Kate Fenner
Dead Reckoning
New York, NY
RIYL: Chris Brown & Kate Fenner, Norah Jones, Joni Mitchell

Both critics and fans alike tend to gravitate toward artists at the start of their career (so shiny and new and full of promise) and then again at the end (looking back at their legacy and impact) – but what about the musician in mid-career, with plenty of work behind them and still evolving creatively?

Toronto-bred, New York-based singer-songwriter Kate Fenner has lived a lifetime steeped in music, from starting out when only a teenager in Toronto indie collective the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir in the ’90s to forming a duo with bandmate and musical partner Chris Brown (no, not that one) in the early aughts and performing with the likes of the Tragically Hip and B.B. King.

Over the past 20 years, Fenner has also made a series of jazz-inflected solo albums that showcase her uniquely soaring voice and deeply poetic lyrics. The latest, Dead Reckoning, was released earlier this year and finds Fenner reflecting on that universal undercurrent of midlife: death and loss.

It’s certainly not a subject unexplored in music, but Fenner’s subtle, observant approach to capturing the wave of emotions behind losing one’s parents to aging, or friends to cancer before they even get a chance to get older, will resonate with any listener who’s also beginning to deal with grief as a common thread through life.

A stellar cast of veteran New York players flesh out Fenner’s folk-meets-jazz poem-songs, including producer/arranger Scott Harding, guitarist Tony Scherr, and pianist Jason Moran.

“My river’s going back to the ocean, no more bruising on the shore/The soul’s progression set in motion, yearning at its core,” Fenner sings on opening piano ballad “My River,” which starts off slow and stately with brushed percussion before unfurling into something a little more insistent.

Where the Bourbons used to be inspired by soul and R&B, Fenner’s solo work has always dialed back the tempo and even the big, belting vocal tone she was known for in that band – but her elegiac voice remains front and centre here, at once a lament and a balm on sparse, elegant tracks like “Ghost Moon” and “The Torch.”

The closest thing Dead Reckoning has to a pop song is “The Hawk,” bolstered by a retro drum-machine backbeat courtesy of Harding and a chorus about sorrow that somehow manages to be undeniably catchy.

Fenner’s writing – which often alludes to art and poetry (“Cautionary Tale” references artist Joan Mitchell and poets Elizabeth Bishop and Fanny Howe, for example) – is evocative throughout, with the kind of reflective wisdom only age can bestow.

Despite her decades in music – including her formidable presence in the popular (and otherwise all-male) Bourbons – Fenner has rarely received her due beyond fellow musicians themselves, who recognize her distinctive talent.

“Singing is my way of loving,” Fenner has said. “Here I sing to my friends, my parents, their ghosts – and to you. I hope you can hear it.” On Dead Reckoning, we hear an artist giving voice to the painful yet illuminating realities of midlife – in a way only someone well into their own personal and creative journey could ever realize.

– Tabassum Siddiqui