The Jessica Stuart Few’s music is hard to define. The group’s website calls the collective a “folk-jazz power trio,” but it’s best described as a collection of Jessica Stuart’s life experiences.
The most striking aspect of the band is her use of the koto, a 13-stringed Japanese instrument that Stuart and her mother, ethnomusicologist Wendy Bross-Stuart, studied when the family moved to Japan in the early 1990s for one year when Stuart was in Grade 4.
They moved from Vancouver to Saku, a rural area in the Nagano prefecture, for her parents’ sabbatical year. Her mother and father, both academics, had lived together in Japan before having children.
As a nine-year-old, Stuart faced huge culture shock when she discovered how different life was in a small Japanese town.
“They didn’t have milk in stores. They were just introducing that,” Stuart said.
As well, because rice was such a staple of the Japanese diet, “they had just one type of bread… and [people would approach her family] to do bread demonstrations in the supermarket because nobody knew how to use it,” she added.
She recalled her first day of school, when she didn’t yet speak Japanese, and only a tiny portion of the population spoke English.
The kids in her class had never seen anybody with blonde hair before.
“They were all crowding around me and trying to touch my hair and face and talking to me in Japanese. It was this totally surreal situation,” she said. “They got used to me of course, but it was a totally life-changing experience.”
She lost touch with the Japanese instrument a few years after she returned to Canada, but picked it up again five years ago.
Liking the way it sounded, she added it to her band, singing on top of the koto – a very untraditional idea.
Although the koto clearly stands out in her music, Stuart said she chose to use it only because it represents her life, and not to be “gimmicky.”
“I never set out to be different… I’m just doing the thing that feels natural to me,” she said. “I’m not trying to make some big statement.”
To that end, she stopped writing guitar-based versions of Japanese folk songs – something she used to enjoy before incorporating the koto into the band. And even though a Japanese record label has asked her to sing in Japanese as a Japan-only exclusive on her newest album, Two Sides to Every Story, she refused.
But she hasn’t abandoned the language completely. The group will embark on its first Japanese tour later this year, and Stuart might use her Japanese language skills to do something special at those concerts.
Fans who purchase Stuart’s latest CD will be treated to album artwork by Japanese-Canadian abstract artist Takashi Iwasaki, who designed the drawings based on Stuart’s music.
That collaboration started when Stuart was on the hunt for album art and began her search by looking around her neighbourhood of Trinity-Bellwoods in Toronto, which is home to several art galleries. She saw an example of Iwasaki’s work in one of them.
“I thought it had this playfulness and quirkiness that matched my music,” she said.
She asked him to design her album art, and he agreed.
For the next album, Stuart said she hopes to take the collaboration even farther by working together throughout the songwriting process: she would write songs based on Iwasaki’s art, and he would draw based on her music.
Stuart said it’s important to work with and help other artists in the community. In addition to Stuart on vocals, guitar and koto, her group, which consists of Dan Fortin on double bass and Tony Nesbitt-Larking on drums, also uses several other musicians who are featured on various songs. On Two Sides to Every Story, Nico Dann and Fabio Ragnelli take turns on the drums, Rob Teehan plays tuba, and Matt Newton handles the keyboard.
Stuart attributed her desire to engage with a wide variety of people to her parents, whom she described as New York Jews. They also instilled in her a love of music, which she said was also integral to her Jewish upbringing.
For example, on Pesach, Stuart’s mother would write out musical cues on their Haggadahs, and the family would sing in harmony.
“I am compelled to, and unable not to, make music,” she said. “I have to do it. It’s part of my being.”
And that defines what she does. It’s an extension of Stuart herself, blending her influences from many genres as well as her life experiences. She hopes people who listen to her music will take away the message that it’s OK to do whatever feels natural, even if it’s “different.”
“Sometimes people feel like they have to try to create music or art… that resemble other things that are successful or popular,” she said. “I hope people follow their voices and be authentic in all their creative endeavours.”