Blues singer digs deep into pain, doesn’t pull any punches

Calgary Herald - - FRONT PAGE - ERIC VOLMERS

The first line Jess Knights wrote on You Come for Money, the catchy opener on her de­but EP, Won’t Wait, doesn’t pull any punches.

It is about the de­scent into ad­dic­tion. Not her own, thank­fully. But it was based on her friend’s ex­pe­ri­ences.

“Tracks on your mind match tracks on your arms, trace your dis­com­fort with tragedy charms,” she sings on the R & B stom­per.

“That was a di­rect ex­pe­ri­ence I had with some­one I was work­ing with at the time,” says Knights, who will be hold­ing a CD re­lease party at Fes­ti­val Hall on Satur­day. “I played in re­ally di­vey bars for the last 10 years and I was ex­posed to the other end of things, which was ad­dic­tion and pretty hard­core drug use.

“I just try to make sense of ev­ery­thing. You Come for Money is try­ing to make sense of ad­dic­tion, how we can ex­ploit our­selves, how we try to ex­ploit other peo­ple with our be­liefs. Yeah, there’s a lot more than just the ad­dic­tion. But the song is pretty loaded with try­ing to make sense of things.”

A blues singer ex­plor­ing dark top­ics isn’t all that un­usual. It is called the blues, af­ter all. But the five songs found on Knights’ de­but of­fer not only var­i­ous shades of the genre, but they also tackle a wide va­ri­ety of top­ics. The soul­ful, slow­burn­ing Good for You, for in­stance, is based on the in­trigu­ing premise of cor­rupt­ing re­li­gious boys. (“We may not be holy, but we’re a whole lot of fun,” Knights sings.)

The de­fi­ant Won’t Wait, with its buoy­ant, girl-group vibe, chal­lenges a pro­cras­ti­nat­ing lover to take ac­tion. The sor­row­ful acous­tic num­ber Shot a Bird uses stark im­agery as the nar­ra­tor con­fronts guilt and re­gret about her in­fi­deli­ties.

“I think it’s eas­ier to write sad songs, and I think a lot of song­writ­ers of­ten say that,” Knights says. “I think it’s be­cause it’s my out­let. Writ­ing mu­sic and words is my out­let. To get things off my chest and make sense of sce­nar­ios, of­ten I need to do that when it comes to darker con­tent. Per­son­ally, I’m a lighter hu­man be­ing. The words don’t re­flect my char­ac­ter, but re­flect what I’m try­ing to make sense of at the time.”

Won’t Wait was recorded at both OCL Stu­dios in Cal­gary and the homes of Knights and pro­ducer Josh Gwilliam. To back her up, Gwilliam brought in mem­bers of the Flat Whites, in­clud­ing gui­tarist Rus­sell Broom, bas­sist Chris Byrne, drum­mer Spencer Cheyne and key­board player Mike Lit­tle.

Knights is no stranger to per­form­ing with sea­soned blues play­ers. She spent the past decade cut­ting her teeth in some sketchy bars. She is too diplo­matic to name them, but says the ex­pe­ri­ence was vi­tal in her evo­lu­tion as a per­former.

“They might not even know they are a dive bar,” she says with a laugh. “I think it has given me an edge, be­cause I was work­ing in bands that were mostly male and of­ten 40 years my se­nior, if not more. There was a lit­tle bit of, ‘OK, prove your­self, child.’ It took a lit­tle bit more to gain the re­spect of some of the peo­ple in those en­vi­ron­ments. Hon­estly, that en­vi­ron­ment did raise me as an artist and I’m very grate­ful. But it also hard­ened me pretty quick. I think it also gave me re­silience. You play enough bars where peo­ple are danc­ing and the mi­cro­phone hits your teeth and it’s sloppy, I like the en­ergy. I’m not frag­ile as an artist or a per­former. You can’t be in those en­vi­ron­ments.”

Cur­rently the man­ager of ed­u­ca­tion and pub­lic pro­gram­ming at the Na­tional Mu­sic Cen­tre in Cal­gary, Knights’ 10-year bar ed­u­ca­tion is just one of the fac­tors in her evo­lu­tion as an artist. She is also a world trav­eller, hav­ing lived in Ger­many, Thai­land and New Zea­land at var­i­ous points in her life.

“Some of it was for school, some of it was for love, some of it was just to see the world,” she says.

She also stud­ied clas­si­cal and opera singing as a child, an ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­ity she said her par­ents en­rolled her in to “keep me out of trou­ble.”

While Knights’ for­mi­da­ble pipes may seem dis­tinctly suited for R & B, dark soul and soul­ful blues these days, she says study­ing clas­si­cal mu­sic helped her find her voice.

“The mus­cles you de­velop and the con­trol you can have over your voice and the tone and the qual­ity of your voice was huge,” she says. “Also, with clas­si­cal singing, a lot of what I sang was re­ally sad. It’s al­most like a dif­fer­ent form of the blues. Ital­ian songs about un­re­quited love. You get to know the songs and, usu­ally, they are in an­other lan­guage.

“In or­der to in­ter­pret their feel­ing, you have to know what they are say­ing. So I started to deep dive into what I was say­ing and how to emote what I was say­ing even though it wasn’t al­ways a lan­guage that I spoke.

“Blues is all about dig­ging deep into that pain and al­most feel­ing it in your body as it es­capes through your mouth.”

Blues is all about dig­ging deep into that pain and al­most feel­ing it in your body as it es­capes through your mouth.

SE­BAS­TIAN BUZZALINO

Jess Knights is too diplo­matic to name the dive bars she sang in for years, but says the ex­pe­ri­ence was vi­tal in her evo­lu­tion as a per­former.

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