(Pictured above: From Left Indigo, Pharis, Sy and Jason. The Romeros stand in front of their newly re-built banjo shop. The previous shop burned in 2016.)
Story and Photos by Bonnie Obremski
“Singing is such a naked thing to do,” said Pharis Romero as she chopped onions for a soup beside Sy, her one-year-old son, who was serenading a potato masher with coos and squeals. “One of the meanest things you could ever do to somebody, is ask them not to sing.”
Romero, 38, lives in Horsefly, British Columbia, Canada, with her husband Jason, 46, their daughter Indigo, 3, and son, Sy. Horsefly is an unincorporated community of approximately 1,000 people nestled in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, about 320 wild and winding miles north of the U.S. border.
Forestry, cattle ranching, and tourism help sustain the community that lacks cell phone service and lies a 45-minute drive away from the nearest supermarket. But unlike anyone in Horsefly or in most of the world, the Romeros make their living as musicians and banjo craftsmen.
They are singing and songwriting multi-instrumentalists whose album, “A Wanderer I’ll Stay,” won a Juno award (think Canadian Grammys) last year for best traditional roots album. J. Romero banjos are known to players everywhere as the most beautiful and finely-crafted custom instruments in existence—and they wait up to 5 years for the opportunity to buy one, sometimes paying close to $5,000.
For nearly a decade, the Romeros have ventured from their woodland homestead to Port Townsend, Washington so Pharis may teach at a weeklong workshop unlike any other. That workshop is Voice Works at Centrum in Fort Worden State Park. In her wide experience as a musical educator, Pharis Romero said no other “camp” focuses purely on singing.
“It’s funny, a lot of camps offer singing class as an afterthought,” Romero said, helping Sy clamber up a step in their timber-framed cabin. “But when you ask someone, ‘What would you rather hear, a hot instrumental break or really good vocals?’ They’ll answer ‘vocals’ almost every time.”
That’s not to say Voice Works participants are all pro soloists in training. To Romero, everyone is a natural.
“I feel like singing is a completely natural body movement,” she said, framed by a large window that showcased a tree laden with chirping blackbirds and pine siskins grown fat on suet and seed. “I use my singing techniques as general relaxation techniques. My breathing, my grounding, my body relaxation. My whole body projection. I’m conscious of it when I’m talking—that I’m not creeping down into myself when I’m speaking. I’m using those singing feelings all the time. I’m using them in anxiety management, in stress management. Whether it’s singing quietly to my children at night, I’m still practicing singing. Whether it’s consciously or subconsciously, I’m thinking about how it feels in my body and how much I enjoy the feeling while I’m singing. It’s a constant quest for the most relaxed and most open and most ‘me’ sound that I can bring out.”
Romero’s quest faced its toughest challenge nearly one year ago when a fire ignited in the banjo shop in the middle of the night. The building and its precious contents burned to the ground, resulting in nearly $250,000 in damages, according to one CBC News report. An electrical short in an air compressor caused the catastrophe. Jason Romero said the couple’s insurance covered much, but not all of their financial losses.
Family, friends, fans, customers, neighbors and strangers from around the world rushed to aid the Romeros, who found themselves without power, running water, phone or Internet, since the blaze destroyed the thin wires that tether them to the outside world. Flames, however, could not sever the ties of the heart that bound them to people touched by the resonance of their harmonies and the artistry in their craftsmanship.
“It was an overwhelming experience, that we’re still trying to process,” Pharis Romero said, searching for words. “It’s hard to express gratitude properly. There’s a lot of people in this world who need help. We got really lucky.”
Romero grew up in Horsefly, and learned early on to straddle the worlds between backwoods and backstage. She and her sisters traveled on tour with their father as children. One of her earliest memories is harmonizing the ethereal “oooh’s” in the song Whispering Pines by Johnny Horton during the 1986 World’s Fair in Vancouver, B.C. She was only 7 years old at the time, but the song is still on the tip of her tongue. She began to sing it and Sy, fussing in her arms, was suddenly transfixed. Sy already plays the harmonica. Indigo already writes and sings songs. Still, a life on the road is not what’s in store, at least not anytime soon.
“With two kids and a nanny, we are a five-person touring band,” Romero said. “We just did a tour in April. We crossed the Rockies four times in 11 days, put almost 5,000 kilometers on the car. Shows were back-to-back with five to six-hour drives between. We were a disaster afterwards and we’re not going to do that again. Both of us are firm believers that if we’re going to do it, it has to be fun.”
Since the Romeros are returning yet again to Port Townsend on June 27, it must be fun. Until then, Pharis Romero will be whispering to the pines, carving inlays for instruments and tending her two sprouts in the new gardens around the reconstructed banjo shop. Jason Romero will be shipping six new banjos built from hardware and wood salvaged from the fire, and fly fishing in the front pond. Voice Works participants will be packing their bags and waiting for the week where no one will tell them not to sing.
Attend a banjo making seminar led by Jason Romero after Voice Works at the neighboring Woodworking School, also at Fort Worden State Park.