Musicians of Toronto: Jessica Stuart

Toronto Jazz Festival @ The Distillery District, 2013. Photo by Marian Dragiev.

Jessica Stuart has become such a familiar face in Toronto that she’ll be recognized at least once at one of her West End favourites, I Deal Coffee, even if it’s on the rainiest of Sunday afternoons. On her way out she’s stopped by the café’s barista, who wants to catch up with her before she takes off on another international tour. “I feel so famous right now,” she says in a most modest manner. But it’s hardly a surprise—since her debut with Kid Dream in 2010, she along with her eponymous band, The Jessica Stuart Few, has presented herself as a unique voice within Toronto’s diverse music scene. And yet she hasn’t always been a Torontonian.

After growing up in Vancouver and attending school in Victoria, B.C., it was only seven years ago that she decided to take music seriously and head eastbound. During business trips as a vintage clothing buyer, Stuart was able to get a feel for the community and make connections with other artists. “I always brought my guitar with me,” she says, “but I wasn’t writing a high volume of music. I played with a band here and there, but it was just a side gig for whatever reason. I came here to do music as a profession.” It was this cross-country migration that began Stuart’s musical career, a transition that she describes has been “eerily smooth” to this day.

Since then, Stuart has developed an idiosyncratic sound that remains true to her personal expression. Her sound mixes jazz with indie-folk sensibilities in a most tasteful manner. Stuart herself refers to it as a sonic stew, blending different taste notes together: “ There’s a lot of influence in the music, but it’s not like it’s twenty different components on a plate of food. It’s more like it’s been simmering together.”

With her third studio album in the works, Stuart states that the process was an emotional one that explored the lyrical side of her music more so than her last two records. “For me, the music was the story,” she says. “But I’ve realized that others are really paying attention to the lyrics. People started quoting things that I had written which I didn’t have a connection to, and that’s not okay: I would never put out music that I didn’t have a connection to. It’s just been a matter of finding my voice with words.” As with The Jessica Stuart Few’s other albums, it’s best to expect the delightfully unexpected. Her excitement for the record was clear in the sporadic way she spoke about it, first discussing a song she wrote for her mother that takes on chamber influences before dashing into conversation about the megahit pop cover that she’s rearranged. Everything considered, it’s bound to be a project of further experimentation in atypical textures, sounds and rhythms, defying categorization in the best possible ways.

Her artistic endeavours thus go beyond the boundaries of genre—and those of sound, for that matter. In previous albums, Stuart has worked closely with with Japanese-Canadian artist Takashi Iwasaki, a collaboration that will continue on the upcoming release. It all began during her first record when she realized that she had not thought about album art, despite the impending release date. Iwasaki’s work happened to be displayed at the LE Gallery on Dundas Street West, and when she saw his work on display, she instantly connected to it.

“I feel like my music and his art are a similar expression of the same thing. And of course he’s Japanese,” she says, laughing at the coincidence. Stuart herself lived in Japan for a year, which is when she initially learned how to play the 13-stringed koto, a standout feature of her performance. “That wasn’t on purpose—things just came full circle.”

The relationship of art forms is an important one for Stuart, who has featured live paintings at previous shows and has hopes of incorporating dance into her act. “This is why we have so few music videos,” she claims. “I want each one to be its own stand alone art piece, and if the music is on, it’s enhanced. It’s funny because if you try to put your music forward in the music community, there’s a million musics. But if you’re connected to the film community, they’ll know you’re that group they can work with. It’s an interesting way to co-promote each other in a natural, organic way.” Overall, the passion for art is what inspires Stuart. As she states, “anyone who’s creating out of the need to create versus the business of creating is akin.” Being a part of a city that provides such a dynamic platform for the arts only adds to Stuart’s creative output.

And it’s not just her experiences in Toronto that keep Stuart creating. Having toured on an international scale, The Jessica Stuart Few has garnered a strong reputation worldwide. Over the past few years the band has performed everywhere from festival main stages to the corners of bars, but whether it’s playing a pitch-black show for Earth Hour to a silent audience in Australia or rocking out with an enthusiastic crowd in a Japanese rock club, Stuart finds inspiration in all of it.

She explains this unbounded influence best through her retelling of an experience during her most recent tour to Australia. “I was sitting on a porch in someone’s lakehouse when this bird went by, and it made this sort of call. And then I thought, if I took that call and added a little time to it, and then repeated it, that’s a really interesting groove. I had a guitar there, so I started playing these chords, then I started singing a melody, and then just let that be. It was when I was in the airport in Hong Kong that I figured out the other koto part in the chorus, and then I got home and finished writing the tune.”

For Stuart, it all comes down to these inspired moments. It’s the interconnection of art, culture, community and self that bring her creativity alive, and it’s in Toronto where she can align herself with it all.

You can watch The Jessica Stuart Few perform at Musideum on Thursday, June 25th at 9:30pm ($20 cover).

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