Sun, May 26, 2013.
Jadea Kelly is a Toronto singer-songwriter who has made a lot of friends and fans on the East Coast the old-fashioned way, coming down and playing. First it was to a small handful, and then some bigger club shows. When she took one of the busking jobs at the Harvest Jazz and Blues festival a couple of years back, the crowd on the side walk grew so big it spilled onto the street, causing the police to call an end to it for safety reasons. After that, the Shivering Songs folks took note, and put her on the bill at their festival.
After releasing the acclaimed Eastbound Platform album in 2010, Kelly hit the road almost non-stop, including a prestigious spot on Stuart McLean's Vinyl Cafe show, and worked herself to the point of exhaustion. So a much-needed break was imposed on her, plus there was a few months raising fan funds for her new album. Finally, the much-anticipated Clover is here, the result of hard work, big plans and new ideas. I spoke to Kelly at home to Toronto just before the album launch concert, which gained her more raves.
The album is certainly a move forward for Kelly, with a more modern sound that sees her move away from the singer-with-acoustic guitar base. This time out, she worked with Toronto producer Stew Crookes (Doug Paisley, One Hundred Dollars) to build an ambience for the songs. "I wanted to make a record that sounded different than Eastbound Platform," she explains. "There were a lot of country tinges to that record, and as much as I love country, there are other sounds I'm interested in. I'm very happy with the sonic spaces we got."
Now don't think Kelly's gone techno. Blessed with a voice that is pure, real and rooted, she's always going to have core Canadiana sounds in her music. Only this time, instead of feeling like we're sitting on the front porch listening, we're in the dimly-lit parlour of the old home, the furniture covered in sheets and the whole effect a little ghostly. Thankfully the singer's there to guide us through the stories, with her comforting voice something we can trust.
The album has a rich sound throughout, lots of echo on the instruments, and a sparseness that lets us take in all the instruments. It also has that warmth that can only come from the good old ways of recording, the songs captured on two-inch recording tape and the players all working together in the same room at the same time. "We kinda bridged the old country sound with the new sonics we were experimenting with," offers Kelly. "It was the first time I'd recorded without a glowing computer screen in front of me. It brought the whole band together in the studio, we were making something together. It helped carry the songs somewhere new. There definitely is a sonic difference recording to tape, but the biggest difference is the community aspect. You're all looking at each other, working together, instead of piecing the songs together like a Word document. I didn't want to say goodbye to them when it was over, it was like going to camp." She's clearly a convert: "I don't think I'll record any other way again."
The old-fashioned theme continues in the lyrics, a set of songs picked from the dozens Kelly had saved up. A theme started to emerge from the endless touring, and the hard work she was putting into her career. Faced with some struggles, she started to see a connection between her chosen path, and the old family business in rural Ontario. She comes from a line of farmers, and as a kid spent a lot of time on that land. Thinking about that legacy inspired her own work. "I guess the main message of the record is passion and hope," she says. "I actually name the record after my grandfather's farm. I was starting to see the relationship between my grandfather's profession, farming, and being a touring musician. You have to be passionate about it, there's no retirement fund, you have to love what you're doing. Once I left home and toured Canada a few times, I started to realize how much I identify with what my grandfather did. There's a lot of hard decisions you have to make when you're running your own business and your own career, and the sacrifices you have to make."
While Kelly sings "It's a hard, hard line" on the opener Wild West Rain, on that song and all through the collection, there's the reminder that even during the dark times, that driving rain that farmers know, it's going to pass, and there's always inner strength and help from loved ones to count on. Bad weather, and some of natures less popular creatures show up a few times. "Saintly Stare, I had originally written about a storm," she explains, "because a storm can't help itself, it destroys everything in its path. But its part of nature, we have to live with it. And all the animal imagery, I kind of used these animals as a disguise, the wolf and crow. They're seen as villainous animals, and I think I had to make some tough decisions about my career over the past couple of years, and some people weren't happy about some of it. So I think the animals, and the storm were representations of me, going through these transitions."
The hope and passion Kelly describes in the lyrics come through in the performances. In the past, her heart-filled and confident singing part and parcel of the country flavour and the story-telling, but now she's added mystery and magic, almost whispering while still using her beautiful tone. She has a voice that aches with emotion, and nears perfection. Clover is a brave move, and a total success.
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Bob Mersereau has been covering music, and the East Coast Music Scene since 1985 for CBC. He's a veteran scene-maker at the ECMA's, knows where the best shows and right parties are happening, and more importantly, has survived to tell the tales. His weekly East Coast music column is heard on Shift on Radio 1 in New Brunswick each Wednesday at 4'45. He's also the author of two national best-selling books, The Top 100 Canadian Albums (2007) and The Top 100 Canadian Singles (2010).