Hillbilly Highway – Jay Aymar rolls through town


by Sheldon Birnie

Toronto based troubadour Jay Aymar is hitting the road for his fourth cross-Canada tour, making an early stop in Winnipeg at the Folk Exchange on Friday. Aymar has been writing songs for over 20 years, going hard at it in the 90s before applying the breaks a bit until a song of his jump started his performing career a few years back. With a keen eye for the details of everyday life, and a storyteller’s approach to the narrative form, Jay Aymar is a great Canadian songwriter slugging it out on the Hillbilly Highway. He checked in with us just before hitting the road on Tuesday.

Stylus: You’ve been playing music now for over 20 years. When did music become something that you took seriously and wanted to pursue?

Jay Aymar: I guess my first incarnation of it was in the late 90s, when I was playing full-time for awhile there. I had a break with the CBC for songwriting, and put out a small EP of five songs I’d written, and put out a live CD. I was playing a lot of folk festivals and stuff at the time. Then I kind of came back to it four or five years ago, soon after [Ian] Tyson recorded “My Cherry Coloured Rose”.

Stylus: Do you remember when you first decided “Oh man, I’ve got to pursue music” as a kid?

JA: I was always more inclined as a writer. I think it was all part and parcel to the same thing for me. I got into English Lit pretty heavy, and studied that at university. I came out after that wanting to just write a lot. I was playing a lot then as well. So I was naturally writing everything from prose to songs, and songs just became my passion at that point. I had been writing songs since I was 16 for fun, after hearing a lot of Neil Young and those standards, Leonard Cohen and that stuff.

Stylus: You mention Neil Young and Leonard Cohen. Who would you say your influences are today, whether they be singer-songwriters or just writers in general?

JA: Probably those original ones loom the largest. From Paul Simon to Dylan and Neil and Cohen. John Prine is a big influence. A lot of the Texas songwriters, Jerry Jeff Walker. As far as anyone who writes in the narrative tradition. Storytellers. That’s what I try to do; write stories that have universal appeal but are rooted in local conversational settings. So I’m taking the daily events of people, their interactions, and trying to write stories about the people I meet on the road and make them universal in nature. So they have greater meaning outside of the obvious story.

I guess there’s a lot of humour in my writing. So I guess other writers in that regard who influence me would be Stephen Leacock and Mark Twain. That kind of stuff. That’s kind of a longwinded answer, but it really is just a big jumble of influence.

As for anybody modern, I’m probably most influenced by my peers. Anyone I play with in Toronto and on the road. Not that I really want to mention anybody…

Stylus: Where do you end up playing when you’re at home in Toronto?

JA: There’s a lot of little places. The Cameron House, the Hughes Room. Those are the main haunts.

Stylus: You’re coming through Winnipeg on Friday. What do you think about when you have Winnipeg coming up on the Highway?

JA: Well, it feels to me like my gateway into the West. I’m originally from Sault Ste. Marie. So when I come up from Toronto, I feel like the Soo and Winnipeg are on either ends of a connected space, in a sense. The Soo to Winnipeg to me is one province. It feels like I’m leaving the Soo when I hit Winnipeg. Until then I feel like I’m still in this northern landscape. But I love Winnipeg, man. It’s so steeped in musical tradition, as you know. Just a lot of the guys from Home Routes are there, who are friends of mine. Some excellent venues. Winnipeg just has an extremely musical vibe. I always love Winnipeg.

Stylus: You mentioned your “My Cherry Coloured Rose” earlier, which Ian Tyson recorded. To me, that’s my introduction to your songwriting. I love that tune. What can you tell me about the writing of that one, or how it came to you?

JA: I was with my ex, my girlfriend at the time and she lived in North Carolina. We were in a NASCAR sports bar, just having a beer or two on the weekend. I found myself asking the owner if he could put on Hockey Night in Canada on the satellite feed, because I love hockey. Grapes came on, and I found myself trying to explain to all these NASCAR guys who Don Cherry is. Kind of through that being out of context, why that guy’s wearing a rose suit for his wife Rose who had passed away; his dog Blue and all that stuff. The symbols just came to me very quickly, I think I wrote it in about half an hour. I mailed it to the CBC, and Grapes got back to me saying “I’d like you to record it.”

Stylus: I guess my final question would be what are you up to here after this tour?

JA: Well we just recorded a brand new CD Overtime with David Baxter. There are some great names on it, David Baxter, Treasa Levasseur. It just came out and it has been getting good reviews, so I’ve scheduled 140 shows across Canada for my fourth full tour of Canada. I basically work with a trio, and upright bass player and a fiddle player here in Ontario, but I’ll be using local musicians along the way. For the show in Winnipeg I’m using Donny Zeuff of the D-Rangers on fiddle. Should be fun.

Don’t miss Jay Aymar at the Folk Exchange on Friday, May 10th. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door, and the show gets going at 8:00pm.

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