[drɪŋks wɪð] Michael Averill

When I first started writing this blog, I don’t think I ever really thought about what effect sitting down with friends over drinks of some sort and talking about music would have on me. Over the past few months, I have come to an increasing amount of awe for the courage, perseverance and talent that I have been allowed to witness in those conversations, and it’s giving me a tremendous amount of love and appreciation for those people that have taken the time to sit down with me and share part of their journeys with me. We have some pretty amazing humans on this planet, with some pretty amazing stories to tell.

For this one, I went about four years into the past, to the place where I first met the man, and where he still offers some of his awesome energy to the wider public almost every week (touring and life permitting): Corduroy in Kits. Best pizza in town (or pretty darn close at any rate), and also one of the most popular open mics in the city. For good reason, because Michael is a tremendous host.

Michael Averill has always been a bit of a mystery to me. I never even thought about what his story might be until I started working on this blog – I just thought of him as this pretty cool, super friendly music guy, and that he probably had a „real“ job that paid the bills. You know, that tiny window of knowledge of someone you get when you only ever meet someone every few weeks at one of their gigs.

And then some couple of years ago I was invited to one of Michael’s singer-songwriter workshops, and it dawned on me that there must be more to him than great music and sometimes fun, sometimes thoughtful, often both, and always beautifully told songs. And indeed, there is so much more, and I feel truly honoured that he shared some of his amazing story with me over drawings of owls, extra-long pizza, coffee/water/beer (we were there for a while) and the rumbling background of a busy Kits restaurant/bar at dinner time on a Tuesday night in December.


Family is a big theme in Michael’s life as well as in his musical career, and in particular his Dad, Garry, has been a major influence on both. Michael’s parents started out in a tiny town in the Yukon, where Garry was a teacher and also a facilitator for people to come together and play music. Having played guitar for most of his life, and written music, Garry enjoyed sharing music and stories in this circle of friends, which is something he has passed on to his son.

Eventually, Garry came in touch with someone from the CBC who saw the great potential of his art and invited Garry to come and record some songs. This led to one of the first songs Garry ever wrote becoming a title track for one of the biggest radio shows on art and music that was broadcasted all over the country, and which ran for over thirty years.  Naturally, this threw the doors to a successful music career wide open, and he played a folk festival in Faro and was offered many more and much bigger gigs in the future. Garry, however, wasn’t much of a spotlight kind of guy. He didn’t want to be away from his young family – his wife Judy, his daughter Cathy and son Zac – for long amounts of time, so he said “No thank you” and walked away from this particular path of life. Not much later, the Averills moved to Kelowna, where Michael and his sister were born and Garry became a music teacher, which he happily was for the last 25 years of his career. He never quit music, and so his kids – Michael and his brother Zac, in particular – thankfully grew up in an environment that was filled with it, and eventually picked up the guitar (amongst other instruments) themselves.

photo cred: John Yohan Kim

Michael has been playing guitar since he was 12, mostly learning from his brother, who is seven years older than Michael and had picked up guitar, learning from their Dad and by basically listening to songs he liked, and figuring out how to play them. “He has a fantastic ear”, Michael says about his brother. And he himself has a tremendous gift that helped him learn what Zac would show him very quickly, picking up songs by being shown a couple of times how to play them. Naturally, Zac’s taste on music rubbed off on Michael, so among the first artists he came to appreciate were bands like Collective Soul, Pearl Jam, Tragically Hip, Dire Straits, Paul Simon and – the odd one out – Green Day. Quite the eclectic taste for a 12-year-old. Thankfully, Michael had some friends with similar interests that also played guitar, and they would share music that they’d learned and liked and teach each other how to play it. Performing, however, was out of the question – even in High School, “most people had no idea” that Michael even played an instrument. He just didn’t overtly enjoy the thought of playing in front of a lot of people, back then.

That inclination stuck around for a while, and he only really started performing for other people when he started university in Vancouver, quite a few years later. Someone was hosting an open mic at one of the residences on campus that had a “really chill” atmosphere. Even then, it took a year before he made it onto the stage, as well as a friend’s persistence and, most prominently, Dispatch. The trio was introduced to him at that time – which was, unfortunately, also when they broke up for a while. His frustration about the band’s dissolution didn’t lessen Michael’s love for their music, and since he shared a residence floor with other aficionados, they banded together and formed something like a Dispatch Cover Band. Which is also the formation in which Michael first hit that open mic stage, finally. Good things take time, as they say. It was “kind of a lightbulb moment” for Michael – to see how people reacted to their show and the songs, and I suppose you could say he got hooked on that performance thing, then.

Around that time, Michael started to write his own songs, as well. He credits this partly to the UBC guitar club, where he met a friend from France, Matthieu Binetruy, that taught him how to jam (since the club’s teacher, while he would tell them on a theoretical level how it worked, wasn’t actually able to show them), and got him into Swing and Gypsy Jazz. This new realm of playing music and his love for Dispatch’s story telling opened up his own creative output. Him and his friend wrote “a bunch of instrumental pieces” together, which further spawned Michael’s interest in writing. Diving into this project gave Michael an idea of why chords work together the way they do, and of finding new ways to make them work. This “unpacked a lot”, and after a period of time where the first approaches to songwriting trickled in slowly, the songs “started rattling in”. After a few years of writing music, him and some music pals went to what was then Pacific Audio Visual Institute to get themselves recorded as a student project (Does that ring a bell? If you’re reminded of SOLA’s story, it’s ringing the right one.) 

IMG_8113_Corrina Keeling
photo cred: Corrina Keeling

The first song he ever wrote was a “flip-side” story of the nursery rhyme about Miss Muffet (which I had to look up – it’s amazing what you’ll find on YouTube when you’re looking for kids nursery rhymes!). Instead of making the spider the villain, Michael told its side of the story, and articulated his idea of why the spider, who just wanted to get to know Miss Muffet because he had a crush on her, was actually the victim of the story. It probably helped that Michael was a big fan of spiders ever since he was a kid, and felt like making a stand for them with his would be in order.

This is very symptomatic for Michael’s songwriting today, I think. His outlook on the world and how we interact with it and each other has this really unique, special quality and a potential to open up new perspectives for the listener. He stuck with the practice of making old stories into new ideas, which he was inspired to do by songs like “Romeo & Juliet” by Dire Straits, unto this day. Generally, as he started out writing, he took his friends and the world around him as inspiration for the songs he wrote. Like this one time, when he had just left his personal training career and decided to go to Tofino with his girlfriend at the time. He had always wanted to learn how to surf, but had never tried it to not jeopardise his career by potentially getting hurt. Since all the years of running have led to his skeleton being quite condensed, swimming hadn’t been coming easy to him (“sinks like a rock” were the words he used), so he decided to practice his paddling before they went out onto the island. But for that, he needed a surfboard, of course, and finally, one beautiful sunny day, he found one for $15 at a garage sale in the neighbourhood. Being a man of grasping opportunities when they come up, Michael seized the deal and was hence walking around Kits with his surfboard under his arm, which people didn’t fail to comment on as he was walking down the packed Kits beach strip. The next day, he was doing laundry in his building and a neighbour came to join him, and they ended up jamming together as they were waiting for their clothes to be ready. Michael told him the story of the surfboard and his neighbour actually knew about it, because a friend had called him the day before to tell him about “the goof with the surfboard”. Michael thought it was quite peculiar that people would go to the lengths of calling their friends to judge someone’s behaviour, which led him to write a song called “The Judge”.

photo cred: John Johan Kim

When I listen to Michael’s music, I usually find this observant character in them, as well as a focus on positivity and making yourself feel better. It’s like listening to someone’s coaching classes, with the additional benefit of Michael’s beautiful voice and intricate guitar playing. And it’s a lot less pricey.

In 2011, then, Michael left the Fitness Industry – for various reasons, one of them being that, ironically, “being in a health profession, and being somebody who is a trainer, helping other people work towards their health-goals was the the most unhealthy time I’ve ever lived in my life”, he remembers. A particularly nasty health scare finally gave him the last little nudge to leave his job, and a few other contributing factors finally led to him becoming a full-time musician. His Dad getting sick and eventually passing away was one of those factors, that also led to Michael’s Walking Tour project.

“‘I’d rather walk’ was a big tribute to my Dad and my family… they’re all songs in some way inspired by him, or songs that he really liked.”

Never having been able to ask his Dad about what it was like to be a performing artist, or what his take was on this kind of life, he used his music as a means to find out more about his family’s history, as well as finding out how to deal with grief, and how other people deal with it – which often meant breaking somewhat of a taboo. But, as Michael says, “it’s such an important thing to talk about” and really “shouldn’t be avoided”, because it’s a way of getting to know ourselves as well as those around us on a deeper level, creating compassion and togetherness. So for his second Walking Tour-album, “All we ever need” (which is the third in his discography, the first album is “What’s Life All About” and has its own story – which culminates in Michael playing that fateful gig that proved he could stand on his own two feet as a performing artist, and enabled him to tour Europe as well as Asia), these themes of loss and community were central for Michael’s writing process. It helped him bring his message forward that, during his first tour through parts of Canada, he had discovered the house concert as a format that worked really well for him, which allowed people to not only bring their friends, family and community together and step out of their sometimes quite lonely routines, but also to really delve into the songs and stories. And to share their own!

“Let’s get people out walking and learn more about family history and talk about death… it just showed me the importance of community and connecting with people. There’s a lot of lonely people, and so many times I was just this random stranger in somebody’s house that I’d been invited into, and I don’t usually say all that much, I just listen. People having someone to talk to – I’m always amazed at how personal people can get with a complete stranger. But a lot of the same themes kept coming up, and that gave me the collection of songs to really piece that notion together, and really highlight how important that is, and through that project I’m trying to  plant seeds of that happening more – locally, regionally and nationally.”

So over the course of the last 8 years, the Walking Tour has been… well, I guess it’s fair to say: Both a mirror and a guiding light in Michael’s life. Things that happened during the tour influenced his life, and things that happened while he wasn’t touring came with him when he went back onto the road. There’s so many stories that it would take three articles to write just some of them down (and then, you can always read Michael’s blog), and I’m convinced they’re all amazing as those I got to listen to. Like the one that ultimately brought the Walking Tour into existence: On his first tour around Canada, Michael went to an open mic in Edmonton on a Tuesday night. No-one was there but the guy who set up the gear, and Michael almost left to come back later, but instead he talked to the sound guy and – this is actually crazy, I’m realising now as I write this down: It turns out this guy – who was only there to set up, not to host, and would have been out the door 30 minutes later – was the son of the guy that booked Michael’s Dad on the first festival he ever played in 1976 in the Yukon. You might wanna read that again. Like, what are the chances? This random stranger in a bar in Edmonton had also heard recordings of Garry’s performance, and was able to put Michael in touch with the people that had done those, and had not only kept the tapes, that were meant to be dubbed over once Gerry decided to not follow the music career path, but were also in possession of a recording of an interview that Garry had given. So Michael and his Mom went up to the Yukon to quite literally step into Garry’s footsteps, talk to the engineers, and listen to the interview. None of which would have happened if Michael had decided to sit at the bar by himself or come back later. Or, in other words, if Michael hadn’t been Michael.


And that’s another thing he is emphasising, not only in his music, but also when he offers workshops on songwriting, like the one I took, or jam circles at Corduroy, or hosts open mics: To take the risk, to follow your instincts and go with it, because more often than not, you’ll end up with an amazing experience. And although I could ramble on about how awesome Michael and his stories are, I’ll leave you with this note, because for me, it sums up nicely what his art is all about. If you’ve never been to a Corduroy open mic on a Tuesday, I strongly encourage you to go there, even if you’re not playing music yourself. Trust me, it’s a treat for all the senses. And if you do play an instrument, or are an aspiring (or seasoned) songwriter, or both, I even more strongly recommend that you take part in one of his workshops, because they’re just bloody brilliant. I know I will be following Michael’s work as he’s venturing into sides of himself that have been hidden for a long time, bringing out the “silly and dark shit” like in “A Villain by Definition”, and cheer him on as he continues to teach, collaborate, play and walk, and cross paths with him as often as I can.

“Thank You”

Michael is playing with his wife Shera and their improv band Bathtub Sidecar on Robson Street on the 1st of July (which is today, in case you were wondering), so if you’re downtown, you should go by and say hi! And if that’s too short notice for you, he will be performing at the Surrey Fusion Festival with Sharanjeet Singh Mand on July 20th. Guitar/Sitar fusion. They are a late addition which is why they’re not added on the Event Page, but they will be there.

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[drɪŋks wɪð] Jim O’Neill

Jim’s story is a bit of a whirlwind, and so is the story of his story. Due to some technical difficulties, I thought the recording of the interview (which lasted for about two and a half hours) was completely gone. Jim, with his generous demeanour, just said: Well, it was a good evening, so don’t be too upset about it. What a guy.

Thanks to a good friend (thanks Gregor! You’re the best!) at least part of the recording was recovered, and so I’m able to present you with some of the amazing tales of Jim O’Neill, the man with the beard, who looks more like what the rest of the world thinks Canadians look like than most Canadians I know, and has the voice of a bloody angel.

Jim’s journey starts in Papua New Guinea, where his parents lived when he was born. This and the fact that they then moved to Australia when Jim was still a little one, makes him not the biggest fan of winter. Except for mulled wine, of course, and winter food. Which, I might add at this point, I was served at la casa del Jim and Abby (Jim’s wife) on that dark winter night we sat down to have our “little” chat. Well, Vancouver winter, so it was pretty mild and rainy, but still. Delicious slow cooked winter food, which went well with the drinks we had. That he likes (and knows how to cook very well) about winter. And winter clothes. Because he looks better in winter clothes, Jim says. Also, the beard. Just works better in winter.

photo cred: Zach Lancaster/Steven Lane (we’re not quite sure)

But other than that, Jim is a summer child. Him and his family ultimately ended up in Melbourne, oh beautiful Melbourne. His Dad is a mechanic, among other things, all of which he taught himself. Like “machining up” new parts for cranes (!!!!). Sans Youtube, I might add. Most of the men in Jim’s extended family are working in some sort of trade – dock workers, engineers, Jim’s brother is a helicopter pilot instructor – and “super practical”, which makes Jim feel like a bit “out of place” at times. Because as the youngest of three brothers, he’s always been more of a creative mind, “drawing pictures of flowers and shit” and singing along to the radio as long as he can remember (which seems to become a bit of a theme on this ‘ere blog, I’m realising). Amazingly, his brothers never teased him. For that, anyway. And his Mom, hearing him and realising that there was something good going on, decided he was gonna take music lessons. Since having a drum kit in the house was out of the question (there were three boys, after all), Jim learned to play the piano on an early-1900s, banged-up piano a family friend had kicking around and didn’t know what else to do with.

While he didn’t really love the piano, he sure fell in love with music, and in his teens with Grunge, in particular, which inspired him to learn the guitar. Ah yes, the 90s. He gathered some similarly inclined friends, none of which really knew what they were doing either, and formed a band. Luckily, for Grunge, not being super advanced on your instrument doesn’t lessen the musical experience, and eventually, this rag-tag High School band morphed into Autumn Gray, a 7-piece band that toured parts of the country and recorded a live album on Melbourne’s iconic Federal Square. With an orchestra. We’ll get to that in a minute.

“We were terrible for ages. We were never a successful Grunge band.”

Autumn Gray had a pretty good run, about ten years they played together in slightly varying constellations, while Jim went on to study first Public Relations, then realised he hated working in Public Relations, and went back to school for Design and got a job as a graphic designer after getting his degree. Around that time, he lived in one of those crazy student sharehouses, which they called “The Hovel”. It sported live-in mice, resident rats, a tree root growing through the kitchen floor and vines covering the in- and outside of the outhouse. His housemates liked to party, while Jim was playing in a fairly successful band and had a “real” job in graphic design that he needed to get up for every morning to catch a one hour tram ride to St Kilda. It sounds terribly exhausting.

One morning, on his way to work, barely awake, Jim stumbled across the tram tracks when a four-wheel-drive pulled up next to him and his long-lost friend Luke “Leggsy” Legs offers him a ride into town. Luke, whom Jim used to work with in a record store and also played in an Indie band with for a while before Luke disappeared from Jim’s life for a few years (which, apparently, is something that he does), turned out to be living two blocks over from “The Hovel”. And he was looking for a roommate! So Jim moved in, and ended up joining Luke’s forming project Luke Legs and The Midnight Specials, with which he recorded their first album in 2010, the same year Autumn Gray put out their first album. Jim does like to keep busy, it seems. With Luke’s band, who was (and still is, just without Jim) playing Leggsy’s beautifully written and composed folk music, Jim toured a fair bit more – touring with a four-piece is a lot easier and cheaper than with a group of 7, and Leggsy “had a knack for booking gigs”, Jim says. They went up and down the east coast of Australia, and all the way down to Tasmania, playing gigs along the way and a couple of “decent-sized” festivals as well.

Meanwhile in Melbourne, Autumn Gray was playing a “moderately succesful pub gig” in Brunswick, where Zach Tay, conductor of Orchestre Nouveau, heard them play one night. Zach likes to experiment, and one thing he does is to arrange music of bands for his orchestra. He had booked a gig on Federal Square with what Jim calls a “much more well-renowned” band that – unfortunately for some, fortunately for others – dissolved a few weeks before the show was gonna go down. So Zack was in a bit of a pickle, and he also really liked what he saw and heard at that pub gig in Brunswick, so he contacted Autumn Gray and, sure enough, they all somehow managed to arrange the newly-released album Diary of a Falling Man for Zach’s 40-something piece orchestra, and to rehearse and actually pull off the show to a nearly sold out Federal Square. And to record the whole thing, and – with the support of a government grant – mix and release Live at Fed Square a year later. Pretty impressive, me thinks.

photo cred: unknown

Despite all of that, and due to some other stuff that went on in his life (as it does), Jim eventually “got the shits” with Melbourne and decided to mix things up. So in 2013, he packed his bags and went to volunteer in Indonesia for a year. He had signed up with an organisation that connects professionals with NGOs, and ended up not only falling in love with the country, but also with his housemate Abby. Even though he may not have admitted this to anyone, “least of all myself”, for the first little while. Eventually, however, it became pretty clear he wasn’t ready to leave Indonesia or Abby, who was working on a contract for another year after Jim’s had ended, so he looked around for other opportunities and “chanced upon a job” with a major research organisation in the city they lived in. When they both came out of their respective contracts, Jim was set on moving to Canada, and “now I get to play music in Vancouver”, he says. The rest, as they say, is history. They made their move to Vancouver in the spring of 2015, after Jim met Abby’s family and the downtown east side at Christmas the year before and cooked them a roast dinner (the family, not Chinatown). Seems to be a thing, this roast cooking business.


He started his Vancouver music career at Trees Organic, a staple of the open mic scene, which is also where he met Zach Lancaster. What came of this fateful encounter will be fodder for another story. Thanks to his NGO experience, Jim scored a contract with Unicef, and his business keeps growing from there. Music has always been a passion, but never was meant to be a career, although, Jim says, “if it accidentally happened that’d be cool”, too. Frankly, with this much talent kicking around in one single person I’m wondering how much longer this accident is gonna wait to happen.

Jim’s music is intricate, unassuming and just plain damn beautiful. It sneaks its way into the heart in the most subtle way possible. His voice, as mentioned, is angelic, with an amazing range and a vibrato that will melt your soul. And Jim’s a fantastic storyteller to boot. His song “Saving Kathleen” is one of my favourites, and returns to his family roots. Jim’s grandparents, after immigrating from Ireland, lived in two caravans by a river, with his dad already born. Jim’s grandpa was working on a Union project, helping setting up dams. Someone had an issue with the Union (or something along those lines, Jim’s not quite sure what actually happened), and blew up a dam further up the river, which led to a flood where Jim’s family had their little settlement. Jim’s grandpa, thankfully, woke up and saved the caravan they were sleeping in at the time, but the second caravan with basically everything they owned was washed away.

Although Jim still can’t piece together all the facts, he ended up writing his story after his grandma, “very politely”, passed away while he happened to be in the country. Because he didn’t know the whole story, he invented a stranger, enamoured with “Nan Kath”, who saw the flooding from afar and went up to her van to save her. Like I said, pretty darn beautiful.

photo cred: Zach Lancaster. For sure this time.

Jim’s also a master of sing-along songs, like “Don’t go out”, which gave myself and many others shivers at the Anza Live Community Showcase hosted by the aforementioned Jess Vaira that Jim played. There’s just something about his music that is capable of quieting down a noisy room, of calming the mind and raising those little hairs on your arms.

On top of that, Jim is an ambassador for furthering the music community of… well, I guess Vancouver right now, but really anywhere he settles down. When he first got to Vancouver, and Abby was travelling for work quite a bit, he forked through the pages of Georgia Straight, looking for interesting shows to see, and potential locations to play. While in Melbourne he had had a network of contacts and a music scene he literally grew into, he had to rebuild this network for himself on the other side of the Pacific. When he booked his first gig at Slickity Jim’s on Main Street, he invited Zach to come along and play with him. Later, he did the same thing with another musician he met at some event, and got the feedback that “nobody really asks people to play gigs here”. Jim’s response?

“What the hell? Why not? What else are we supposed to do?”

It’s true that the Vancouver music scene can get quite competitive on certain levels, despite strong efforts to build a community by people like Jim, Michael Averill, Jess Vaira, Kavi and many others. There’s just so many venues to play, and the people of the city don’t seem to seek out original live music, for some weird reason. If you’re a cover artist or band with a gig in a casino or Gastown – great. Beyond that? You have to not only be really good, but also have a strong fanbase that will go to see even the fourth gig you play in the same month. Which is tough in non-commitment capitol Vancouver. Anyhow, I’m ranting. The point is: If you’re an original artist wanting to score some gigs, a good way to do that and build a sustainable network is to invite others along. And while that doesn’t necessarily imply that the favour will be returned, it fosters a sense of community and support that I, for one, believe to be top soil for a diverse, flourishing music scene of any city. So that’s what Jim’s been doing. Exchanging gig slots, going to see his friends play whenever he can, teaming up with fellow musicians. About which, like I said, we’ll soon learn more. In the meantime, feel free to give the man a thumbs up, digitally and literally, and get excited for future shows. I know I am.

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[drɪŋks wɪð] Jess Vaira

Where to begin… maybe in the present. I’m sitting on the floor in front of my current chosen place of living, looking out over Kootenay Lake and the mountains beyond, listening to beautiful, powerful, thoughtful music and wonder how I get to be so lucky. I think this is probably what I love the most about this blog: That I get to talk to people who make this kind of music, are able to create those kinds of moments. And then get to write down their stories to the best of my ability.

This story was told to me by one of the most talented people I know, and on top of that, she has a pretty awesome name. Not that we get to choose that, most of the time, and I might be a little bit biased, but still.  We sat down in her cozy attic one gloomy December afternoon, with tea/coffee and donuts (which seems to be all I ever ate lately whenever I was in Vancouver), and spent a couple of hours talking about Jess’s amazing adventures. You know, the other Jess. Jess Vaira. Singer/songwriter, Open Mic Mom, Music Event Facilitator, Seamstress Galore Jess.


Jess has a pretty incredible story to tell. She spent the first few years of her life in the Northwest Territories, of which she doesn’t remember much except for seemingly (and actually) endless days and/or nights, and that her parents’ house seemed to be a hub for a constant stream of friends, neighbours and fellow musicians to come and hang out and jam at, especially during those long winter months.

Growing up in a place where music was basically always around, she started to sing probably around the same time she started to speak (if not before), and her Dad Mike Vaira got her up on stage with him when she was just a “teenie tiny little girl”. With her brother Mario, who is only eleven months older than her (we learn: “Breastfeeding is not a contraceptive!”) being very much into music as well, there was just never really a question about whether or not this music thing was gonna be at least part of Jess’s life. “There was always four part harmonies and guitars around the campfire”, she remembers, and that her parents used to play in a band together, way back when.

Being creative was always something that was highly encouraged in the Vaira household, with Jess’s Mom being a poet and actively involved in the publishing world. So when Jess got her first guitar at 16, she had been writing for a while – now it was just a matter of time until she put her words to music. But first: The covers. Oh, the covers. Being a true 90s teen, bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Sarah McLachlan and Blind Melon were part of Jess’s early repertoire, and she still owns the notebook full of the favs of those days that went with her through those years, and also on a pretty epic trip across the country that we’ll talk about in just a minute.


After leaving the Northwest Territories, the Vairas moved to suburban Nanaimo, to the small town of Lantzville, where they lived just down the road from Jess’s grandma.  Family is a recurring theme in Jess’s story. Even though she has lived in Vancouver “longer than I haven’t” at this point, she returns to the island often, and her family’s story seems tightly intertwined with her own. Jess’s parents split when she was in her teens, and her and her Dad, who sadly passed away in 2018, didn’t have much contact for some time before they reconciled their relationship a number of years ago. For which she is immensely grateful today, because ultimately, he was a huge influence on her life and is “100 % the reason I’m a musician”, she says. Her brother Mario, who is a renowned producer mainly of children’s music, not only for his wife’s Juno-nominated project “Bobs & Lolo”, is himself a talented musician and recorded and produced Jess’s first album, “In a Line“, that was published in 2016. He is also basically one of the co-founders of the fabled Anza Open Mic, but we’ll get to that. “He’s one of those maddening people who’s just amazing at anything he touches (…) he’s just an amazing human”, muses Jess, and states that “we just love the heck out of each other – we’ve been best friends all of our lives”, which is surely something not all siblings can say of each other. Jess’s love for her family shines through when she speaks about them, and the confidence in her craft – not only musically, but also in the realm of sowing, which she picked up from her grandmothers, who were “amazing seamstresses” themselves – seems to radiate from those strong roots. It’s beautiful, really, and something that touches me deeply as I listen to and write down her story.

Jess’s second home of Vancouver Island is where she first started college, studying Vocal Jazz at Malaspina, which is now Vancouver Island University. From there, Jess and her friend Story decided one hazy summer afternoon to take a trip to the east coast of this big, beautiful chunk of land, and visit Story’s friend who lived in Halifax, to then attend the Folk Fest in Winnipeg on the way back, and return to school in the fall. Some of which worked out as planned. They busked and hitchhiked their way across the country (Jess is still marvelling at the fact that her Mom ultimately decided to let her leave, even though – or maybe because – Ursula herself had gone on a similar trip when she was Jess’s age), making amazing connections and running into seemingly impossible coincidences right off the bat: Like that story of the first guy that picked them off right off the ferry in his big truck and turned out to be Jess’s aunt’s ex-boyfriend from back in the olden days. This life is a crazy ride, indeed.

For her, this two-month trip was a life-changer on a whole bunch of levels. For one, it was a confirmation that “people are really good… We received so much kindness from absolute strangers”: People who would drive two hours out of their way to keep up an engaged conversation, who let them sleep on their floor and fed them. It sounds like an amazing time, just two girls with a guitar and a djembe, going “wherever the wind took us”. When they finally made their way to Halifax, Story’s friend had already left, but through another one of those coincidences, they ran into his old roommates in the middle of the night, and got a place to crash when their original host fell through. It was a very active time for songwriting, “lots of heartbreak and emotions”.

“My songwriting is very slow… it just takes me a really long time. (…) I get in the mode, and then I kind of exhaust everything that I’m feeling, so then I need to go out and feel a whole bunch of other things.”

foto cred: Angela Fama

After returning from their trip, Jess decided not to return to Malaspina, but rather to follow Mario to Vancouver, where she lived in a tent city they built in his living room for about two years. After being refused entry to Capilano College, where she had planned to finish her degree, she remembered her grandparental family roots and went into fashion design, where she met the people who would become her business partners at We3, a sustainable clothing line that sold out of a beautiful little shop called “twig & hottie” that was closed after a successful 12 year run in 2017.

Jess had always had this vague plan of becoming a music teacher at some point in her life, but it just didn’t end up that way. Although now, she kind of is, in a sense. It may have been our common friend and Vancouver colleague-singer/songwriter Tall Mark who first called her the “Open Mic Mom” of our beautiful gem on the west coast, or maybe it was someone else (although really it does sound like something Mark would say). Regardless, this term seems to be very fitting, but I think she’s more than that, really.

Over the years, Jess has been involved in various amazing projects around music: She was one of the initiators of a project called “Bedroom Studios” – just a bunch of people operating and producing out of their bedrooms, which culminated in a collaboration with Clarence Chu – “Techno DJ guy meets folky jazzy girl”, as Jess puts it. Some of which you can find on Jess’s expansive Soundcloud page. She also was part of Barnaby Jones for a while, and is affiliated with a whole bunch of people around town whose business is music in some form. And, last but not least, she is the OG member of the Anza Open Mic fam.

Alex Maher, being the original founder of the night that originally happened on Sundays at the downstairs bar on the corner of Ontario and East 8th, was Mario’s best friend all the way through High School and beyond, and had hence been a big part of Jess’s life for quite some time. Mario, Alex and Jess would often be the only attendees of the open stage for the first six months or so, and the regulars weren’t all too pleased about the kids taking up one of the dart spots. Then, they changed the date, and things started picking up, until finally they would pack the place with up to a hundred people and a line-up around the block. Put a cap on that, Vancouver Fire Department.

Jess attended the open mic “religiously” every week for at least 5-6 years, and when Alex’ career started to pick up and he wasn’t always able to make it anymore, she would fill in and eventually basically take over. 14 years this evening has been an institution in the Vancouver music scene, and Jess has seen many changes both in music, attendees and attitudes. Even though Alex had an affinity for music close to rap and R’n’B, the focus was always on live music, and it used to be a spot famous for its jam-encouraging atmosphere. Jess’s style was heavily influenced by this collaborative environment, and the Anza open mic was a schooling experience on other levels, as well. Even though, unbelievably, Jess still has to take her stand against misogynist sound technicians and even open mic attendees who don’t seem to believe a woman could know more about sound boards than themselves, she is one of the people with the best ear for live mixing that I know, on top of the fact that she has been producing her own loops, music and beats for years.

Alas, times change, and management changes, and the Anza eventually decided to let the night go into a bit of a hiatus. It’s a different game now, and Jess welcomes the change – it was clearly needed when it happened, she says. And besides, she has enough on her plate as it is: Hosting open mics at two of the Vancouver-based donut-bakery Cartems locations (of which the Kits one is on a bit of a break over the summer), to which were added the – currently monthly – Railway Stage Beer & Cafe Open Mic and, for a while, another open mic at Pat’s Pub. All of which came her way, in some way or another, through Anza connections. And in late 2017, conicidentally weeks after the Anza Open Mic closed its doors for a while, the first of four Anza Live Community Showcases was launched, and filled the larger upstairs location of the Anza not only with recent and “good old day” regulars of the downstairs open mic, but also with some of the incredible talent that Jess had seen come through her other open mics as well as the Anza over time, to show their craft and play in friendly competition for marketing and recording packages by Nimbus School and other collaborators. Having seen three out of the four showcases I am still blown away by Jess’s talent to find and connect with those artists, and curate these amazing events, which were inspired by co-initiator Jim, member of the Anza Club board of directors.

So you can see what I mean when I say that Jess is more than the “Open Mic Mom”: She’s a facilitator for musical talent, and especially upcoming female talent, simply by doing what she does, and doing it well. And maybe more importantly, she creates a safe space for those who are just starting out, and especially at places like Cartems Donuts provides a stage where people actually listen to what is being played, said and sung. It’s a thing of beauty, and so important. While open mics with a bit more of a rambunctious atmosphere are fun in their own right, they can be intimidating for the quieter folk. And although even I have seen an encouraging increase in female performers and such! incredible! talent (some of which has been presented here already, with hopefully many more to come!), the threshold for young women in particular to get up on that stage still seems higher than for men, and Jess is one of those amazing people who constantly works on lowering it – and is loving this work.

Celine Pinget
foto cred @celinepinget

And this also reflects in her own music. “There’s only so much you can write about heartbreak”, she says, thinking back to the days when she first started writing and looking at her back-catalogue that has yet to be released. While she’s working towards her next album, trying to figure out the ins and outs of grant applications, which songs to release how, were and when, she notices a shift in her focus. Topics like environmentalism, gender equality and positivity have become more central in her life and in the way she communicates, and also in her songwriting. Being open about her life experiences is becoming more and more part of her process, and will further encourage upcoming artists to do the same, I believe.

„I think by being vulnerable with my writing and my experiences (…) that still has the ability to have some positive effect, because then maybe somebody’s gonna resonate with what I’m saying“

She recognises her responsibility as an artist here, too: When you’re up on that stage, you have a power, and that power, Jess believes, should be used to better your environment, to inspire those around you and either help to alleviate their circumstances in whatever way possible, or to educate and raise awareness.

„I feel lucky that I get to have such a creative life, and I get to make my living with my arts and my passion, but also in some ways I guess I feel like that privilege to be able to do that means that I should do something with it.“

I, for one, am looking forward to more of that happening, and feel truly blessed that I get to have this amazing person, musician, artist, human in my life.

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By the way: In addition to being a stellar solo artist, Jess also lends her voice to other incredible acts like Tonye and, of course, Alex Maher, whom she will be joining at Jazz Fest on Granville Island on July 1st – one of many reasons, if not the main one, to give this event a visit. As well as any of Jess’s pages and, of course, all of her shows, open mics, coming festivals and if you want a real piece of clothing made just for you, you know who to get in touch with. ❤