hear Fox’s work and like the way it sounds. They actively seek him out to produce their records for them. The demand is so high that he now has to be selective as to what material he works on. And he wants to leave himself the time to spend on his own projects.

“I am currently working on three albums of my own,” he says. “They are almost done, but I want to release them one at a time strategically. I don’t want all three coming out at once because they are completely different from one another in terms of sound, style, approach, etc.”

One of the albums is a musical work, Seed Map, for which he has obtained a Canada Council grant. He is using odd time signatures to represent how the relationship between science and nature can at times be awkward and at other times flowing. Using these unconventional time signatures makes the process of recording complicated. Once he started doing research for the project he realized it was going to take longer than he initially expected.

“My aim is to research and explore specific themes such as food security, scientific discoveries, and human isolation/connection through technology. The lyrical focus of the record will be detail-oriented and poetic while reflecting these impersonal concepts through a very personal lens. To evoke this intersection of science and nature musically, I am juxtaposing organic acoustic sounds with some carefully selected abstract or jagged modern sounds,” Fox says.

“I am also employing odd time signatures inspired by rhythms of Balkan folk music. These rhythms, so effortlessly incorporated into the Balkan cultures, seem awkward and confusing to much of Western culture. It strikes me as a metaphor for the uncomfortable relationship we have with our natural surroundings, and our instinct to tame that which is wild or seemingly chaotic.”

Seed Map features folk instruments such as guitar, bass ukulele and mandolin atop bass and drum, as well as additional parts for cello, violin and trumpet. The intent is to create an orchestral style of folk song that mirrors the layering and density of the lyrical content. The album is now nearing completion but it has taken about five years, the longest time it has ever taken Fox to make a record.

“We started recording in Montreal,” Fox says. “I’ve gotten to work with a couple of guys from the Big Fish Eat Little Fish days, Jordy and Richard Reed Parry, plus several other noted musicians such as Rae Spoon, Wax Mannequin, Michael Feuerstack and Lapp. Oh, and my kids. Jordy will be coming out next week to finish off. Then it will need mixing and mastering.”

But it is not as if Fox has to search across the country or reach into his past to find gifted artists to work with. One thing that has always impressed him about the Valley is the quality of its homegrown talent.

“I am working with a lot more local folks than I thought I would,” he says. “The population here is not that large but we have all kinds of talented songwriters, musicians. Really, really high level players. It’s exciting.”

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