The Last Word with Fraser Walters, BMus’03
Q: If you could invent something, what would it be?
A: Time travel. No big deal.
According to Fraser Walters of The Tenors, the acoustics in Gage Towers student residence are surprisingly good. When Walters was at UBC, he and fellow music student James Hill -- “an amazing musician, engineer and producer” – went there to record one of Walters’ original compositions. “There was a natural reverb in those hallowed halls,” jokes Walters, whose song ended up getting airtime on CBC Television.
Beyond the classical music to which he was exposed while majoring in voice performance at UBC, Walters -- who plays piano and guitar -- enjoyed exploring other genres, crafting tunes of his own and covering popular songs of the day. “I played a few gigs at The Gallery [in the SUB]” he says, “and I played a couple of fraternity parties – a perfect way to learn how to entertain a rowdy crowd.”
These days, the crowds are much bigger. Walters and fellow tenors Victor Micallef and Clifton Murray have just finished recording their fourth TV special with PBS and will be touring the US and Canada from October through December. The Juno-winning trio has shared a stage with legends including Stevie Wonder, Elton John and -- “probably the most star-struck we’ve been” -- Paul McCartney, for whom they opened a concert in London, UK. “We walked in during his sound check,” recalls Walters. “He saw us come in and he pointed his guitar at us – kind of serenading us as we walked up to the stage.”
The Tenors, known for their harmonious mix of pop and classical music, have carved out a distinct niche for themselves in a competitive music industry -- one that has led to high-profile TV appearances, platinum albums and a devoted fan base. “My dad always said that my music degree was a good pre-requisite for law school, because he was concerned about music as a career choice,” says Walters. “But he’s pretty comfortable with it now.”
Walters’ singing career started early. At age eight he was already performing with Vancouver Opera. As if one prodigious talent wasn’t enough, he also excelled in sport. At UBC he played varsity soccer (and is still in touch with his former teammates, who kept him up to speed on the World Cup during his concert-packed summer schedule via a WhatsApp group chat). He was also a member of the Thunderbirds Track and Field team and represented Canada in the 400-metre hurdles at the 2000 Pan American Junior Athletics Championships.
Walters found himself under growing pressure to concentrate his efforts in one area – soccer, track or music -- but the choice was effectively made for him when he was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, and the subsequent treatment meant he was no longer able to train and maintain his standard. “I couldn’t continue competing on an international level,” he says. “It was a difficult time, but it helped me focus more on music.”
At UBC he was introduced to a “vast” repertoire of classical works, covering several centuries, languages, and styles – each calling for a unique approach. Walters says this exposure helped him in his future career and he is grateful for the guidance of music professors like Rena Sharon, whom he still regards as a mentor. “Her knowledge of the song repertoire is unparalleled. It was always such an experience to go into her song interpretation classes. There is a poetic style to her teaching – [and she’s] a world-class pianist.”
Today, The Tenors perform a mix of classical works, their own compositions, and covers of popular contemporary songs. “We try to create albums that have a lot of variety, because it also keeps it interesting for us,” says Walters. Their latest cover is Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. “That’s always been on our list because it’s just such a massive song,” says Walters, “and it really has all those different elements of rock, pop and opera.” (Incidentally, they have also performed for the Queen. Twice.)
The Tenors make their creative decisions collectively, says Walters, each bringing something unique to the table. “Victor lived in Florence for six years, and he’s our resident Italian coach. He’s very well-versed in all things operatic and classical, and was a member of the Canadian Opera Company but bends so well to the contemporary side. And then Clifton learned by ear and is a great raw talent who grew up playing guitar and singing around the campfire with his family and his father at Nimmo Bay on the coast of British Columbia. We all write and arrange music for the group, and I guess I bridge the gap between classical and pop styles.”
They spend more time with each other than they do with their respective families – upwards of 300 days a year working and travelling, including promotion and fundraising for the various charitable organizations they support. “It takes a special kind of commitment,” says Walters. “It’s a unique marriage, if you will.”
And commitment is what it takes to turn raw talent into a successful career. In his high school yearbook, a young Walters shared his split career ambition: “Grammys or the Olympics.” He may not have made it to the Olympics as an athlete, but The Tenors performed at the opening ceremony for the 2010 Games in Vancouver, which in a roundabout way surely counts. Pretty impressive for someone who started his recording career in Gage Towers.
What is your most prized possession?
A necklace with vintage gold dog tags. It was my first father's day gift from my wife and has my daughter’s name (Hope) and birthdate engraved on it. I wear it every day under my shirt, whether I’m out exploring in nature or performing on stage.
Who was your childhood hero?
When I was five it was CHiPS -- not the potato, but the two motorcycle cops who had their own TV show. At 10 it was The Dukes of Hazzard and the A-Team, at 12 it was Leonard Bernstein, and around the same time, in real life, it was Rick Hansen, who also lived in Richmond!
Describe the place you most like to spend time.
I have a few favourites after living in these places over the years: Home in New York with my girls, Nashville for writing and live music, the coast of California for the sun and surf, Vancouver for lifelong friendships and extended family, and BC backcountry skiing and splitboarding for a taste of heaven.
What was the last thing you read?
Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss (awesome!) and I’ve just finished the audiobook of Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (fascinating and overwhelming). Just started a book with amazing insights by Gandhi that I bought on trip in India (ie: “Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.”)
What or who makes you laugh out loud?
Whether I’m home or on the road, my wife has a knack for knowing when I need some laughter, either through a funny YouTube video compilation (babies/animals/Ricky Gervais) or watching our two-year-old daughter’s latest adventures around the neighbourhood.
What’s the most important lesson you ever learned?
There are a few. My mom always said do anything and everything to the best of your ability, whether it’s the mundane, like doing the dishes, or the transformative, like creating a new album! Recently I’ve realized that everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) is trying to figure it all out, so be appreciative and grateful for where you are today and pay it forward. And finally, a so-called failure can be a blessing in disguise. It can teach you new skills and help develop new relationships. Remember: Babe Ruth wasn’t only the home run king, he was also the strikeout king.
What’s your idea of the perfect day?
Eating nourishing food, sharing laughs and stories with great company, being adventurous and active in Mother Nature, and doing something meaningful and authentic (whether helping others, performing for an audience, or creating new musical ideas).
What was your nickname at school?
What would be the title of your biography?
How to Tame and Train Your Inner Hurricane
If a genie granted you one wish, what would it be?
Universal health, wellness, compassion, and harmony. (Can that count as one?)
What item have you owned for the longest time?
I’m what you’d call an amateur hoarder, so I have a lot of (insert expletive here) -- from my childhood hockey cards, to sports medals, to early musical theatre production posters and programs. It’s both my dream and my wife’s nightmare, all in one.
Whom do you most admire (living or dead) and why?
Nelson Mandela would be one person from the past. His unparalleled demonstrations of forgiveness and service should be a lesson to us all. Living, I would say Marc and Craig Kielburger from the WE charities. We’ve worked with them consistently over the years, and they never cease to amaze.
What would you like your epitaph to say?
“He did his best to make the world a better place.”
If you could invent something, what would it be?
Time travel. No big deal.
In which era would you most like to have lived, and why?
Ha! Didn’t know this was the next question! I was always fascinated with the Renaissance period around Da Vinci’s time, and particularly with the beginnings of musical harmony. Right out of UBC, I sang in a grammy-winning a cappella group called Chanticleer that specialized in this style of music. Singing eight- and 12-part harmony in a European cathedral is the closest thing I’ve experienced to time travel.
What are you afraid of?
Not reaching my full potential.
What is your latest purchase?
The answer would normally be basic, like food/books/or music, but today I bought my first Grand Piano. I’m thrilled and can’t wait to be creative on it!
Name the skill or talent you would most like to have.
Speaking many languages fluently (or flying).
Which three pieces of music would you take to that desert island?
Anything by Thomas Luis da Victoria, Herbert Von Karajan’s Adagio CD, and the Beatles discography.
Which famous person (living or dead) do you think (or have you been told) you most resemble?
I used to get Prince William in high school. I’ve since performed for him and his extended family several times, but they haven’t offered me any rights to the throne yet.
What is your pet peeve?
Open-mouth chewing and store hours that don’t jive with a musician’s touring/sleeping schedule!
What is the secret to a good life?
Believe in yourself, believe in others, and celebrate love.
Do you have a personal motto?
Success is not only the destination, but the ability to enjoy and appreciate the journey.
What’s the most important thing left on your bucket list?
To watch my family grow and to be of service to others.
What are your UBC highlights?
The camaraderie of playing varsity soccer, track and field, and being in the musical all in the same year. The lowlight was doing none of those things the following year, after discovering I had a heart condition. But adversity can strengthen a human’s resolve like little else, and that was a monumental thing to learn at UBC.