KEVIN FOX CD release at the Music Gallery (197 John), tonight (Thursday, June 3). $15. 416-204-1080. Rating: NNNNN
You know how they always say nice guys finish last? Well, they don't necessarily finish last - it just sometimes takes them 20 years to get to the finish line. Take Toronto-based cellist Kevin Fox. If you've ever been to a lower-key Canadian concert, you've probably seen the dude in the Buddy Holly specs wielding a mean bow behind folks like Sarah Harmer and Jason Collett.
And if you're one of the diva-obsessed throng who picked up Celine Dion's A New Day Has Come disc, you've heard his elegant cello wizardry backing up the skeletal Quebecoise Fraggle.
While Fox has already played on more stages than your average Canrock star, it's taken him until now to realize the dream he's had since he was a 14-year-old weed in Halifax - to record, release and perform his first solo album, Come Alive (MapleNationwide).
"I'm glad I waited," he muses over veggie noodle salad at the Drake. "If I were 25 and doing this, we'd be talking on a much shallower level. At 35, I have the strength and knowledge of who I am and the confidence in my ability to communicate that."
"That" is a sophisticated, soaring set of gentle, slightly roots-inflected chamber pop. Instead of jumping on the Jorane/Rasputina bandwagon and trying to reach people through pure cello noodling, Fox composes atmospheric singer/songwriter tunes with elegant string arrangements to add character. Most balladeers add string accents as window dressing. If they want a tune to sound sad, they'll tack on some sappy cello moment. Fox's songs aren't like that.
He says he was inspired by 70s rockers like Elton John, Fleetwood Mac and - gasp! - Supertramp, but his classical training gives him a knack for phrasing and instrumental layers that imbue even the wordless moments of his songs with intense emotion. That's underscored by the self-analytic, introspective nature of his lyrics. Fox admits he's laying himself totally bare on Come Alive.
"You spend your early 20s scared about what you're gonna say onstage, and now I never think about it before going onstage. I don't believe in embarrassment."
And no one's likely to take offence at anything that might come out of Fox's mouth. He's one of the sweetest, most earnest guys I've ever met. Collaborators like Harmer and Emm Gryner rave about his loveliness.
He's effusive about how he wants the music he makes to inspire, which would sound like a New Agey cliché coming from anyone else. But I remember the first time I ever met Fox, just after I graduated high school. As a nerdy "I went to band camp" cello-toting teen, I thought he was amazing cuz he'd spun his classical training into gigs backing cool rockers.
So I snuck backstage after a free show where he'd played with Gryner and nervously explained why I thought he was the shit. Instead of a pat, nod 'n' handshake, Fox spent almost half an hour asking about my cello-playing aspirations, telling me how he'd gotten where he was and encouraging me to keep at it.
Yeah, yeah, it was a cheesy Hallmark moment, but it stuck with me. Even cooler, Fox still remembers the interaction - it's in keeping with his philosophy.
"I'm a believer in sharing something good if you have it. We all have the power to inspire our community, whether it be a smile to a friend or complimenting someone's work or commenting on a pair of pants someone's wearing.
"If I think someone's beautiful now, I tell them. If I can sum up what I want to put out there in one word, it's beauty. And there's an argument that perhaps everybody's seeking beauty, whether it's the 16-year-old kid listening to the most dreadful, disturbing music or someone screaming in a subway because they want attention.
"We all find comfort in beauty. It's human nature."