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