Quick Q & A with Ian Foster

Ian Foster

Ian Foster first came to my attention a couple of years ago at NERFA (North East Regional Folk Alliance). The buzz began early during the conference and soon everyone was talking about his great songs! He’s been constantly touring up and down the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic as well as his own native Canada. As you’ll find out below, Ian is not only a superb singer-songwriter but he’s a filmmaker and a producer. A very busy guy.

To find out more about Ian Foster, visit his website. Here’s a video of “Feels Like It Wants to Rain” from Ian’s new album, Sleeper Years.


When did you pick up an instrument for the first time?
I was ten, and it was Radioshack. I played the keyboards on display until the staff told me to stop. My parents took it as a cue to buy me one for Christmas. It came with sticky note names and a book of Beatles melodies. I didn’t fully appreciate the Beatles at that point in my life, but I learned the melodies to “Yesterday” and “Hey Jude” by Christmas night. I was in lessons shortly after that. Guitar and voice followed in high school.
How did songwriting become important to you?
To paraphrase a learned teacher I once had, “music helps me under­stand things.” There is nothing sweeter than a well-written song: a good story told well to a great melody. It’s a feast for the ears, mind, heart and soul — what else could you possibly ask for?! ha.
I’m not really sure how it happened, in terms of pinpointing a moment. I guess I turned around one day and realized it was the most important thing to me. Just like a great song when you first hear it — it feels less written and more like it was just always there and you finally heard it.
When did you start playing in public? What have you learned about show preparation since you’ve been performing shows for several years now?
I remember walking into the office of MusicNL (our provincial music association) in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada and asking how to book a show. At the time, two bars were suggested to me: The Spur and The Rose — they were one block from each other, and one was across the street from the offices. I walked outside, eyed both, and chose the least sketchy looking one to try out (of course they were/are both sketchy, and of course I played both many times over the years!). But it was a lesson in starting out: I was a shy university student with an English/history degree that was almost finished, and I walked into my first club cold and asked for a gig to play some songs that I believed in. It doesn’t get much more “starting out” than that. …
That was back in 2003. A few hundred thousand kilometers (and yeah, probably miles, too!) of travel and shows has taught me a bunch about the road. There are a lot of people out here doing it — some less experienced than me and some with a LOT more experience. It’s a wonderful, terrible, exciting place, and we could talk just about that for the rest of the interview. I guess if I was to say something quick about show prep, it would be to know the show well enough to let it all go when you walk on stage. If it’s not practiced enough, it wil feel practiced to the audience. If it’s truly known, you can cut right through the show and get to the songs.
What’s your songwriting process like? Are you a disciplined writer?
My process is experience and learning + time. I do try to write something every day, knowing most of it is for my eyes only (and thank god for that!). I’ve taken to a metaphor that is a paraphrase of something I heard Springsteen say about writing: you train every day for the marathon, though you don’t run the marathon every day. I feel like songwriting is like that. When the clouds lift and the song comes, if you’ve trained and are ready, you’ll make better use of the moment.
Tell us about your newest CD, Sleeper Years, and please explain the title! Is it a thematic album?
Well, there’s a little essay in the liner notes about the title, in fact, so I guess you’ll have to buy the album to find out! Kidding. The album runs through a broad array of subjects, but the connection is about a defining moment in one’s life, and how that moment (or moments) are realized in retrospect. While you were busy planning or just living, you were in fact becoming who you are. Those defining years are, in fact, your sleeper years: time prior to your own personal activation. Many of the songs deal with the moment you suddenly turn around and realize who you are, for better or worse.
How has life in Newfoundland influenced your songwriting?
Newfoundland is home, and home is important to everyone. We are all either trying to go home, find home, or keep home. The fact that Newfoundland is an island is another factor. Island folk have a special connection to their land — we’re used to the isolation, we were given nothing, and we made something anyway. At times that kind of life makes you equally crazy and proud — touring helps with the crazy part as I get to leave, and it makes the coming home all the sweeter.
I suppose I take the people and stories from there with me wherever I go, and inevitably filter those stories I pick up on the road through my own particular lens, which is of course shaped by my sense of home.
How did you get into the world of filmmaking? Tell us about some of your films and what you’ve enjoyed about working on them.
I got into filmmaking through composing for other people’s films. Several film friends started encouraging me, and before I knew it, I had a script based on a short story I wrote that was based on a song I wrote … try following that train of events … ha!
Both films are short films: 10 and 15 minutes, respectively. The first film was called One More Song, and it was made via the goodwill of the Newfoundland film community. The second is Keystone, and it was made through a program called PictureStart through the Newfoundland Independent Filmmakers Cooperative (NIFCO). Both films were deeply fulfilling experiences for me, and I’ve started showing Keystone at certain concerts of mine where time and logistics make that kind of thing possible — the response has been very positive. You can find out more about the film at http://www.keystonefilm.net.
I understand that you’re a big horror film fan. What’s the scariest movie you’ve ever seen? And would you like to direct a horror film one day?
Haha, I wouldn’t say I’m a HUGE horror fan, as I know huge horror fans … it’s like saying you’re a big Bob Dylan fan. Really? Do you own 30 of his albums plus bootlegs and celebrate his birthday like your own? If not, you’re not a fan! ha.
But I do enjoy it, and we’ve talked about my fascination with Danvers, MA and the Danvers State Hospital — now upscale condos! For those in the area, it’s worth a google of the hospital if you don’t know its history. There was a horror movie shot there in the early 2000s called Session 9 that is quite haunting due to the backdrop of the then-not-demolished hospital.
Would I direct a horror film one day? Maybe I’ll get all Hollywood and say “if the right script came along.” But seriously, sure! Why not?
You’re also a music producer. What excites you about working with other artists?
I love producing albums. I see production as a relationship and partnership with the artist. The goals are the same: to deliver the song as its best self. I like the “what if” element of production: “what if we tried this or that?” I’ve learned a tremendous amount about sound and song from working with other artists and seeing the process from that side, and yet I feel my greatest strength as a producer is that I AM an artist — I know how precious the song is to the writer of it, and thus studio conversations always come from a place of kinship.
I’d highly recommend checking out a few of the talented artists I’ve recently worked with: Kat McLevey and Melanie O’Brien, who just released a record this fall.

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