“My life is a country song.” When Theo Fleury says that, it’s hard to argue. From his small-town upbringing to the heights of hockey glory, from the depths of sexual abuse and alcoholism to his current health and happiness, the Canadian icon’s 47 years come packed with enough triumph and tragedy to inspire not just a single song but an entire album. That’s exactly what they’ve become. ‘I Am Who I Am,’ out October 23 on eOne Music Canada, finds the NHL superstar, Olympic gold medal winner, best-selling author, motivational speaker and entrepreneur tackling a new game: Country singer-songwriter. And it’s a more natural fit than you might expect.
It wasn’t until 2009 — the same year he published his unflinching memoir ‘Playing With Fire’ — that Fleury moved music to the forefront. Wanting to cross an item off his bucket list, he teamed with Winnipeg musician Phil Deschambault to write a song about his life. Once they heard the results, they decided to keep going. Over the next few years, the duo — who discovered their fathers had made music together in Russell, Man., before either of them were born — penned more than a dozen songs, each stronger and more personal than the last. Fleury also began collaborating with fellow Calgarian Paddy McCallion, a longtime drinking buddy who turned out to be a talented musician and composer. He assembled Fleury’s backing band The Death Valley Rebels for his future live shows, and produced the autobiographical I Am Who I Am, which merges the hockey star’s Cash-deep vocals with the classic country twang he grew up hearing in his father’s car.
It’s about more than just entertainment or nostalgia, however. For Fleury, it’s also about helping others by sharing his story. “The album is definitely dark,” he admits. “The songs are all about my life, my experience, my struggle. But they’re also about coming through that struggle. At the end of every song, there’s hope. That’s what the lyrics and music reflect: Hope and healing. If people listen to this and there’s a line or a word or a phrase that helps them get out of the situation they’re in or how they’re feeling, that’s really why we’re doing this. The message is that no matter how far we may fall, we can make it back.” And turn it into a great country song.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with the NHL legend, author and blossoming country artist to learn more about his musical roots, the creation of his debut album, ‘I Am Who I Am,’ his evolution as an artist and what the future might hold for him in both the short and long term!
We are familiar with the name Theo Fleury from your career in the NHL. Now, you are exploring new territory in the world of country music. That is a big swerve for sure!
[laughs] Yeah, I can see that!
Before we talk about what you have in store for us, let’s go back to the beginning. What are some of your first memories of music?
Some of my fondest memories I have as a child are sitting alongside my grandfather and listening to him play the fiddle. My dad and uncle also played guitar and would sing some old tunes by Buck Owens, Charlie Pride and guys like that. The first single, “My Life’s Been A Country Song,” has the first verse that reflects that time and place. It brings back a lot of great memories for me.
What was the catalyst that made you dive into this next chapter of your life?
I used to say that every house I lived in along the way in my NHL career had a karaoke machine and it was heavily used! [laughs] Initially, the plan was to strike something off the bucket list, which was to write and record a song. I had an old family friend in the music business, Phil Deschambault, who lives in Winnipeg. Our dads actually played music together before we were even born. I called him up and said, “How’d you like to write a song with me?” He said, “Yeah, I would love to!” I went to Winnipeg and spent a week there. We wrote the song, “As The Story Goes.” The song is now on iTunes and we have a video of it on YouTube. It was kind of a cool experience to take a thought, idea or phrase and actually turn it into a song. When he sent it back to me, when it was all finished, I listened to it right away. I called him immediately and said, “This sounds really good! Do you think it sounds really good?” He said, “Yes, of course!” I kept going back to Winnipeg and writing songs. I had an old drinking buddy here in Calgary, Paddy McCallion. The whole time we were drinking and partying together, I never realized he was a musician as well. The two of us started writing and wrote about 30 songs for this album. We picked the 10 best and here we are today!
What do you feel Phil Deschambault and Paddy McCallion bring to the table for a project like this one? Additionally, did you face any major challenges in bringing your first album to life?
I think the big experience and a real knowledge of songwriting. They are both incredible musicians and are both a lot of fun to work with. We had a lot of laughs along the way as we were writing. As far as challenges, I can say that logistics were the toughest thing. Phil has his own band and is extremely busy, so to be able to book time with him and get to Winnipeg. Finding the time to get in the studio and put my vocal tracks to the music was difficult because I also have a busy schedule. Coordinating all of that was probably the biggest challenge. I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that I just didn’t wake up one morning and say, “OK, I am going to start singing country music.” I think we took our time. This has been a six-year project. We all wanted it to be very good and I think we are all extremely proud of the finished product. It definitely developed over time. To be honest with you, I don’t think there was one song that we wrote that was difficult. We might have gotten stuck on a word or a verse. The serendipity of it all and writing these songs with Phil and Paddy came pretty easily. They say the best songs are written on napkins and take about 45 minutes to write. A lot of these songs on the album didn’t take too much time to write. I think people will enjoy the music. It is different and more old school with fiddles, banjos, accordions. There are a lot of elements that I remember hearing in the music I loved as a kid. We’re a bunch of guys who love that old-school country sound and we put our own stamp on it.
Did you find your songwriting process evolving much through the years?
Yeah, it definitely did. It is like anything else, the more you do it, the better you get at it. That has been the experience here. We are all looking forward to the next album and writing more songs. I think a song means more to an artist when you sit down and write them and perform them as they have a deeper meaning. It has been really interesting to see over the past few days that the single, “My Life Has Been A Country Song,” has almost 25,000 plays on SoundCloud. That has been pretty astonishing and it feels pretty good, so we are looking forward to getting out on the road and performing these songs!
What are your plans in regards to touring for the album? What lies ahead?
We have a PR group here in Canada called The Feldman Group and they are putting their feelers out right now. I can see us probably getting out there in the new year to play the music and meet the fans.
We have come to know you as being so open and honest through your autobiography, “Playing With Fire.” Did you find it was easier or more difficult to put yourself out there through song?
It was easy. Through the process of writing “Playing With Fire,” I realized the things that I went through in my life are a shared experience. So, something I grew up thinking about my entire life was uncommon is actually the most common thing that happens in the world. That added fuel to the fire when it comes to finding ways to get the message out there. This is all about inspiring people and getting them to think differently about their lives. When I was growing up, I couldn’t tell you how many people said I was too small and would never do this or never do that and that I wouldn’t play one game in the National Hockey League. I played over 1,000 games in the NHL and I can see the music in a similar light. People will have their doubts but, if you work hard and surround yourself with good people, then anything is possible!
I have heard the music. The authenticity and passion in these songs definitely comes through. I think that is becoming more rare these days in country, so kudos to you.
Thank you so much! We really appreciate that!
You mentioned spreading the word on your story and the challenges you faced in life. What can you tell us about the work you do for charity?
We have created the Breaking Free Foundation, which can be found on the web at www.breakingfreefound.ca, because so many people are looking for professional help. There aren’t many things in place in Canada where you can get that help. It costs an arm and a leg, so what you can do is write a proposal or grant to our foundation. If approved, we will pay for your therapy. I think the subjects of sexual abuse and trauma are very important topics and I appreciate you helping us shine a light on them.
Absolutely. As you said, the next chapter of your story started as a bucket list item. You have done it all from playing in the NHL to winning gold medals to writing a bestseller. What else is on this bucket list of yours!?
[laughs] Jeez! I am getting close to the end of it! I think the message in all of these things is that if you have never tried something or always wanted to try something, and were hesitant or afraid, my advice is to go for it! Like I said, surround yourself with good people and let them know your intentions. Anything is possible and if you work at it, have a passion for it and love what you do then you will be successful!
Definitely great advice, Theo. Thank you for your time today and we wish you continued success!
Thank you, Jason. Take care!
‘I Am Who I Am’ will be released on October 23 on eOne Music Canada. The debut single, “My Life’s Been A Country Song” is now available on iTunes!