We had the good fortune of connecting with Carolyn Fe and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Carolyn, how do you think about risk?
I remember, at a very young age, telling myself that I wanted to experience all that there is to experience in lifetime and on my own terms. Depending at which stage in one’s life may be, it could be a curse or a blessing. At age 60, the time of this interview, I can now say that I have been blessed even though there were times I thought I wasn’t going to make it.
I have always been attracted to and have rooted for the underdog, the marginalized, the “different”. To me, they were the cool kids; they set the trends that everybody followed and copied months after and, long after the cool kids were voicing new ideas, creations and discoveries. They were always being taunted for their originality. Sh*t disturbers, thugs, punks and delinquents were common terms used to describe them. They did not fit any mould. Little did I know how difficult and lonely their lives could be, even more, little did I know how much strength, resilience and perseverance they had in their spirit to remain true to themselves regardless of the adversities that came their way.
Today, nothing has changed except the vocabulary, cool kids are now labeled with politically correct descriptives with positive leanings so as not to offend: artist, free-thinker, creative, trail blazer. With the advent of social media and memes that profess the values of individuality, pursuing one’s dreams, taking risks, etc. I was not surprised to find that the very same people who post or share such memes were just following a fun trend and liking the memes because…well, hey…it is social media after all.
Risk means getting out of one’s comfort zone and in doing so, have an effect on the lives of those who are around the risk-taker. Nobody likes to be uncomfortable. Pain is not comfortable, changing one’s ways of thinking is definitely painful; looking at, reviewing, adjusting and making changes to one’s belief system pulls the rug from one’s foundations and can affect a painful shift in the core of one’s existence. Trauma can ensue and major life changes happens: separation from family, divorce, change of environment, disconnection from friends. But the trauma can also bring on a stronger sense of self-sufficiency, a sharpening of listening skills especially with gut instincts, the development of resilience in times of turmoil, the sense of urgency in taking action, the honing of survival skills knowing that all will be alright at the end of any ordeal and to come out of it with a tool kit of skills to move forward.
I have been a risk taker for as long as I can remember. Quitting college to pursue my artistic life as a professional contemporary dancer and choreographer, and eventually a dance school owner with a professional touring company. Leaving the dance world to throw myself into the corporate world to become a Science & Technology Recruiter owning my own recruitment firm. Once again, leaving it all to return to my roots as an artist, this time around as a singer, songwriter, actress, and emerging playwright at an age where most of my friends and colleagues have already retired or are preparing for it.
I have won awards, felt myself soar to face the infinite possibilities; I have also lost, being homeless to the point of dumpster-diving to survive. Through it all and deep inside, I knew I would be alright.
The older I become, the more risks I take to represent my truths. At an age where society has pushed its elders to the side, I turn up the volume on my voice, my actions and my presence to remove systemic ageism in the Diversity and Inclusion protocols.
Risk has kept me alive and kept me feeling alive. Risk has pushed my envelope to new boundaries. Risk has kept me uncomfortable enough to be creative and to share my stories, triumphs and failures. Risk has taught me the proper timing to know when to be resilient and when to take action. Risk has given me the wisdom and strength to walk away from toxicity and to find like-minded people. Risk has kept me, unapologetically, real.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
The Essence: By “industry standards”, whether it be as an actress, singer, songwriter, lyricist or an emerging playwright I am a late-bloomer, a sexagenarian (Dang! I like the sound of that word). I came back to performing in my early 40s defying the stereotyped thinking about older performers of color. As a woman of color growing up in a predominantly white suburb of Montreal (Canada), I was made to feel on the fringe of things even when I was literally on stage, centered in the spotlight. It is exactly because of being othered and marginalized that I found the will, took my space, power, voice and freedom to fuel my determination and, to confidently and unapologetically seek my own path. I like to represent and remind people that ageism is systemic.
I have expressed myself mainly through the performing arts (formerly dance) and now through theatre, film/television and music, I seek to embody all of my given talents as a lyricist, songwriter, interpreter, and performer who questions accepted standards and pushes against established rules; to navigate the business of art balanced with a grounded social conscience to continuously evolve my craft.
In my 60 years, life has thrown me some big curves; painful losses, restarting from literally nothing not just once but a few times, as well as receiving awards and accolades that took days for me to feel the ground again. Through it all, I kept my chin up to blaze my own path. When working on a creation, I like to make sure that parameters are widened, or even better, borders erased of what one thinks should be; forgetting labels and concentrating on just doing. When creating, I am always charged and ready to bring forth more of my visions, words, stories and soundscapes about Elders and my Filipino heritage, with the latest venture being an emerging playwright.
The History: Born in the Philippines to a family of entrepreneurs whose enterprising spirit is part of our DNA, my work pushes mine, my colleagues and audiences’ envelope. I arrived in Canada in the 1970’s, a time when “Diversity and Inclusion” was about to become a concept. By the 80’s I was a professional contemporary dancer touring, choreographing for my own dance company and commissioned to create for various companies internationally. I owned and operated a dance school offering classes to professionals and hopeful dancers of all ages. This, I did until my mid-twenties.
The 90’s brought me into the corporate realm, owning and operating a recruitment firm of 150 employees, servicing the Science and Technology Industries. 2005 was when the Arts came calling back which started the long transition from the corporate world to pursue my true love of the arts on a full time basis. The business skills I have gained in 25+ years of corporate life were not lost on me.
The Actor: A triple-carded professional actor (ACTRA, UdA, CAEA) and fluent in English, French and Tagalog, I have been continuously (and gratefully) working on stage, front of camera and behind the microphone. I came back to the theater’s stage in full force as an Actor in 2005. My theatrical return provided more opportunities in Toronto and was bestowed with the Toronto Theatre Critics’ Award for Best Supporting Actress Award (2018). That was when the decision to leave Montreal came to fruition.
If you have children under the age of 8 you might recognize me on screen in the recurring role as Lola (Tagalog for Grandmother) to the show’s host, Josh De La Cruz in Nickelodeon’s diversity inclusive reboot of the children’s show “Blues Clues” now called, “Blues Clues & You!” where the children are introduced to the Filipino culture and basic American Sign Language.
The Music: As a singer/songwriter/lyricist, I started out in a Jazz cover band singing in French, English and Spanish but the entrepreneurial spirit urged me to go on my own. In less than a decade, while still in a transition period juggling parallel careers as an actress and business woman, my journey from wide-eyed newcomer to a self-produced singer-songwriter-lyricist blossomed; collaborating with musicians from around the globe.
My debut EP “Carolyn Fe 100%” (2009) was the beginning of a Blues career; writing, producing and recording my own original material. My first full length album “Original Sin” won awards and charted top 10 on Blues lists across Canada and was nominated for Best International Release by Blues 411 (USA). That same year (and for three consecutive years thereafter) I was nominated as Best Female Blues Artist in Quebec (Canada). “Bad Taboo” (2014) included guest artist Shun Kikuta, former guitarist for the legendary Queen of the Blues – Koko Taylor, and dubbed the “Asian BB King” by Mr. King himself. Bad Taboo established my presence as a Blueswoman on both sides of the Canadian/US border as I broke into the European market. Bad Taboo won the Blues 411 Jimi Award for International Release of the Year (USA), was long-listed for a Canadian Juno Award and nominated for the Quebec Lys Blues Award for Best Blues & Associated Styles Album. The album charted #1 on Blues 411 (USA) and charted Top 10 across Canada. Bad Taboo’s spell on the European market also held fast, as a solid Top 20 listing with the UK’s Blues Broadcaster that same year.
When my manager and dear friend suddenly died right before showcasing the already internationally acclaimed “Bad Taboo”, I took a few years to step back to mourn and to look deep inside. With a fine-toothed comb, I reviewed my artistic truths and refocused which way to blaze my new artistic path. It was not an easy time and I seriously considered throwing in the towel but was reminded that a little chaos and stepping away from comfort zones is a good thing. I made a major change in the band’s line up. Using the corporate skills learned in as an HR Specialist, I sought out colleagues and collaborators who have specifically experienced being othered and marginalised. I knew that musicians from diverse musical and life backgrounds would understand my new path.
The release of “Sugat Ko” (2018, Tagalog for “My Wound”) was a revelation and a return to my Filipino roots both internally and artistically. With this creation, I took the Blues genre to the edges and re-defined it on my own terms with appreciation, taking careful measures not to appropriate but to connect the Filipinos’ history to what the privileged called “race music”. Peers, fans and worldwide media reviews state a commonality: “Sugat Ko is representative of Carolyn Fe’s most authentic self, definitely not your Grandma’s blues. Just as the Blues manifests itself in a myriad of ways, Carolyn Fe captures all of its subtle colours, stories and hues, injecting her Filipino heritage with unconventional takes. Coupled with the incredible flexibility of her musicians, she attracted the attention from more progressive Blues lovers around the world and opened the doors to new music devotees who want to hear something different – regardless of the genre.”
The Causes and Banners: I raise my voice and presence so that those who profess to practicing Diversity and Inclusion do not forget who they exclude. I advocate for people who are othered, marginalized, racialized and raise the banner for older performers/creatives who caught their second wind or are emerging later in life. I persevere in representing the Filipino culture, breaking stereotypes, all the while championing the older generation to keep pursuing their dreams. When not performing, I like to pay it forward by volunteering at various charitable organizations including donating time at women’s shelters where I am able to lift my customers’ spirits by providing free with hair styling services, a profession I learned as a “back-up plan” when transitioning from corporate to artistic life.
The Goal: Like many, the pandemic has not only put a hold on live performances but I took the time to reflect while working on my next album. I look upon this period as the silver lining. At the time of this interview, I feel a change coming, one that I cannot yet verbalize. Regardless of what this change may be, my plan is to continue creating as long as my body and mind allows me to do so; whether it be through performances, storytelling through songs and plays written in her own words, dance, visual arts, etc. I want to continue to be inspired by people, places, things and situations, and to combine all my artistic and life experiences with the causes and banners I hold close to my heart, into art.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
My best friend is my husband. On long weekends, we usually cocoon order food from our favorite restaurants (usually Chinese, Lebanese, Greek, Filipino, Italian) and binge watch all sorts of movies in our PJs. When I am not booked on any film/TV shoots or concerts, during pre-pandemic times, we love to go to Mexico to soak in the sun and dig our toes in the beach. This time around, provided that pandemic safety protocols are followed, I’m craving a trip to New Orleans to partake all the goodness that is served there: seafood boils, muffulettas, po-boys, oysters, beignets, étouffée, gumbo….yeah, I like food. Can you tell? I’m sure we’d take walks and take in the sights to burn the calories.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I have three shout outs.
The first shout out goes to my husband of 25 years who stood by my side and has been my anchor through the highs, the lows and the many life and career changes. Never wanting to be in the spotlight, he’s been constant in his support through all my artistic endeavors. The beauty and strength of our life commitment to each other is that we do not need each other, but we chose to be with each other.
The second shout out goes to many supporters and friends who were there when times were tough and reminded me that I am worth it. They know who they are.
The third shout out goes to those who didn’t believe in me and proclaimed that I don’t have what it takes to “make it”. I’m not sure what they mean by “making it” because all I know is that, I’m still here with my voice; working and representing.
Dahlia Katz Photography Litratista.com