Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Women of strength and spirit

The Viragos walk gently

Credit: Xtra West Files

A woman of great strength, stature, spirit and courage is a virago. Honouring the feminine essence in their music and private lives, it seemed befitting for local singer/songwriters Debra Howell and Lisa Rae Simons to christen their eclectic pop band the Viragos.

Sitting at Sugar Daddy’s in the Davie Village, Howell and Simons speak openly about their romantic relationship, their spiritual journey, their music and their polar opposite experiences of coming out as lesbians.

“My coming out was really rough, actually,” recalls Howell, who was born and raised in the Vancouver area. “When I told my family, my dad pretty much disowned me. People at work, my friends, [almost] everybody… acted like I was somebody different. But I was still the same person.

“I ended up going for therapy,” she continues. “It took me a while to get through it all. It was really rough.

“But from that experience and also having my son, it made me realize that if I’m gonna walk this walk, I have to own it. I have to be true to myself and I have to show my son that it’s all okay, it’s all good. To make him, his friends and everybody else be comfortable around us.

“I’ve made myself a big presence in his school,” she notes. “It’s been great. We’ve never had any problems.”

Edmonton-born Simons had a less challenging process with a very supportive family. “It was pretty easy. I had no complications from anybody. It was pretty seamless… It took me awhile to be openly open about it in public [like hand-holding], but the coming out was no problem.”

Advocates of peace, love and unity, the Viragos are quite active in their community as humanists. They’ve performed at Stonewall and Pride concerts, and participated in a same-sex marriage march to city hall. Howell also hosts a Co-op Radio show for lesbians, and is a Marilyn Monroe impersonator at corporate and private functions.

“Identifying myself as a lesbian woman-or just a woman here on Earth-for me, everything I do has been about helping to share the beauty of life and that whole essence of unity,” says Howell. “I really feel that I embody the essence of a gentle spirit yet a strong spirit.

“I think that if everybody was conscious of what they did and how they treated the Earth and each other, the world would be a much gentler, kinder, much more positive place to be. I believe that’s what I’m here for is to give that back and that’s what the music’s about.

“I believe we are all here for a reason. Simply put, we are meant to do something that will help make this place better and leave it somehow better.”

Adds Simons about spirituality, “It’s just being it through every interaction with every person that you have, or every action that you do-just being self-aware but not self-absorbed. Walking gently, speaking kindly, not judging as much as humanly possible. That’s a hard one. Being the change that you want to see within the world-be the change.”

Drawing upon musical influences like the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, Heart, the Cars and Led Zeppelin, songs on the Viragos’ Volume 1 speak of reclaiming our youthful innocence throughout life’s many challenges and the bliss we reach when meeting our soulmate.

Although Howell and Simons crossed paths many times, they finally met in January 2004 at a Women in Song night at the Railway Club.

“I had this real euphoric feeling that night,” says Howell. “I thought, ‘I’m going to meet somebody really special tonight’ and sure enough I met Lisa.”

Howell asked Simons on a date, and the two began working, touring and eventually living together on five acres of land near Maple Ridge with Howell’s son, now 13.

Simons admits she had never thought about dating a woman with a child, but wasn’t intimidated by it either.

“One of the things that actually endeared me to Debra was the fact that she was a mother and she had the capability to love and nurture, and to make a commitment-she had that strength. It takes a lot of strength to be a mother and that’s one of the things that was a bonus for me.”

According to the Viragos, one of the advantages of sharing a home and a career is the equal trust and commitment level they have in pursuing their musical dreams. “We have that strength together of two-the power of two that helps you propel things in motion,” says Howell. “And also we help each other develop as people: business women, musically, spiritually, everything. We felt that we were put together for a purpose.”

Strong, fiercely independent women, they both agree that the disadvantage of being a couple in a band together is having their own personal time.

“She doesn’t have much Debra time and I don’t have much Lisa time,” says Simons. “We’re beginning to have more of that, so that we can have a little bit of space. But we love being together. We’re very good together. We’re not lost without each other. We just work really well together and sit in each other’s space well.

“It’s not the ‘you complete me’ thing. I’m complete. You’re complete. And together we’re more than one.”

When asked what song on their debut CD best describes their relationship, Howell picks “Melting,” while Simons chooses “The Kiss.”

“The Kiss is sort of fun,” explains Howell. “I always think about things like where the hell did the first kiss come from? I said to Lisa that I kinda wrote this song like you and I in past, past lives-as these two kindred souls that met out in the ethers and boom once we met, we met with a kiss. It’s my idea about what the first kiss was.”

Ultimately, the Viragos’ goal is to attract a wide cross-section of music lovers and tour extensively. What impact do they hope their music has on people?

“I hope they learn that it’s okay to be real and to believe in forces bigger than yourself,” says Simons. “And that life is pretty good no matter what everybody says.”