Music and Lyrics and Brel

A passion for writing songs and a great friendship was born when Valerie Hennell and I met. I was playing the lead in a university musical, and she and I began to write songs together. She wrote the lyrics, and I wrote the music. That was all I knew about songwriting before I encountered the songs of Jacques Brel.

“Ann Mortifee and Chief Dan George with Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau standing just behind them, surrounded by the cast of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.”

It happened in a roundabout way. I travelled with the cast of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe to perform at the opening of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. The producer of a Canadian theatre revue called Love and Maple Syrup attended the opening, and I was invited to join the revue for its summer run. I stayed in Ottawa to do that, and later went with the show to New York.

In the theatre down the hall that summer, I first heard the songs of the Belgian-born songwriter, Jacques Brel. I was mesmerized by the intensity, theatrical energy and insight in his music. On every break I slipped back stage to listen and watch the show. His songs were passionate expressions of life. He wrote of tragedy, humour, protest and love. I became friends with the cast and crew of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris, and soon afterward I had the opportunity to join the company and sing Brel’s songs in Milwaukee, Chicago, Vancouver and New York.

Jacques Brel’s songs gave me permission to speak with the passion of my own voice. I began to write my own lyrics, expressing what hurt, intrigued, moved or disturbed me. I lost all fear of letting go in front of an audience. The intent of the song was more important than whether I looked good, was understood or was even appreciated. I found a new freedom as a songwriter, and creating music became a way for me to discover who I was and what was most important to me. Although the music and lyrics that I write have changed over the years, of course, my music is basically a map of my life.