Many are called, but the chosen are The Jessica Stuart Few.
Simply put, when you’re the only 'koto' (a traditional Japanese 13-stringed instrument) playing indie singer-songwriter in the world, whose trademark red hair and genre-bending dancefloor grooves have taken you on multiple tours throughout Asia and Australia, despite being Vancouver born and a long-time Toronto native, you’re bound to raise an eyebrow or 2000.
Three albums into her career, since 2008, musician Jessica Stuart has always determinedly and instinctively expanded her music playing abilities, as a rare female quadruple threat musician who produces, writes, plays and performs all of her own music arrangements. Certainly as an inventive genre-bending composer, guitarist and vocalist on her own past recordings Kid Dream and Two Sides to Every Story, and contributor to the works of other fellow nouveau musical innovators (e.g. she sings back-up vocals on the forthcoming album by Polaris Prize and Juno Award-winning throat singer Tanya Tagaq featuring The Element Choir), shape shifting becomes necessary. And because Stuart intentionally attaches herself to wide ranging indie rock, soul and jazz music scenes in North America, being rhythmically and harmonically adventurous is just another day at the office for this multiple Award-nominated and winning musician. “I am convinced that people’s taste in music is so much more than what they’re fed through the mainstream, and that we should stop ‘dumbing it down’ and using formulas to try and make art,” says the multi-lingual Stuart who has been playing the koto since she was nine-years old, describes herself as a “prog Joni Mitchell”, and who over the last three years has won Best Album Award designations at the international (IMA’s) Independent Music Awards, and was the runner up in Harbourfront Centre’s Soundclash Music Awards, among other accolades. “What I do doesn’t easily fit in a box, and different listeners hear the thing they are the most familiar with. Dancefloor jazz enthusiasts can hear the obvious grooves. And perhaps rock music lovers can hear that I listen to rock music even though I’m not playing rock!”
The commercially accessible yet completely left-of-center sounds heard on The Passage could arguably only emanate from this specific music trio whose multiplicity of musical influences seamlessly blend the eclectic sounds of bassist Charles James (Michelle Willis, Jaron Freeman-Fox, New Country Rehab, Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy) and drummer Tony Nesbitt-Larking (The Most Serene Republic, Zaki Ibrahim, Tanika Charles).
The Passage is more than just another new album, it’s a daring tapestry of music that stretches The Jessica Stuart Few beyond generic cookie cutter music genre designations. And it’s unapologetically 100% auto tune free (“it’s my audio celebration of beautiful imperfections”, remarks Stuart) – which actually might be a rarity in 2016. Many of the backing vocals were done live-off-the-floor by Stuart and other nimble vocalists (Mia Sheard, Michelle Willis, Jocelyn Barth) and then are obvious dancefloor jazz elements and “sing-along-able” hooks to be found throughout the mix.
Comparable to a ‘passage’ in the novel of her life, the album's complex but immediate compositions take a step in a soulful direction, though it’s definitely not a straight-up soul record. The Passage kicks off with the dynamic groove-oriented soul of “Easier Said than Done” and also marks the first time Stuart has had a guest vocalist contribute to the process, as Juno Award-nominated jazz vocalist Elizabeth Shepherd sings a verse and chorus and plays the Rhodes on “Without You”, a song about “real love, not fairy tale Hollywood love”. Shepherd also plays the Rhodes on album standout “Breathing from the Belly”.
Other album highlights include “How To Ride A Bicycle”, Stuart’s self-proclaimed “bike anthem” that was inspired by an art piece by Takashi Iwasaki (who designed all of the album’s artwork) as part of a reciprocal inspiration art project they collaborated on, which meant that Stuart would send him a song, and then he would create a visual art piece, and this process would go back and forth over months. Stuart’s cover version of Little Dragon’s “Twice” is bound to make you hit rewind a few times over for a re-listen on your audio playing device of choice, as this indie remix will be sure to pick up some steam with music lovers and critics.
The last song, the self-titled track, carries a memorable groove that is based on the rhythm of a bird call. Written in rural Australia, inside a Hong Kong airport, and then completed in Toronto, “Passage” imagines what life could have looked like if different choices had been made, and at the same time is about accepting what is, while simultaneously looking forward.
The Jessica Stuart Few experience is arguably also best experienced live, where they’ve had good success touring locally and internationally. Riding the wave of 2013 Top 40 single “Don’t Ya” from Two Sides to Every Story, the band has toured Japan extensively, and have even played the prestigious Reeperbahn Festival in Germany. With The Passage album launch tour dates happening in Canada throughout October 2016 and in China throughout November and December, consider this musical movement a wholesale celebration of some much needed musical adventurousness in these somewhat predictable musical times.