Monday 26 August 2013

Interview: Jessica Stuart of the Jessica Stuart Few

In a city full of talented musicians and musical acts, Toronto's Jessica Stuart Few stands out. 
Toronto is also a city full of eclectic musicians, and the Few's use of the koto, 
a 13-stringed traditional Japanese instrument that looks like it weighs as much as some musicians, 
would certainly seem to put them in that category.

Yet the Few's use of the koto, as played by the band's singer and songwriter Jessica Stuart, 
is stunningly natural once you hear and see them play. Stuart is also a talented guitarist, 
and switches back and forth from the koto and electric guitar so effortlessly that after a few songs, 
you stop paying attention to what instrument she's playing, 
(although the koto does give an ethereal touch)
and just listen to the music.

And what does the Few’s music sound like? Well, let's talk about the rest of the band first. 
We’ve already established that Stuart is the singer and guitarist/ koto player. 
The band is rounded out by Dan Fortin plucking away on double bass 
(another instrument that, like the koto, holds its own in the size department) 
and Tony Nesbitt-Larkin on drums and occasional backup vocals. 
Together, the three-piece creates some pretty memorable, somewhat poppy, somewhat jazzy indie folk. 
The word "breezy" comes to mind, in a good way. Some of that might be Jessica’s high, clear voice. 
The rest is the music itself, which is catchy, well-written and seems to come from a positive place.

The Few released their second album Two Sides to Every Story in March 2013, 
and lead single "Don't Ya" made CBC Radio One's "Song of the Week" 
upon its pre-release earlier in the year. 
You can check out the video on the Few's official YouTube page
along with clips for the album's second single "Winter Warm", 
and a pretty impressive koto-driven rendition of the Eurythmics' 
"Here Comes the Rain" (also on the record).

Tinderbox had some questions for the Few’s Jessica Stuart, and she had some answers.

Why did you decide to get into music? 

My mother is a wonderful musician and multi-instrumentalist, 
and my father always played the piano too, so i was just born into it.  
I wanted to be a musician by profession since i picked up the guitar as a teenager, 
but I took an indirect route there with lots of detours!

How long have you been doing this? 

I've been doing music full-time for 5 years, but have been performing since I was quite small.

How many of your goals have you accomplished thus far in your music career?  

You know what? I set very modest goals for myself - record my original tunes, 
have my music played on the radio, collaborate with people in a variety of projects, 
and get to travel with music.  All of things are regular parts of my life now, 
so I couldn't be happier.  Now I'm setting new goals - 
basically expanding the team to take some of the workload off of me, 
and to try and reach as broad an audience as possible without ever compromising my art.

Who are some of your influences? 

I've always been attracted to music with a strong sense of groove 
from 'Court & Spark' era Joni Mitchell to soul music like Stevie Wonder, 
or heavier stuff like Led Zeppelin or Alice In Chains. 
But I also love some electronic stuff, modern jazz or whatever. 
Basically, I have the most respect for musicians who really have their own distinctive sound.

Who are some contemporary acts that you feel a musical or artistic kinship with? 

In some way, Deerhoof, Dirty Projectors, Haitus Kaiyote, Hanne Hukkelberg.

How did growing up in Japan influence your music?  

Mostly it just informed my choice of the 'koto' since I studied it there for a year, 
and now use it in The Jessica Stuart Few.  
Living in Japan had a huge part in 
the way I see life and the world... 
which certainly affects my musical approach and choices.

What do you think your music offers that sets it apart from what anyone else is doing? 

Well, aside from the instrumentation (koto/guitar, double bass, drums, vocals), 
which isn't typical, I think the thing that makes us stand out is the adventurous songwriting.  
There's lots of atypical stuff going on in the songs, 
but people still seem to be able to relate to it even thought the time signatures, 
chord progressions and rhythms might often be unusual.

How did you come to collaborate with Takashi Iwasaki

I found his art through 'Le Gallery' on Dundas at Ossington when I was looking for original stuff for the sleeve design of our first album, Kid Dream.  We've been collaborating more and more now for over 3 years, and can't wait to continue! Funny thing, we've actually never met..

How do your music and his art compliment each other?  

I think both of our work has a quirky abandon to it, but with some real substance.  
It seems that reviews of his work and mine share some of the same descriptive words, 
so I guess we're not the only ones to think so!

How did you come up with the idea to incorporate the koto into Western music? 

It was more that I wanted to reconnect to the koto after several years hiatus from the instrument, and had already formed the shell of The Jessica Stuart Few, 
so wrote with the koto in place of the guitar on some material along with the double bass and drums.  I liked the match of sounds between the koto and the double bass, and went from there.

How challenging was it to master the koto compared to say, the guitar or piano? 

You're very kind to suggest that I have mastered the koto 
- I definitely wouldn't call myself a master yet!  
I think to learn koto is easier than guitar or piano, since it is tuned to a scale, 
unlike the guitar where you need to learn the fretboard well to be able to play fluently.  
It did take a while to feel totally comfortable playing koto while singing since that is not the regular way it's done, and something I had no experience with till 4 or 5 years ago.

What are some of your interests apart from music? 

I love nature - hiking, swimming, 
adventuring and some sporty stuff 
hackey sack, bike riding, playfighting.  
I love travel and learning about cultures around the world, 
and speaking other languages.  
I love meeting people and anything creative : )

What are your plans for the future? 

We have our first international tour coming in October to Japan
and several more international stints over the next year.  
I've written most of the material for the next album as well, 
and am really excited to record it.

What are your ultimate goals for your music career?  

Ultimately, I want to write, record and perform as much as possible, 
and to continue to play in lots of different great groups of different styles.  
I want everything associated with The Jessica Stuart Few, 
from music videos to album art to the songs to stand on it's own as an art piece, 
and keep the integrity of the project.

photo by Pe Dro

Jessica Stuart spoke to Ambarish Maharaj for the Tinderbox

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