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Rock 'n' roll singer Vivian George may have native Canadian blood running through her veins — she was born in Toronto — but the singer-songwriter has Detroit securely in her heart. When she first visited the city as a youngster, George immediately felt a kinship, a sense of belonging and — as tacky as it sounds — a genuine air of magic about the Motor City that those who've lived here all their lives find easy to overlook. When George recently met up with this writer (another expat who fell in love with the city upon his first visit) at a Royal Oak coffee shop, we were like kids discussing favorite toys, talking at length about the virtues of the Detroit people who have always been able to rise above the city's problems to create something musically incredible, from "Boogie Chillin'" to Motown to the White Stripes. We came to the joint conclusion that this city provided us both with a spiritual home when we needed it most.
But enough melodrama. Let's talk music.
George's introduction to playing and writing music "happened" when she was in her midteens, when she had a career percolating as an actress. "It found me," she says. "Initially, I was acting and was pretty successful with it as a child. When I was 15, though, I picked up a guitar my dad had. I started to play it … so I just started playing little things."
She was filming a movie in Toronto when the director overheard her playing guitar. "He told me that I should pursue it," she recalls, "and one of the people who was funding the film gave me money to record a small CD. So I went into a local studio, did a few songs and it all just snowballed from there. I then recorded an album and started playing on the [Toronto] scene. Again, I was lucky because one of the guys working on the film was a best friend of [cult Canadian singer-songwriter and actress] Mary Margaret O'Hara. So her band became my first band!"
It was 1997 when George — who'd visited relatives in the area as a youth — felt the pull of Detroit grow particularly strong. "I had done everything that I could do in Toronto at that point," she says. "I had won some awards and whatever. But I had met and started working with [Sponge/Orbitsuns/Crud leader] Vinnie Dombroski. I was just incredibly lucky to fall in with his crowd. He took me to the Loft Studio in Pontiac and brought some guys into play on three of my songs: Vinnie played drums, and then he said that Joey Mazzola [of Sponge and the Detroit Cobras] was coming in to play guitar. Well, the first time I heard Joe play, I was amazed. We were hearing just his guitar stuff without the track playing behind it. Before I knew what was happening, I was writing lyrics to the melody he was playing. That had never happened to me before!"
Thus, Detroit's particular allure was that much stronger. And with the spine of a supremely talented, Detroit-centric band in place, George was all set to go forth and conquer the Mitten … when a severe car accident put a huge dent in her plans.
"It was bad," she sighs. "I was on a lot of medication for my injuries at the time, and so I was writing a lot about that [pain]. Those drugs are lethal. They can split your reality if you're not careful. And when you're clouded in a little cocoon like that, you're not making the same choices you would if you were sober and had all your senses. It was an odd place to be in."
Throughout those pained times, George again found solace in her beloved Detroit. "From 2002 until a couple of years ago, we just chipped away," she explains, "and then we put out Shameless in 2007. The album sounds different throughout because it was recorded over such a long period of time. Vinnie told me not to worry about that because the industry is all about single tracks and iTunes now so it really doesn't have to be consistent.
"But because of my injuries, I didn't have the stamina to take a deep breath and sing. I didn't have any body movement either. So Vinnie gave me specific goals, such as setting up dates for me to open up for the Orbitsuns — that is, something to work toward. If I didn't have that, I wouldn't be in the business now. I'm so grateful for him. Nobody in Toronto did that for me. There's just something about the Detroit spirit where people will rally around tragedy. I'm sure that happens in Toronto, but we also have help built right into the system in Canada. At that time, though, I didn't need strangers coming to my house to clean or to do my grocery shopping. I needed friends and I needed to be fed in a spiritual way that can only come from friends. And my Detroit friends did that for me."
Partly due to the fragmented nature of the recording process but also because George had to rise from hard times, Shameless is a dark little album.
"My parents both died rather tragically close together when I was just out of my teens," she says. "Both of them had drug and alcohol problems, and that had led to me living with my aunt in Harper Woods for a while when I was young. I always thought things would turn around for my folks, and that left me with a bunch of feelings that didn't have a place. Writing songs kind of took me by surprise, as I said, but it also gave me a way to sort some of it out for myself." Hey, it's cheaper than a therapist too!
As she approaches the next stage of her career, George still feels that Detroit is the best place to base herself. "I love the fact that you can listen to country or you can listen to punk — sometimes on the same bill — and it's all fantastic. The crowd will cheer it all. When I tell people here that there is nothing like this scene anywhere else in the world, they just don't believe you if they've never left town and traveled. They just don't get it.
"You wouldn't find something like the Motor City Rah-Rahs anywhere else — cheerleaders who are doing it just because they love Detroit. And it works. It makes sense because it's so joyous. There's nothing like the Metro Times Blowout anywhere else. Festivals in Toronto have no rock 'n' roll. It's, like, you don't get to have that anymore because you're grown up now. But here, the kids and their grandparents listen to the same music and they enjoy it equally. Whatever feeds your spirit, and there are so many broken spirits out there these days. But if you want to wiggle it in fishnets and hang out with other girls who smoke, drink and swear, and wear hula hoops and pom-poms, then do it. I've been lucky enough to fall in with a lot of creative people in the area who really feed me — in addition to Vinnie, Joey and the Rah-Rahs, there's also Billy Reedy, Caroline Striho and Eric Hoegemeyer. I'm incredibly grateful and that's why I don't mind putting 12,000 miles on my car over a weekend to do that!"
She does promise that her next album — which will either be titled Looks Like Rain or I Think I'm In Love With You a Little Bit and is due out in February 2010 — will be an altogether more joyous affair than its predecessor. Things are good for her right now. In addition to her music, she has a successful clothes line called Toast. She regularly performs with the aforementioned Motor City Rah-Rahs. And she still works in the film and television industry, most recently behind the scenes on Degrassi: The Next Generation. She has a solid band in place, consisting of Billy Reedy (of Ty Stone & the Truth and Novadriver fame), Eric Hoegemeyer (Crud, Gold Cash Gold, Deep See Sound System) and Sir Tim Duvalier (of the Orbitsuns). And her live solo show can sometimes stun. Yep, Vivian George really is happy as hell in Detroit. As she summarizes: "I should call this album I Think I'm In Love With You a Little Bit. Because I really am in love with the people of Detroit."
Vivian George plays Sunday, Dec. 13, as part of the Motor City Rah-Rahs Christmas Party at the Belmont, 10215 Joseph Campau, Hamtramck; 313-871-1966. Her new album will be released in February 2010 via Roxanne Records.
Brett Callwood is a music critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.