Master of mixed emotions: Princess Towers’ ‘Freak Fairy Tales’
“I’ve never felt comfortable performing anything super direct, like a normal love song. But a song about an inanimate object can find an oblique way into real feelings. These songs take very minor things and put them in big, mythical terms. I like that challenge—what’s the smallest thing you can write about and still make it compelling?”
This is Arden Rogalsky, songwriter and lead performer of Kingston folk-rock collective Princess Towers. We’re sitting on the floor of their childhood home, and they’re telling me about their latest project, Freak Fairy Tales. In a little pink book with a hand-stapled spine, Rogalsky has assembled seven stories, each corresponding to a song. With titles like “Sad Museum,” “Bad Magnet,” and “Fool’s Moon,” these songs could be bleak, but they’re really quite tender. Rogalsky is a master of mixed emotions. Later this month, they’ll debut Freak Fairy Tales with three solo shows—in Kingston, Peterborough, and Montreal—performed under the Princess Towers moniker.
The project’s title originates from a misheard song lyric: “I was trying to learn a song by PS I Love You, ‘Meet Me at the Muster Station.’ I was looking for the lyrics online. There’s a line in the song that refers to the Wolfe Island Ferry as ‘Canada’s only free ferry.’ But whoever transcribed it on Genius.com had written ‘freak fairy.’ And I thought, ‘That should also be a song.’”
The stories in Freak Fairy Tales move between Rogalsky’s childhood home in Kingston and the house they recently lived in on Wolfe Island. Rogalsky also has connections to Hornby Island, BC, where they stopped on a West Coast tour last fall. There have been a lot of ferry rides in Rogalsky’s life—what has all this ferrying done for their creative process?
“I have a mixed relationship with the Wolfe Island Ferry. It kind of sucked to have to take it all the time. But once you’re on it, you have these 20 open minutes before it gets to the other side. It would be the one time in the day that I was fully shutting off. I’d often forget to bring anything to do, so I’d just sit there. I could get in this meditative spot and have little lucid dreams. And I would always know from the sounds of the ferry when it got to the other side. So I always woke up, luckily, if I was dreaming. And I would also work on songs in that time.”
I ask if the ferry’s loud, mechanical drone has inspired their music. “I’ve been more and more interested in making music based around drone sounds. ‘Freak Fairy’ is centred on a drone. That was intentional, because it’s thematically related. The whole project is the length of the ferry ride to Wolfe Island. So eventually, it can be the kind of thing where you get on the ferry, put it on, and it’s done by the time you get off.”
Rogalsky has always felt drawn to concept-based music. “I love David Bowie for that reason. It’s not just the songs, it’s the presentation. There’s a show, and a character, and it’s in its own little world. A lot of my favourite songwriters do that—have their own little world with its own logic. Like Chad VanGaalen, who has his own sonic thing, but it’s also visual art, and he’s got his crazy little universe. … I want to break out of the usual conventions of the music show. One thing I like about theatre is how it’s a continuous piece, and how you go in prepared to be immersed. At concerts, that’s not really the vibe. You go and you chat with your friends. And that’s also a good place for music. But I like shows where people come with a certain sense of—I don’t know if reverence is the right word, but just really listening. So I want to think about this show that way. Not just playing the songs with banter in between, but trying to make it into more of a continuous, conceptual performance.”
In January, Rogalsky ventured into the world of theatre by collaborating with Andrew Camerone of Elkabong Theatre. Camerone enlisted Rogalsky and the Princess Towers collective—including members Michael Broadhead, Liam Cole, Grace Dixon, and Dylan Lodge—to accompany his new adaptation of Albert Camus’ The Fall. “It was a one-actor show set in a bar. And his concept for it was that we would be the band playing in the bar. Initially, the show would begin with the band’s performance being interrupted, and him taking over. And then we would start to underscore certain parts of the show with music, and eventually perform full songs that were thematically connected. It was cool to perform a piece without applause in between to break the spell. It confirmed for me that I want to take my project in a similar direction.”
Freak Fairy Tales will take Princess Towers’ musical storytelling in a new, more interactive, direction. “It’ll be like I’m presenting a book of fairy tales to the audience. I’ll have copies of the book for people to take. I’m still figuring out how I’ll fit something like, ‘And now we’re gonna turn to page three,’ in my banter. It’ll be an experiment.” Rogalsky wants to eventually incorporate other visual elements into the performance. “My idea is that each page of the book will be shown on an overhead projector, as a kind of backdrop. For now, it’s a trial run of what I imagine will be a bigger, more theatrical show.”