Visqueen’s new album, “Message to Garcia,” is as much about joy and inspiration and soaring over life’s hurtles as it is about sadness and grief.
The beloved Seattle pop-rock band is led by singer-guitarist Rachel Flotard, who lost her father last April after a long bout with cancer. George Flotard had been a New York City steamfitter since the mid-’60s. It was dirty, back-wrenching work. “He fought and loved in Hell’s Kitchen bars on the West Side, and broke all 10 fingers twice,” says his daughter.
George Flotard moved to Seattle after his cancer diagnosis to live with his daughters Rachel and Sarah. Among his favorite pieces of literature was “Message to Garcia,” written in 1899 by Elbert Hubbard about a soldier who survives a daunting mission without complaints, objections or requests for help. That’s what George Flotard was all about.
Visqueen’s album of the same name is a powerful, inspiring tribute that includes such songs as “Hand Me Down,” “Fight for Love” and “So Long,” a farewell to her father featuring slide guitar and her gorgeous vocals. The album has a lot of feisty pop crunch, but is ultimately and most importantly very moving and life-affirming.
“Message to Garcia” was released on Rachel’s own label, Local 638 Records, named for her father’s steamfitters union.
Rachel Flotard talked to me about the new album in a recent interview:
Q: You described your dad as an epic father and your unrelenting hero for 35 years, whose cancer diagnosis changed your life — and his. Can you elaborate with an anecdote?
Rachel: “It changed my path certainly. And gave me deeper insight on what courage means. My dad moved here with the intention of dying soon after. Instead he thrived here, and made friends with our friends. He was loved, and had fulfilling experiences he might never have had in New Jersey alone. As awful as his illness was, it brought our family together, and it gave my sister and I a special chance to be with our father.”
Q: The album is titled “Message to Garcia,” after the 19th century essay about the Spanish-American War. It’s the only piece of literature that your father insisted you read. Why was it so important to him, and what did it say about him?
Rachel: “He was the kind of man that did not understand ‘vacation day.’ He worked, physically, up on scaffolding, and underneath boilers for 40 years. He had guts. And from the time he was a little boy, had to fight to take care of himself. Might not have been the best of circumstances, but it forced him to survive. That’s what he wanted to teach Sarah and me. We had no frame of reference for a hard life like that because he always made sure we were safe and warm. So the essay was a map.”
Q: You describe the songs on the album as your friends: “I wrote them through a long ride of self-conscious anguish and joy.” Can you describe the writing process, maybe with an anecdote?
Rachel: “It was as if a song would arrive, or the beginning to a song would arrive after some event. Good or bad. I’d start to sing a melody, and then fit it together on guitar. Like Jenga or Suduko.”
Q: Can you talk about a couple of the songs on the album that were especially significant in regard to your dad?
Rachel: ” ‘So Long,’ for sure. That was about him. Or at least a snapshot of how I felt on a day during that time. The rest are rockers that I used to stay happy.”
Q: When did you begin writing for this album? Before he died? Or after? Or both? What was the most productive period?
Rachel: “I’d had a lot of these songs for the past few years. Most before dad died. Only after he passed could I focus, or mix, or even feel good enough to tackle the project. Because finishing a record means a lot of things. Like being able to play it live, and promote it, and smile, and be joyful. It’s taken some time obviously to feel that way. New Years Eve was a turning point. I committed to putting the record out and starting the label. Eight months later, here I be.”
Q: Neko Case backs you on vocals on this album. Earlier, you had recorded with her, so she was returning the favor. Describe what recording with Neko was like. Are you good friends?
Rachel: “We are brothers. And I love her. She invited me to Toronto to sing on her last two records, and it’s always a joy. She’s just a wizard, as I’ve said before, and such a creative human being. Being around her makes you want to listen to your gut and follow it. I like her. A lot. Not to mention watching her sing makes me cry. Visqueen went on tour as her opening act years ago when she released ‘The Tigers Have Spoken.’ I would hook on to the side of the stage with (drummer) Ben Hooker, tears in our eyes. You could hear a pin drop during certain songs. It’s a chill for sure.”
Q: This album represents tremendous growth for you as an artist. How has it changed you as a songwriter and performer?
Rachel: “I don’t know. It just feels as if I’m older, and that’s something I can’t help.”
Q: Have you had any dreams about your father since the album came out?
Rachel: “No. But I do have extremely crazy dreams. And they are getting crazier.”
Q: What are your upcoming tour plans?
Rachel: “I’m going to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in December. Right now I’m looking to book tours in 2010. I’m agent-free, so there’s an uphill climb to do that. I’m hoping someone puts my record underneath Eddie Vedder’s pillow and he takes us away in 2010 like the Truth Fairy.”
Q: What doors have opened, and opportunities have surfaced, since the release of the album?
Rachel: “Certainly the opportunity to get hugged. It’s amazing. There have been many instances where people thank me for the record, and it just kills me.”