Written by Liz Nocholls
She sings; she composes; she tells universal stories in music. She writes her own original songs and performs them; she pays homage to the master songwriters of the past. And she creates in a vast spectrum of styles from jazz and country to folk and musical theatre.
Edmonton’s Andrea House is a stunningly, and mysteriously, multi-dimensional artist who lives and performs in the musical world — and steps across the frontier from time to time, theatre visa in hand, to communicate to audiences through characters and narratives. Andrea’s star-dusted voice is richly multi-angled and many-sided, lush to ethereal. It’s like her career that way.
Andrea has opened for the Blind Boys of Alabama at the Winspear Centre for Music. She’s performed at the venerable Edmonton Folk Music Festival twice before, sharing the stage with Ladysmith Black Mombaza and Linda Tillery. And her singing just before Ricky Skagg’s set elicited praise from that bluegrass star.
“Sometimes I wonder why I spend the lonely nights dreaming of a song, the melody haunts my reverie and I am once again with you….”
- Stardust, Hoagy Carmichael
She embraces vintage sound and musical poetry, and makes them eloquently personal. If Andrea sings of “my stardust melody” with lyrical conviction it’s no surprise. She included Stardust on her full-length 2008 album The Same Inside. And in 2013 she named her first cabaret Stardust of a Song, a mix of original songs and classics, Piaf to Carmichael, which played the Citadel Theatre.
“I have been chasing melody my whole life. I just love a great melody,” she says. “The distance between between two notes is the most exciting thing about music. For me, it’s the root underneath the plant….” Her favourite artists? “Hoagy Carmichael, the best composer of the 20th century if not of forever. Second, Harry Warren. Third, Willie Nelson.”
“By the ocean, by the ocean… but just a whisper please.”
Ocean, Andrea House from The Same Inside
Andrea’s fascination with the old-school tunesmiths of the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, which began as a kid with an attraction to old movies, is that “with them, melody is #1!” she says. “There is a universality about the simplicity of the language. The poetic language isn’t metaphor-deficient….” Vintage songs, jazz classics, are “replete with imagery. That’s the canvas.”
Similarly, there’s a powerful simplicity, a link between “what you can’t see and what you can,” in Andrea’s songs. “It allows the listener to explore their imagination. I love it when there’s lots of room for the listener!”
Burn the table and the chairs and everything we know…. It’s the burning heart that always draws me — to that fire, that flame, the heat.…”
- Fire, from the Andrea House album of that name
Andrea’s latest (and third full-length) album Fire — a collaboration with the great Texan guitarist/producer Mitch Watkins and slated for release in the spring of 2019 — is a feast of melody. It was born in the fracture of a 16-year marriage and reconfigures loss and regret in a uniquely lyrical, dramatic way in a series of original songs.
It’s a measure of remarkable versatility that Andrea’s year of creating Fire also included the summer premiere of her latest “storytelling concert” Sweethearts of the 49th, which framed vintage wartime songs contemporary to its 1943 setting with the story of a failing Lethbridge, AB radio station.
“I’ll be seeing you/ in all the old familiar places/ that this heart of mine embraces….”
- Sammy Fain/ Irving Kahal
She’s created theatre in that unusual form before, starting with the 2010 Edmonton Fringe hit Forget Me Not fashioned (with Dana Wylie and Chris Smith) from a memoir of her grandparents, a true story of unrequited love with an original soundtrack. “I got bored with stage banter, telling the audience the history of a song, so I created a story!” Andrea says, simply. Other original “storytelling concerts” followed, in a variety of musical flavours: the roots-infused Valentine’s Train, the blues/R&B drift of Song of the Martingale in 2016, and 2017’s Chasing Willie Nelson, in which Andrea links her artist dreams and self-reinventions to an indelible repertoire.
“I could offer something more… open me. The sky is a curtain in a frame… open me.”
Open Me, from Fire, Andrea House
The year of Fire has also included a starring role in a theatrical re-construction of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale (with members of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra), a touring George Jones tribute show, jazz dates with Chris Andrew, a variety of concert appearances with pianist Erik Mortimer — and a high-octane turn in Plain Jane Theatre’s revival of the musical Women On The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (delivering its outstanding song, Invisible).
“I can see the lights on … just a spot. What a lovely answer in the dark, in your heart’s hotel….”
Heart’s Hotel, Andrea House from the album of that name
So when did this protean, unstoppably creative artist start “dreaming of a song?”
The route by which the ex-farm kid from rural Alberta acquired a degree in French literature, along with a plan to become a visual artist (opening gambit: a gig painting a mural for a golf store in Dijon, France), and then became an award-winning actor and playwright, is full of bright ideas, sudden inspirations, and brave left turns. It didn’t involve theatre school or art college; it was based on “doing,” an Andrea House mantra. And that’s long before she ever picked up a guitar and became a singer-songwriter. (Did we mention she’s also a Chinese medicine specialist and certified acupuncturist, with a flourishing practice?).
A self-styled late-bloomer as a musician, Andrea didn’t play the guitar till she was 25. She’d already become an actor, a Teatro La Quindicina star, in roles specially created for her by playwright Stewart Lemoine. She’d already been on stages large and small in Edmonton theatres of every stripe and personality — in straight plays and musicals. She’d won a leading actress Sterling Award for her performance in the Citadel’s vintage musical Babes In Arms. She’d been in films, like The Road To Saddle River. And she’d already written plays, like the clever noir-ish ‘40s wartime romance From Niagara, with a heroine named after a major waterfall and honeymoon tourist attraction.
What a difference a day made/ twenty-four little hours
brought the sun and the flowers/ where there used to be rain….
What A Difference A Day Made, Maria Grever/ Stanley Adams
The day that made the difference was the day Andrea bought a guitar for 300 bucks, on an impulse to connect to her dad, who’d played that instrument. And, typically, she tried to teach herself — a period of plucky self-education that ended when she acquired a great guitar teacher, Terry McDade. He encouraged her to play open-mike nights. “You can’t wait till you’re Eric Clapton. Go play!”
“You are the reason for my turn-around….”
Happy, from The Same Inside, Andrea House
So she did. Hers is a prodigious, star-kissed story that way. And suddenly she was writing songs and performing them — in folk and jazz clubs, theatres, on concert stages, on radio (CBC and CKUA principally), at festivals of every description, theatrical and musical…. And that continues.
Twilight (2001) was her first song, revelling musically in the shaded ambiguities of the hours co-habited by the sun and the moon. She recorded it on a three-song EP — “a big game-changer for me!” funded partially by a fellow actor in a vote of confidence. “One day I stopped the car when I heard my song on radio. Twilight on CKUA. I couldn’t believe it.”
Twilight anchored her first full-length album Heart’s Hotel in 2004. The Same Inside, her second, led to a Canada/ U.S tour, and New York dates.
“Shall we walk in between the drops of rain? And I’ll never be the same…. The tide is coming in, coming fast….”
In Between, Andrea House from Fire
Since then Andrea has continued to wrap her velvety, delicately contoured voice around melodic songs she creates in a variety of flavours and styles, in both English and French, with lyrics fashioned from her signature elegant under-the-radar poetry.
She’s a heartwarming and engaging performer onstage. And there’s candour and charm, and a certain playfulness, in her rapport with audiences. “That’s my safe place: onstage,” she says. “It’s my hang-out. It’s my place to explore the deepest part of the heart…. The outside world is unpredictable; I can’t wait to get onstage.”