He was sweating and clutching clumps of his long blond hair. Finally, he couldn't stand it. The promoter of the event, a Toronto folk festival, burst on stage and interrupted Sue Hutton mid-song. "He was saying, 'You can't be doing this. You can't be doing this,'" she remembers.
The promoter said she was too loud, but really she committed the sin of experimentation. Before she founded Rhea's Obsession with partner Tim Field, Hutton was your basic Celtic folkie. But after listening to world music and traveling to India, folk--as dictated to her--became synonymous with antiquated. Her days in the coffeehouse were numbered. "The folk scene sort of balks at new approaches to traditional music," she says.
Liberated, Hutton fired up the cauldron. Rhea's Obsession boils traditional Celtic and Indian melody and sound with modern Goth. Instruments like tablas, doumbeks, and djembes accompany the whir of keyboards and electric guitars. A pop sensibility keeps genres that span time and space from warring like rival factions. Imagine Loreena McKennitt guesting with Dead Can Dance.
If the word ambient comes to mind, it's by design. Hutton and Field first got together to do soundtrack work. Field, who was playing guitar with Toronto hardcore bands, had an offer to make music for a production on the Bravo television network. The pair dreamed something up, it was accepted, and another offer came in. The duo has since made music for CBC and the La Femme Nikita and Psi Factor TV series. They're now a part of a fairly lucrative, but deadline-intense, cottage industry.
"We've been at film industry parties," Hutton says. "To tell you the honest truth, we walked in one, looked around the room--it was packed--and we realized we were standing around with all these musicians in Toronto we had the highest respect for. We thought, 'What are we doing here?'"
Hutton doesn't scrunch her nose at writing and performing background music that has to fit the parameters of the visuals. Actually, she finds it liberating. For Psi Factor, she says, "we had to write a song that encompasses love, romance, and murder. And that's our favorite song now." The Valentine's Day episode of Psi Factor, airing February 8, features six minutes of Rhea's music, including one four-minute song in full.
Hutton and Field's fathers are jazz musicians. Theory and form hardliners, both men thought their children's collision of styles and scoring work was an idiot's quest. Then they saw the paychecks. "Our fathers are very proud of having something pay the rent," Hutton says.
Rhea's Obsession also records and tours on its own. In 1997 the band played Undercurrents and met its current manager. The same year it released Initiation, a full-length CD. One of the songs, "Hymn to Pan," was adapted from a poem written by Aleister Crowley. That reference and others could lead one to wonder if Rhea's Obsession is simply raiding the Spooky Girl closet of vampire-hued sexuality, pop paganism, Irish smocks, The Hobbit, and Eastern mysticism. While women draped in Gothic wear have been the band's most loyal followers, Hutton doesn't care if it looks cliched.
"You know what, I don't give a shit about that," she says, sounding determined but not surly. "I was into that stuff naturally. I honestly started getting into it when I was sixteen. It's part of my life and part of what helps gets me focused. I don't really give a shit about it being a cliche."
If you don't like it, the message is, you don't like Hutton or Field. "I know I keep saying this, but Rhea's Obsession is a reflection of who we are as people," she says. "In that sense, it's completely honest."
Hutton and Field are also life partners. The two are married and turned part of their house into a studio. Hutton says being in a band with her husband fosters productivity, not Ike-and-Tina-sized squabbles. "We certainly always know where to find each other. It's never hard getting the other to rehearsal."
As if she wasn't busy enough meeting accommodating directors and touring with the band, which may have as many as eight members live, Hutton holds down a job. She's a counselor and social worker, who also leads a music program for patients who have been discharged from mental institutions. The choir of twenty men and women performs around Toronto, including an opening gig for Barenaked Ladies. "They've survived some pretty horrendous conditions in these institutions."
Rhea's Obsession. 9 p.m., Sunday, December 27, Euclid Tavern, 11629 Euclid Avenue, 216-229-7788, $10, Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.