Calgary's Kue Varo finds her 'authentic self' on Cowboy Witchcraft

After a life-altering few years, former Heirlooms singer Kue Varo returned to Calgary to make one of the year’s best records

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Kue Varo’s return to Calgary was meant to be temporary.

The Nanton-born musician had been pursuing a musical career in Montreal after fronting Calgary’s psychedelic rockers The Heirlooms and its spinoff duo Mister and Mystic. She recorded her solo debut, Daffodil 11, under the newly adopted Kue Varo moniker — reportedly named after the Q character in Star Trek: The Next Generation and surrealist painter Remedios Varado —  while residing in that city. But it was followed by a period of upheaval. There was the pandemic, of course, which shut down Montreal and every other city. She also went through a breakup and sank into a period of grief after one of her best friends, Calgary musician Holly Ellsworth-Clark, died in 2020. It all represented “a massive shift in my life,” she says.

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So Varo decided to come home and visit family.

“It was supposed to be for two weeks and it ended up being five,” she says. “Then I went back to Montreal and realized I wanted to be back in Calgary.”

Once she had returned to the city for good, Varo immersed herself in the music scene again. She met ex-Dudes multi-instrumentalist Bob Quaschnick and they began writing songs together before adding Matt Doherty on drums and Connor Harvey-Derbyshire, a.k.a. Easy HD, on bass and synth to the mix and christening themselves Kue Varo and the Only Hopes. The act then participated in two city residencies, the TD Incubator at Arts Commons under fellows Yolanda Sargeant and Evgeniy “Comrade” Bykovets of Sargeant x Comrade and another at the Grand Theatre.

Finally, they enlisted Calgary-based producer Russell Broom, known for his work with Art Bergmann and Jann Arden, to be at the helm for sessions at OCL Studios outside of Calgary. Cowboy Witchcraft, which the band will release on Oct. 13 with a show at the Commonwealth, is an assured, multi-layered followup to Daffodil 11 that showcases both Varo’s impressive range as a lyricist and vocalist and a versatile backing band with a talent for seamless genre-hopping. While she may be front-and-centre, Varo emphasizes that it is a band album. Like many musicians, two years of lockdowns had led to a pent-up desire to “rock and roll,” she says with a laugh.

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Which is certainly one of the flavours on Cowboy Witchcraft. The opener Furthest Place starts with a PJ Harvey/Sharon Van Etten synth vibe but quickly turns into a combustible rocker, while the driving Just Don’t Care adds an extra bluesy bite to Varo’s irreverent lyrics. But there are numerous other sounds on offer. On Sweet One, the band gently bops along as Varo delivers one of her prettiest melodies that recalls Chrissie Hynde at her breeziest. The album’s debut single, Yip Yip, is an immediately endearing guitar-pop gem with an easy heartland-rock vibe, while the slow-burning gothic ballad Gates of Hell rises to one of the album’s many dramatic climaxes.

The album certainly doesn’t sound like a downer, but Varo says the lyrics often reflect some of what she was going through during the aforementioned “major shift” in her life. This may be most clearly heard in the restless and wistful Summer Lines, in which Varo makes direct reference to her friend. Ellsworth-Clark went missing in Hamilton, Ont., in early 2020 and it would be months before friends and family learned of her death. Not long before she disappeared, she had visited Varo and left behind a book.

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“I found it weeks after she was gone and there is a little note that was really sweet,” Varo says. “So, of course, that book is a prized possession of mine.”

Varo carried the book during her travels between Calgary and Montreal. “I have the book Holly left, but left my whole life behind me,” she sings.

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“She is in the album, for sure,” Varo says. “Grief makes you realize what you want to do with your own life and she was such a force that I don’t know if I would have had the courage to keep going and find the people I have found and be doing music at the capacity that I’m doing it now If it had not been for her influence on me as a person.”

Born in Nanton, Varo says she grew up in a musical and religious household. Diagnosed with being on the autism spectrum and mostly homeschooled, Varo struggled to communicate with people her age.

“I started songwriting when I was nine,” she says. “I think it was a necessity with that isolation of being in a small town and not really fitting in. That was my outlet since before I can remember. I wanted to be a singer and a songwriter since I was two.”

She started playing guitar at the age of 15 and had her first gig at a High River coffee shop within a month.

“Since the moment I could perform, I performed,” she says. “The manager of the coffee shop I worked at had an underground supper club. I told her I had some songs and she said ‘Well, you’re booked. Figure it out. You’re playing next month.’ I was so nervous my hands shook. The Heirlooms was the first time I was in a full-on band, gigging in cities and making albums of original music and really trying and making it a big part of my life.”

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In an interview with CKUA to preview her performance at Calgary Pride’s TD Block Party in Kensington this past August, Varo said she came out to her family for the first time last year, which represented another step in her recent journey as an artist.

“I think being honest about who I am and being unapologetic about it in every way — not just as a queer person but even being comfortable letting people know I’m on the spectrum and just being open about it — came with all those gigantic changes and so much grief and loss and I think there is a point where you’re like ‘you know what, it doesn’t matter and I’ll be happier if I can just be my authentic self.’ That’s for sure the reason why I’m most proud of this body of work because I didn’t hold back and I don’t think anybody held back in the band. I feel really freed.”

Kue Varo and the Only Hopes play an album-release show at the Commonwealth on Oct. 13 with Child Actress and Astral Swans.

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