by Daniel Emberg
When Jesse Dee first picks up the phone, he is ironing some shirts in Red Deer, Alberta and preparing to hit the road for his honeymoon.
Well, sort of. When not pressing shirts, Jesse is a stellar, inventive guitarist and singer. His hardworking Edmonton-based band, Picture the Ocean, have just started their Honeymoon Tour—named as such because he recently married Jacquie B, his multi-instrumentalist bandmate and longtime partner. They, along with drummer Matt Blackie, have been trekking back and forth across Canada for years now, bringing brainy folk-pop songs, engaging vocal harmonies, and an array of road stories to festivals, house shows, and all manner of stages in between.
This Thursday night, Picture the Ocean visits Winnipeg to play one of their favourite familiar venues: Times Change(d) High and Lonesome Club. “You know it,” Jesse says of the Times, “the place is a national legend!”
After several releases under the name Jesse Dee and Jacquie B, the band decided on the new name a couple of years back when Matt moved close enough to become a full-time member. The band has been a consistent trio ever since, but they sometimes pick up a bass player to round out the sound and that is the case during the Honeymoon Tour.
“Her name is Shari Rae,” says Jesse. “We know her because she played with a band called Miss Quincy & The Showdown for a number of years, and we developed a kind of intimate road relationship: we’re really good friends but only really saw each other on the highway, or a festival or something.” Last year, they decided to take a shot at playing together sometime when schedules and circumstance would allow. “She just showed up in Edmonton a couple of weeks ago to rehearse, and it’s been awesome—she’s nailing it!”
While Jesse says the band has always loved playing here, it’s been a little while since they have come around. Unsurprisingly, that means we will be treated to a number of songs never before heard in Winnipeg. Those who have seen Picture the Ocean play before may be a bit surprised at their evolving sound.
“The arrangements are getting heavier on the vocal side, there are lots of more complex harmony parts. Our process is getting more refined. We’re writing a lot more as a group now,” explains Jesse, and while part of that may just be natural evolution he says there is a direct explanation too. “My opinion is if you have some vested interest in the creation of a song, then you want to play it more. You feel like you contributed…it’s your piece, not somebody else’s, so I think a more collaborative band feels good and you get a better performance.”
Speaking of his own contribution to these collaborative efforts, Jesse says, “I don’t write a lot of material quickly because I’m always trying to write a song that sounds new and different from anything I’ve ever heard. That’s getting harder and harder to do as time goes by … I’ve been listening to a lot of Wilco in the past year,” and there has been some impact on his songwriting approach. “Not in a copycat kind of way, more like being inspired to be as creative as possible when it comes to writing a song. Trying to break away from conventional song structures and things like that.”
The past year and a half has been a crazy time in many ways for Picture the Ocean. Aside from the obvious excitement of Jacquie and Jesse’s marriage, one of the biggest milestones was joining their friend Aurora Jane on a tour that took them through Europe and India. Yeah, that India. The band even got a shout-out in the Indian edition of Rolling Stone—bet you didn’t know that existed! However, as most people who venture so far afield would agree, it’s not always clowns and ballerinas out there.
“Last year was a pretty dramatic touring experience for me,” says Jesse, “A lot of unexpected things happened and we found ourselves in some difficult situations that there was no escaping. You know when you’re in a situation where you just have to deal? Well, when you’re across the world you can’t just go home, you’ve got to figure it out…I’m being kinda vague but that’s where a lot of the new stuff is coming from.”
Clearly, Picture the Ocean is a band unafraid to challenge themselves, one at peace with the knowledge that they must continue to evolve. Ultimately, they just love their jobs—if their glowing faces onstage don’t convince you, just ask them. The group is happy when staring down a heavy schedule, embracing life on the highway, and catching up with the many fans and friends they have earned the honest way: through many years of taking the craft seriously and playing excellent shows.
While they are about three-quarters of the way to having their next record written, for now the only chance you have to hear Picture the Ocean’s new songs will be Thursday night at the Times. Come on down to dance, laugh, and see how good Jesse looks in a crisp shirt.
Speaking of which, it is only when our conversation ends that Jesse reveals he had continued ironing throughout…the man is slick, I tells ya!