‘It will not be easy
But I plan to keep
My quiet revolution on.’
Jessica Stuart’s quiet revolution is marching right through creative boundaries. Armed with a 13 string Japanese koto, a Brazilian agate guitar pick and folk-jazz-indie rock vocals, Jessica Stuart resists easy labeling. She and her “fantastic” rotating cast of band members in The Jessica Stuart Few describe themselves as ‘Joanna Newsom throwing a party with Stereolab at Erykah Badu’s house. In Japan.’
Stuart has gathered her musical layerings over a richly creative upbringing. It starts with her mother, Wendy Bross Stuart – a musician, music director and musicologist whom we have also profiled. “My Mum has been a huge influence. My sister and I were performing from a very young age. Not in a Stage Mother forced way. In old folks homes, in living rooms. Music was a huge part of my childhood.”
As a child, Jessica could be found in choir, violin lessons, piano lessons. When she was in Grade 4, Stuart’s family moved to Japan, where her mother could further study the koto she had been playing for years. Seeing the instrument in its home culture, Jessica was intrigued. “My mother was surprised when I expressed an interest in learning it.”
Those two years abroad had a profound on Stuart. “My experience in Japan was hugely formative. I realized how many of the things that I thought were a normal part of life experience, were specific to the region that I was living in. That made a huge impression on me.”
When Stuart came back to her private school life in Vancouver – “I was always sort of a loner. I remember spending a lot of time on my own, walking around and exploring that world” – she found it difficult to re-integrate.
“I learned quickly not to talk about Japan. I’d get negative reactions; people would roll their eyes.” But, the Japanese musical and cultural experience stayed rooted in her. “I remember talking about it at the end of high school, and suddenly people thought it was cool. You think that’s cool now? Are you serious?”
Through it all, Stuart remained committed to her music. “I started playing guitar by ear and songwriting at 15.” She found added inspiration in “Zeppelin, some old soulful stuff like Stevie Wonder, older Michael Jackson, Parliament Funkadelic. Also classic rock, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains.”
She was particularly moved by Joni Mitchell. “That was one of the only popular music albums my parents had in the house. That and the Beatles.” Stuart admires the honest way in which Mitchell interweaves her lyrics and her music. “I try to make that happen with my music too. To make the lyrics and music reflective of each other, to enhance the feeling. Joni Mitchell does what’s right for the song and for the art.”
Though Stuart’s mother and anthropologist-sociologist father supported her in her musical dreams, they also encouraged her to have a fallback plan. “The musician’s life is a grueling life. There is daily rejection. The work hours don’t end; there is no start and stop time.”
Stuart studied linguistics at the University of Victoria for a while and earned her diploma in horticulture and landscape design at Pacific Horticulture College. It was when she was working as a retail manager and vintage clothing buyer that she discovered Toronto and its music scene. “When I was out there on buying trips, I would take my guitar and go to open mic nights. It was exciting.”
She finally decided to pick up her guitar and koto and move East. Toronto has been good to Stuart and her music. Along with running The Jessica Stuart Few, she has played guitar and served as a vocalist in other bands and choirs.
The Jessica Stuart Few have toured the world, won awards and been critically lauded. “I’ve surpassed all my goals. I’m pretty driven and I really believe in my music. I think what my group is doing is special. I feel convinced that it’s a matter of persistence – setting realistic goals, being smart with time, keeping the creativity going and making sure there is a lot of enjoyment coming out of it too.”
It’s not all sunshine and kudos. “You play in very weird situations sometimes. On the same tour, we might play a festival gig in a theatre with $40 tickets, a green room, press and a standing ovation. The next night, we are playing in a bar where we might get 10% of alcohol sales and we’re waiting to see if people will put a toonie in the tip jug.”
The Jessica Stuart Few got a lot of good press, broad play and new fans from the release of their first album in 2010 – Kid Dream, with its beautifully rendered single.
“The first time we made a music video was for a song called Kid Dream and that whole process was amazing.” Stuart is passionate about artistic collaboration. “We like to use our music to inspire other mediums of art and vice versa.”
For Kid Dream, Stuart met with a filmmaker, Evan DeRushie, who had this Lunamation technique that he wanted to try. “You film something. You print out the frames, then you draw them and scan them back in. His idea was that he wanted to have a different person draw each frame – illustrators, people with no experience, kids… People should draw whatever elements they find important and then scan them back in.”
Stuart held animation parties for friends, families, students of all ages. “Together, we drew about 3,000 frames over several months and scanned them in.” The result is a beautifully collaborative video.
The Making of Kid Dream
The Jessica Stuart Few’s second album Two Sides to Every Story won Best Album in the International 2014 Independent Music Awards and hit the Top 40 in Japan. It included Don’t Ya, the lead single and a koto-launched version of the Eurythmics Here Comes the Rain. The album also features artwork from her long-time collaborator, Takashi Iwasaki.
With each new album comes more touring, something Stuart enjoys a great deal, despite the rigors. “With live shows, there is so much more space to push people’s boundaries. You get a chance to show them something they don’t know and they might fall in love with it. We also approach live with an improvised approach. We play off each other and the audience. We get a chance to make things.”
Their latest tour involved a trip to Stuart’s beloved Japan. This At my Window video is from the band’s performance at Motion Blue Yokohama. “It’s a very cool venue. It’s like a little sister of the Blue Note in New York.”
“At My Window is the first song I wrote that starts off real slow. I used to be sort of scared to write slower songs or songs with more space, but I broke through my compositional wall and the audience loved the song.”
Stuart was also sensitive as to how playing her childhood koto might be perceived. “I was slightly concerned. I’m not trying to do some sort of cultural appropriation, culture vulture thing. It’s part of my family and my life.”
Not to worry. The Japanese audiences were delighted with her enthusiasm for their national instrument. The Jessica Stuart Few now has a Japanese booking team and they are planning to start with a Japanese release of their latest album: Same Girl. “We think it will be released in Japan in October or November. We finished the recording process a week and half ago and now we’re choosing the track order.”
Meanwhile, the band is setting off on a cross-Canada tour. Here in Vancouver, we are in for a treat. The Jessica Stuart Few will be performing at Sun Yat-Sen Gardens on July 23rd. “I went to the gardens a lot with my parents when I was young, so it will be cool to be back.”
The Vancouver concert will feature Jon Foster on drums, Liam Smith on bass and Jocelyn Barth on back-up vocals. Stuart will also be bringing her Mum up on stage to perform 3 pieces, including One Day, a song for two kotos, voice, bass and drums that Jessica wrote especially for her Mum.
One Day is a piece that Jessica composed with much care. “How do I do this song which pays homage to my Mum lyrically and musically? I made it like a story. She starts the piece. I repeat and take it to a new place. She supports me, I take it somewhere else, then we play in unison together.”
Written by Elizabeth Newton
* Lead and Final photo by Guy Dixon