Garnet Rogers: Working with his voice
by Seth Rogovoy
(WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., January 30, 2004) – Conventional wisdom says that Garnet Rogers has a terrific voice – a smooth, booming baritone that immediately commands attention from a listener. It’s the kind of voice you’re born with; you just can’t make your voice sound so authoritative if you have to try.
So it comes as something of a surprise to learn that Rogers – who performs on Friday night at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown at 8 – doesn’t really like his voice.
“I don’t think anyone really likes their own voice, and I don’t like mine,” said Rogers in a recent phone interview from his home in Branford, Ontario, about a half-hour from his birthplace in Hamilton. “But it’s what I’ve got. It’s what I was given.
“My voice is a little too easy. I really like voices that are broken up and have to work for the notes, singers like Tom Waits, Van Morrison or Mark Knopfler, who try for the notes and don’t always get there. They have a more vernacular quality and sound more sincere. But I’ve been given this lounge singer voice, which is kind of this annoying thing. I think sometimes because it sounds so easy maybe it sounds glib, less sincere.”
Not that anyone has ever accused Rogers of being insincere. For 30 years – the first 10 in a duo with his brother, Stan, the last 20 as a solo artist – Rogers has worked the sincere, folk side of the musical fence, where sincerity is everything and poseurs need not apply. For most of that time, he has toured folk coffeehouses and the festival circuit and released self-produced albums on his own label, Snow Goose. He has spurned offers by major labels in favor of retaining complete artistic control in order to avoid the inevitable compromises that come with being an artist tied to a corporate entity.
“There was a time when I thought that with just pure hard work and maybe some luck there’d be some massive breakthrough,” said Rogers, who hit the road at age 18 and acted as producer, arranger and sideman for his late brother from 1973 to 1983, the year Stan died in a plane crash. “I just thought it’ll happen. Particularly when I was playing with my brother -- and we almost got there just before he died.
“But the way the music business has turned out now, there’s no room for people doing my kind of music to make that kind of massive, vastly popular leap that happens to some artists or musicians. I may have believed when I was a young there was a chance that’d happen. I was naïve. But pretty early on the major labels were not interested and we started doing our own records in the late Seventies.
“And then when the major labels started taking notice and approaching me a few years ago, I guess I knew instinctively and very firmly that wasn’t the way for me to go. I was going to be much happier with what I’ve got, which is control of my own destiny within the limits of the business. The records I put out are the ones I want to make. I’m not answering to some corporate idea of what I’m supposed to be doing. I know that I’m where I belong.”
The places where Rogers has been include numerous alternative TV and radio programs such as “Much Music,” “Mountain Stage,” and “All Things Considered.” He has been a headliner at concert venues and festivals such as Wolf Trap, Lincoln Center, and Art Park, sharing the stage with performers including Mary Chapin Carpenter, Billy Bragg, Bill Monroe, Ferron, Greg Brown and Guy Clark.
He writes his own carefully-detailed songs while driving for hours between gigs across Canada. “I can start a tour in Canada, but sometimes it takes me two-and-a-half or three days to drive to the first show,” he said. “And then I drive five or six hours every day to get to the next show. So you have this sense of space, sitting in the car with your mind wandering off down side alleys, and that’s where the songs get done.”
Rogers believes that sense of space is what characterizes a particular Canadian sensibility in his work and the work of others from his native land.
“Northrop Frye talked about the garrison mentality in Canadian literature, where the actual countryside seems to overwhelm the writer and intrude on all the stories,” he said, referring to the Shakespeare expert and literary critic. “I think that’s something you find with Canadian writers. Cities are incidental to the landscape. A lot of what the songs are about is maybe an internal struggle within a framework of being aware of just how bloody big everything is and how bloody lonely it’s possible to be. I think that makes it Canadian.”
For years, Rogers learned to accept that sense of loneliness as his constant companion on the road. Then finally last summer, when he spent most of his time at home tending his garden, building a fish pond and painting fences, he made a surprising discovery.
“I had some time off and realized this is what I’m missing,” he said. “I figured being tired and lonely was just the way I was all the time. But last summer I had the summer off and it was fantastic, and that feeling went away.”
Rachael Davis, 2001 recipient of a Boston Music Award for Best New Singer-Songwriter, warms up the crowd for Rogers.
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[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on January 30, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]
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