Hillbilly Highway – Vagabond Jeffery Michael Straker hits Winnipeg

by Sheldon Birnie

Jefferery Michael Straker is a hard-working singer-songwriter, a classically trained pianist, and a downright friendly guy. His latest album, Vagabond, was released October XX. Produced by Danny Michel, Vagabond continues Straker’s cabaret influenced, piano based pop songwriting style, but adds the experience of Michel to the mix, bringing the tunes a decidedly folk tinge. On the road over 100 days of the year, Saskatchewan born and raised Straker divides his limited downtime between Toronto and Regina. Stylus caught up with him in the Queen City, shortly before his Winnipeg engagement at the West End Cultural Centre.

Stylus: You’re in Winnipeg [tonight] promoting your new record Vagabond, which you recorded with Danny Michel. What was his influence on how the record turned out?

Jeffery Michael Straker: I had him in mind to produce this record after I had written the songs, because I’d always been a fan of his production. I like how it breathes and I like how it has sort of an organic feel to it. I like his use of percussion, hand percussion; it’s a very unique sound. So, my stuff is folk-pop, piano folk-pop with a bit of a cabaret twist. I was just really curious as to how his world and my world would mesh. We talked about it for a while. It’s almost an unlikely pairing, but we talked about it, thinking like, how do we want this to work? How much of Danny’s influence do I want? And we ultimately decided to just sit down and do it and see what happens. His approach to production is really a breath of fresh air. We got into the CBC studios in Toronto where Glenn Gould’s grand piano is, and we used that for the piano parts. Then we took that back to his place and kind of treated it like a laboratory, in a way. He’s got all his instruments sitting around, a lot of vintage synthesizers and keyboards, in addition to all his guitars. So we would just try stuff. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t. I played all the keyboards, he played all the other instruments. And so, to me, the way he influenced it the most is, these songs breathe probably more than any other songs I’ve ever recorded. They breathe more, and they have more space in the right places. I just, I think they present themselves really well. It was kind of a result of working with a producer who’s also a really super artist, versus just a producer.

Stylus: You mentioned the songs were written before hitting the studio. What were some of the influences on the songwriting itself this time around?

JMS: Well, the songs, I mean, I find the feedback on the songs from some fans and critics, versus previous stuff, the words being tossed around are that they are a bit darker than my previous stuff. And, I mean, I think those comments are coming from the fact that these songs are more personal. There are a lot more inspiration from personal experiences. I actually wrote about 25 or 30 songs. There’s nine on the record. One of the things I noticed, and this wasn’t a conscious thing, but the songs that ended up getting chosen were all sort of about movement. Either escaping, or coming back. There’s travelling and movement and exploring in all these songs. I think that is a reflection on the self-reflection I was doing, which is kind of an exploration in itself.

Stylus: You’re a busy guy. Does your busy performance schedule have anything to do on these themes of movement?

JMS: Yeah, you know, it does. I think you hit the nail on the head. Another thing, over the last three years, because I’ve been touring more and more, doing about or over 100 shows each year, I’m generally travelling. I’m finding a big chunk of writing time has become impossible. So, my writing has had to change, in that I have to capture ideas as I go, and hold onto the nuggets until I do find time to work on it for a while. Always being in motion has sort maybe of manifested itself in the lyrics, could be.

Stylus: What can we expect from your performance here in Winnipeg? Is it just you?

JMS: For the show in Winnipeg, I’m bringing my guitar player. So it’s me on piano and vocals, and him on guitar. He’s a super musician. We’ve been doing shows across western Canada and it’s been going really well. He’s a bit of a pedal junkie, so he conjures up all sorts of stuff through his guitar. Just like the way I like to present my music in recordings, centered around the piano and vocals, that’s what I do in performance. So he takes on the role of the band/orchestra via what he can do on pedals and guitar. It’s pretty impressive. It’s been working really well, so I’m excited to do it in Winnipeg!

Stylus: Final question here. You’ve got Fred Penner playing harmonica on “Birchbark Canoe,” the opening track to the album. How did that come about?

JMS: That was pretty organic. We were both at the Regina Folk Festival last year and we were put in, randomly, in one of the same workshops. I debuted one my new tunes, which is “Birchbark Canoe,” at the Folk Festival. He was sitting beside me in the round and, as you do in folk festivals, he just got out his harmonica and started playing along. It was really, really beautiful. We got a Sunday morning standing ovation, so it was a really special moment. When we were done, he said, “If you ever record that, consider me for possible harmonica.” So I was in the studio with Danny, and I said, “I really think this harmonica could work.” So we called up Fred, and he did it.

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