Letters from Broken Street
In 2007, singer/songwriter Dennis Fuentes started to experience the pains of the dreaded midlife crisis as he approached his 40th birthday. "The closer I got to turning 40, I started feeling this growing restlessness to do something completely different in my life," says the Valley Cottage, New York native. "One of my biggest life challenges is to keep from getting bored. I get bored very easily, which is one of the reasons my career path has been so ... interesting." After graduating from the College of Mount St. Vincent in 1989, Dennis worked in film and television production in New York City, Toronto, and Chicago for eight years before leap-frogging into so many jobs in the next thirteen years that a scorecard is required to keep track of them. He taught kindergarten; worked in residential real estate development; built websites for a railroad company; managed a men's necktie store; and administrated the medical practices of neurosurgeons, neurologists, and adult and pediatric neuropsychologists. "Some of these career changes were of my choosing; some were made for me. But with each change that came along, there was always this fear of the unknown. 'What if this doesn't work?' But ultimately, things had a way of working themselves out." Throughout his life's left turns, Dennis has always been accompanied by a soundtrack. His disparate career choices are matched by the range of music he's loved ever since he can remember. "I have pictures of me from around 1971 - before kindergarten - operating this big, clunky phonograph that my mother bought when she first immigrated to the United States from the Philippines in 1965. Even back then, my musical interests were really diverse. I'd sing along to records by Dean Martin, the Lennon Sisters, and the Jackson 5. My parents said I used to drive company who'd come to the house crazy because I wouldn't let anyone play any other music on the record player." Dennis absorbed the sounds of the Mamas and the Papas, Aretha Franklin, the Jefferson Airplane, and the Partridge Family in the '60s, while the '70s ushered in an appreciation for the AM radio hits of the day: Fleetwood Mac, ABBA, The Eagles -- and a generous helping of Top 40 disco. ("That was before I knew better," he laughs.) MTV came crashing through the '80s with a 24-hour parade of crazy yet hypnotic images and songs, which only fed Dennis' ever-expanding imagination. The '90s brought an exposure to the vast and, for him, uncharted territory of Canadian music - that is, music made by Canadian bands and artists, some of whom he was familiar with, but who mostly were completely foreign to him. "Working for a Canadian television production company in Toronto after university put me in touch with this world of fantastic music which I didn't get to hear back in the States. I knew that Bryan Adams, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Ann Murray were Canadian, but when I would listen to Canadian radio or watch MuchMusic [Canada's version of MTV], I heard so much great music - both in English and in French - that I just wanted to dive in and learn all I could about it. In the process, I became a huge fan of so many great musicians, like Blue Rodeo, Jann Arden, Jim Bryson, The Waltons, Barenaked Ladies, Mae Moore, Luba, Luc DeLarochelliere, Scott Merritt, Gordie Sampson, Great Big Sea, and The Rankin Family." The turn of the century was marked by Dennis' growing appreciation for roots rockers and singer/songwriters (of all nationalities), thus expanding his list of favourites: John Mayer, Stephen Fearing, Jeffrey Foucault, Peter Mulvey, Dave Matthews, The Freddy Jones Band, Shawn Colvin, Laurence Jalbert, and the Wailin' Jennys. 'People thumb through my iPod and say, 'Who ARE these people?'," Dennis says proudly. "But these are bands and artists who really affect me and speak to my sense of being." That sense of self that was tested as Dennis approached 40. "With each birthday, I look back at the previous year and I'm always thinking, 'What do I want to accomplish in the next 12 months? What's left on my life's to-do list? If there's something on my list that I didn't do, is it something that I will regret for the rest of my life?' For me, the answer was obvious: 'I want to be a musician'". Armed with over nine years of childhood classical piano training; three years of recent guitar & vocal training at Chicago's historic Old Town School of Folk Music; notebooks of unfinished lyrics for songs he'd been trying to write for years; the encouragement of some close friends; and thirty-nine years of musical influences floating around inside his head, Dennis assembled a band of Chicago-area musicians and started to record some songs. "I realized that I'm either going to do this now, or I'm never going to do it," he explains. Over the course of the next two years, Dennis dug deep into his own creative well. "I'm truly inspired by singer/songwriters who can pull these incredible melodies and beautiful words seemingly out of the air and make songs which -- as Joni Mitchell said in a TV documentary I saw a few years ago -- 'strike against the nerves of peoples' lives.' It's one of life's greatest mysteries why songs move us as human beings. Not that I think I can come close to some of my heroes' artistries, but that's what I aspire to do with my music." On his debut CD, Letters from Broken Street, Dennis wrote four of the eight songs ("The Show Goes On", "Beautiful Again", "New Years Eve", and "The Long Goodbye"), each shaded and shaped by the experiences of his own life and those of people around him. "We've all been hurt, let down, and disappointed by other people. Life is hard, and it's difficult to see hope when you're in the thick of things. All of the songs I wrote tell a collective story, of characters working their way toward finding hope in dark times." The other half of that collective story is told through the perspectives of some of Dennis' favorite singer/songwriters - who just happen to be Canadian. "I knew going into this record that I wanted to do some cover songs as a tribute to some of the artists and bands who have inspired me over the years. I've been a huge fan of Stephen Fearing ('One Flat Tire'); Jann Arden ('Waiting in Canada'); Blue Rodeo ('Five Days in May'); and The Waltons ('Middle of Nowhere') for years. It just so happened that the songs I wanted to cover were written by Canadians." Which is where the name of his band, The Occasional Canadians, came from. "When I sing these songs, I feel like I'm part of a long and honourable tradition of Canadian singer/songwriters. So although I'm not Canadian myself, I sometimes feel like an honourary Canadian. Hence, I'm only Occasionally Canadian," he laughs, acknowledging that his birthday, July 1st, also just happens to be Canada Day. The Occasional Canadians is comprised of an accomplished group of Midwestern musicians. Co-producer/engineer/multi-instrumentalist Tony Calderisi is himself a singer/songwriter and plays in two other Chicago-area bands - the Ripleys and Diver. Drummer/percussionist Chris "Coz" Costello also splits his time between different Chicago-area bands, including Diver; he's also a rabid soccer enthusiast. Fiddler Phil Roach is a member of the bluegrass/roots music band, The Giving Tree, and plays on two songs. Steven Francque is a Chicago singer/songwriter who sings harmonies on two tracks, and with Dennis co-wrote the song "High, Lonesome Sound", which originally appeared on Steven's debut CD, 'Digging in the Dirt', in 2006. Letters from Broken Street is scheduled for a Summer 2009 release. With this being his first CD, what becomes of Dennis' fear of the unknown that he dreads so much? "I'm terrified," he admits. "But people who know me well know that I'll hem & haw for a while, but ultimately, I'll just close my eyes, take a deep breath, and jump right in. The fear is always there -- I'm just not going to look at it!" he says with a smile. "This is another one of my life's great adventures. I hope people will take a chance and come along for the ride." By Jill van Vliet.