How Jeffrey Straker came to quit classical and embrace folk music
Of all the metaphors to describe a change in musical direction, singer-songwriter Jeffery Straker’s is one of the most unique.
“It was almost like discovering how to make TNT in the bathtub when I discovered I could write folk songs!”
Jeffery had been studying at the conservatory at the University of Regina learning concertos, sonatas, fugues and preludes. He had also competed in a number of piano competitions over the years and seemed to be on track to be a classical musician.
“I had this big epiphany – realization moment. I didn’t really want to be a classical musician,” he said from his Regina home. “There aren’t a lot of opportunities for performances, and it’s incredibly competitive. If you’re a soloist, there’s not a lot of collaboration really, unless you’re playing with orchestras. I went off and did a science degree [in biology] at university. It was after that that I wound my way back into music through the singer-songwriter/folk and roots songs I was listening to.”
To Jeffery’s way of thinking, his teachers weren’t able to show alternative uses for the classical studies he had been involved in.
“I was in Toronto and seeing all these people who were OK musicians but were incredible lyricists. I was, ‘Oh God, look at this. You don’t need to be a superstar to be writing songs.’ It was this really incredible realization. I sort of had this taste of it, and off I went, and I’ve been hooked ever since. I’m glad I sort of stumbled upon it.”
Working with Russell Broome
The release of Jeffery’s seventh studio album, Just Before Sunrise, produced by Russell Broome and Royal Wood, features another musical shift, if only slightly, he said.
“Russell is someone I wanted to work with because myself, a singer/pianist oriented to keyboards, I was curious what the partnership would be with a producer who was so guitar-oriented. I’m really happy with how it turned out. Russell plays all sorts of guitar, from electric to acoustic to dobro and then dabbles in banjo, et cetera. He really knew I was looking to do a roots-leaning recording so it was fun to see what came of that.”
The involvement of Royal Wood as the other producer is a repeat of Jeffery’s previous album, Dirt Road Confessional, where Royal was one of the producers and a co-writer of a couple of songs. On Just Before Sunrise Royal also is a co-writer of two songs.
“I’m someone who really likes sonic variety across the tracks of a record,” he said. “I tend to like albums more if they sort of take me on a journey sonically. So I thought having one more producer’s hand in a couple of tracks might be something I wanted to try. I enjoy Royal’s music, and I thought he’d be well-suited to give that a whirl too.”
But only one of the songs Royal produced is a song he co-wrote with Jeffery. Russell produced the other one,” Jeffrey said.
“There really was not a concrete method to that,” he said. “It sort of happened the way it happened, but I do like how it turned out.”
The tempo and styles of music on Just Before Sunrise run the gamut from ballads to uptempo anthems to “Play That Song Again,” which could fit in a 1962 jukebox right next to songs like “Love Letters” by Ketty Lester.
A song inspired by LGBTQ youth
“It’s funny because if I play something like “Tennessee Waltz” on the piano, to me that conjures up this sort of realm of waltzes” Jeffrey said. “I certainly was harkening back to an older-feel waltz. But rest assured I didn’t rip it off,” he added, laughing.
An important song on the album is “Ready To Be Brave,” which had it’s beginnings when Jeffery was an artist-in-residence at a camp for LGBTQ+ youth in Saskatchewan.
“They were telling me their stories that ran the gamut from getting kicked out of their houses for identifying as LGBTQ – some kids talked about the conversations they had with their parents, and some of those conversations went well, and some went really terribly. Either way, they were so brave to enter into the conversation, it felt song-worthy. I’m also an ‘out’ artist. It’s been so long since I came out, but it harkened me back to my time when I did and helped me remember what an emotional upheaval that moment is when you sort of reveal who you are. It’s big.”
The song provided hope and solace for many people since its release and not just the LGBTQ+ community.
“Other people have listened to the song and inserted themselves into it,” Jeffery explained. “Not in that sort of ‘coming out’ context, but in terms of the context of other things they’ve avoided and [been] tiptoeing around. That was the hope and precisely the root of the struggle I had with it. I wanted to make it universal in its specificness. That’s what I was trying for.”
Jeffery has spent a portion of May performing online album release concerts for various arts organizations from B.C. to the Maritimes.
“I tried something different with them in that they were with a band on a stage in Regina,” he said. “After those were done, I’ve been lucky to have a whole heap of bookings to perform in people’s backyards right across the country. Those are all COVID restriction-pending, but at least right now for Saskatchewan, with people racing to get their vaccines, it looks like the Saskatchewan ones are able to happen. Everything is sort of TBD for the other ones. So it looks like the summer’s gonna keep me very busy, thank God, with these outdoor shows! I need to try and replenish my bank account a little bit because it’s been a long time, but also my emotional and performing heart that really loves the energy exchange with an audience – it’s feeling a drought right now. I’ve got to fill that cup back up. So hopefully I can get back out there.”
For more on Jeffery Straker and Just Before Sunrise, go to: www.jeffstraker.com.