Live at the Isabel
Perhaps you have not yet heard of Canada’s 2019 Maple Blues Female Artist of the Year, Emily Fennell, known as Miss Emily. She has built audiences across Canada, some portions of the U.S, UK, and Western Europe with her blend of mostly soul and blues. Miss Emily also secured New Artist of the Year and the Sapphire Canadian Blues Music Video Award at the Maple Blues Award ceremony this past February. It’s not only her soaring, mighty jet engine voice that is leading to all these accolades, but Miss Emily writes most of her material too. Live at Isabel is a compilation of four performances over two and half years at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts in Kingston, ON, her adopted hometown and the theater where she holds the record for sellouts.
The credits are expansive given that some different musicians backed her across these shows but central to her sound are guitarist James McKenty, keyboardist Benni Vander, and drummer Rob Radford. Bassist Gord Sinclair and guitarist Rob Baker of The Tragically Hip as well as CCMA nominated Kelly Prescott and Chad Murphy also appear. “I’ve worked with many of these musicians for more than a decade and, when I’m on stage with them, it’s like easing back into your favourite armchair…“Except,” she adds,” that armchair is an incredible group of talented musicians.” Most of this is lively, robust, pulsating material including some of her best-known songs such as “The Sellout” with Baker and Sinclair behind her. Yet, she stuns with the occasional ballad, most notably “Three Words,” which powerfully showcases not only her power but emotive nuances. Make no mistake – (think back to those Memorex commercials from eons ago) her voice could shatter a row of glasses.
Miss Emily describes herself and talks about the current state of her career this way, “I’m a soul singer. I love MANY genres of music but write primarily in what would be considered ‘soul-blues’. I play piano and guitar, but my music is best supported by organ and bass. I love lower tones and a good groove and try to make that the basis for most of my music… I’ve been doing this a LONG time. Although this pandemic has thrown my industry some pretty major curveballs, I look at it as yet ONE MORE challenge in my career. Nothing has ever felt easy and just when I started to feel like I was making headway with my music many different times, I’d often find the game had changed or momentum had been lost. This year I’ve been participating in online performances when possible. Early on in lockdown many of these sets were played at home, but now I’ve teamed up with festivals and theatres who’ve moved to an online performance set up. I was also supposed to record a studio album in March, which never happened, so I got creative and put together a live album from a series of sold-out performances I did at The Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts in Kingston, over the past two years.”
Miss Emily has songwriting credits for nine of the 15 tracks here with a Bill Withers, a Box Tops-associated hit, and “Cry to Me” among the covers. Asked to pick her favorite, she immediately landed on her own “The Sellout,” which was a big single for her in Canada. As the disc unfolds, the audience seems to grow more enthusiastic, to the point of singing the chorus behind the closing Sapphire Video Award winner “Hold Back the River.” Conversely, in these live performances, Miss Emily holds nothing back. Often this writer can be critical of these female powerhouse vocalists because they can come off as trying too hard, resulting in overwrought delivery. Thankfully, Miss Emily does not fall into that trap. She connects at an intimate level with her audience somehow while still threatening to blow the roof off the venue.
- Jim Hynes