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First Play: Queer Songbook Orchestra, Anthems and Icons

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By
Melody Lau

History books are flawed. The texts we were taught to commit our memories to growing up tend to leave out a lot of names and events, most often excluding minorities in favour of the tales of the majority. So, it has become the task of many who don’t fit the broadly white and heteronormative population to collect, preserve and promote these sometimes buried stories. That is the aim of a collective like the Queer Songbook Orchestra.

Formed in 2014, Queer Songbook Orchestra is a 12-piece band of queer and allied musicians in Toronto and Montreal whose goal is to help listeners view pop’s history through a queer lens. Beyond its core group, which includes artistic director Shaun Brodie, Bonjay’s Alanna Stuart, Bernice and Owen Pallett collaborator Thom Gill and jazz vocalist Alex Samaras, many notable guests have appeared at QSO’s live performances, including Carole Pope, July Talk’s Leah Fay, Vivek Shraya, Mary Magaret O’Hara, Stars’ Torquil Campbell and more.

The group’s shows bring together expertly arranged covers of songs that relate to the LGBTQ experience, either historically, personally or both. Members get to expand on their connections to these songs onstage, allowing audiences a “new entry point into familiar works,” as their bio states.

Following their collaboration with Vivek Shraya on 2017's Part-Time Woman, Anthems and Icons is Queer Songbook Orchestra’s debut album, an eight-song compilation that forms the beginning of its own historical text. The album pays tribute to some of the LGBTQ community’s most famous voices, like k.d. Lang and Melissa Etheridge. But, it also shines a light on some perhaps lesser-known artists like jazz composer Billy Strayhorn, who never received royalties for his work with Duke Ellington, or Joe Meek, a British producer and songwriter who was publicly outed and ostracized in a time when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK.

The recordings are lush and moving, and they take their time to really unravel new layers and meanings. The acoustic guitars on Lang’s hit “Constant Craving” are replaced by sparse string arrangements that convey singer Stuart’s hopeful yearning. On their rendition of Rita MacNeil’s “We’ll Reach the Sky Tonight,” Gill’s falsetto soars to new heights, with gorgeous harmonies floating atop loose, jazz instrumentation.

This album serves as a permanent record of Queer Songbook Orchestra’s important work over the past four years. It offers a look back at music's history from a different perspective, but more importantly, it shows a road forward, where LGBTQ voices are not only included, but highlighted.

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