When Montreal singer-songwriter Stephen Farrell was in his early 20’s, he wrote an autumnal ballad far beyond his years, entitled “You & I.” On September 13, at the age of 63, Farrell was finally able to sing it for a live audience.
“’You & I’ is an old man song,” Farrell joked during a phone conversation a few days before presenting his You & I – Toi et moi show for the first time. “It was a song I wrote when I was young, but looking towards the future and how I might one day reflect on my youth. I think it’s more appropriate for me to sing it now.”
Forty years is a long time to keep a song hidden in a piano bench. He had several hundred more stashed away, which he would occasionally dust off and play for friends, who wondered aloud why Farrell had yet to share them with the world.
Farrell has been a working musician for over four decades, but despite his imposing frame, it has usually been in the background. He’s been a pianist, arranger and musical director. He was in bands in the early part of his career, and he even performed for the Canadian Forces in Alert, the northernmost inhabited place on Earth.
Yet his eponymous debut album, which came out earlier this year, didn’t come about because of some great epiphany.
“I just thought to myself, ‘if not now, then when?” He said. Farrell took stock of all the songs he had written over the years – some as old as “You & I,” others only a year old – and picked the 14 that best made for a cohesive record.
There were also no restrictions in terms of genre. He’s a laid-back crooner who shares an equal affinity for Bennett and Sinatra as he does James Taylor and Paul Simon. Farrell joked that in his long career, he’s tackled every style of music except hip hop and electronic.
“I don’t think there’s a significance to when the songs were written. The real question I asked when I chose the songs were whether they still meant something and were worth performing,” he said.
With the album finally under his belt, it was time to present the songs live. The big moment came on September 13, 2014, at Montreal’s historic Monument-National.
Before taking the stage, Farrell was introduced by famed Quebec composer and longtime collaborator Marc Fortier. Farrell then took his place in front of his talented nine-piece backing band, most of whom performed on the record.
He delivered set opener “When You Do That Thing You Do,” not with the impetuousness of someone who had been waiting their whole life for their moment in the spotlight, but with the unassuming confidence one would expect from a calm pro.
In addition to performing his own material, Farrell paid homage to the greats who inspired him over the years. He opened the second half of the set with a rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” surprised the audience by tackling “Desperado” by Eagles with aplomb, and gave a stirring tribute to his late brother Brian by covering Tony Bennett’s “When Joanna Loved Me.”
But if You & I – Toi et Moi the show at any point felt like an event 40 years in the making, it was when Farrell dueted with his wife Madeleine O’Meara, who also provided backing vocals throughout the night. The highlight was an unlikely combination of “You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It),” made famous by Judy Garland, and Tony Bennett’s “I Wanna Be Around.” It was a sublime marriage of two classics.
“She’s been the inspiration for a lot of my music,” Farrell said, referring, of course, to O’Meara. “It was a difficult beginning when we met because we were both in relationships with other people. It was only 15 years later that we were both free at the same time, but since then we’ve been together over 20 years.”
It explains why his songs not only speak about the highs and lows of being in love, but also about pining for it from afar. In love as in music, Farrell has shown a willingness to be patient, a quality few can say they truly have.
“She has been an ongoing inspiration. She’s my muse.”
The band is: Ron Di Lauro on trumpet, Gary Schwartz on guitars, David Gelfand on bass, Patrick Vetter on sax and flute, David Ryshpan on keyboards, Serge Arsenault on trombone, Madeleine O’Meara on backing vocals, Perry Pansieri on drums and André Martin on percussion.