Living a musical life: Together again with Ottawa’s Megan Jerome

Megan Jerome and her mates in the Together Ensemble, Fred Guignion, Mike Essoudry and Don Cummings. Photo: Alan Dean

Singer-songwriter-teacher Megan Jerome’s most recent album is 2017’s Ooh Aah. She will be performing her music in concert on Monday at the NAC’s Fourth Stage with her mates in the Together Ensemble. Before the concert, she answered some questions from ARTSFILE about her music and her life.

Q. Tell me a bit about yourself.

A. I was born in Sudbury but I moved here shortly after. I’m one of five kids. My dad was James Jerome and when he was Speaker of the House of Commons we lived at Kingsmere, Quebec until I was about five years old.

The rest of the time I’ve been in Ottawa. I went to Immaculata High School and then Queen’s University for engineering and then Carleton University for music.

Q. When did you come to music?

A. I grew up in a really musical family. There was always music playing in the house — Frank Sinatra, Oscar Peterson — my dad played piano by ear every night for hours. We gathered around the piano and played and sang and danced most Sundays after dinner, whether it was a party or just a family dinner. My brothers played guitar, a bit of snare drum, everyone in my family loves music, is musical, and can sing and play. 

We played old music, spirituals and jazz standards from the Great American Songbook. That was our mix.

My parents also enrolled me in piano lessons, traditional lessons, from when I was about five until I graduated from high school — until I could teach — that was my parents’ idea. I loved playing piano and my parents were very laid back about practice and exams. They just encouraged me when I went to the piano, and the one time I thought I wanted to quit lessons they encouraged me to stay with lessons until I could teach.

I think they had a really early sense that being a music teacher might be a wonderful life for me.

I’ve always loved kids. I babysat in high school, and then would end up teaching those kids piano. I taught skiing throughout high school and got a lot of piano students that way as well. 

And I loved teaching piano. Even as a very little girl I used to dress up in my big sister’s clothes and teach piano lessons to my friends when they came over.

There’s a picture of a friend and me in tie-on roller skates sitting at the piano together — we must have been six years old.

Q. What is your musical home?

A. My musical home is exactly that described above: melodies, songs, love songs really, spirituals and jazz standards is where I come from. 

Songs like: May the Circle Be Unbroken, Down By the Riverside, Dry Bones and many spirituals like them. Yhe standards we played were along the lines of Paper Moon, Sunny Side of the Street, Five Foot Two Eyes of Blue. We had a kind of family repertoire — no charts or sheets — all just by ear, taught to each other, that we loved to sing and play.

These are my real musical influences, these times of music and also of stories, really funny stories around the dinner table.

It wasn’t just the happy times either. My brother Joey died when he was 22. I was 12. We sang then, too.

We had certainly many joyful times as a family but many difficult times as well, and music was there through it all. We knew celebration and grieving.

Q. Tell me about the Together Ensemble?

A. We’ve been playing together for about five years, and have recorded two albums as a band — Together Ensemble (2014) and Ooh Aah (2017). The Together Ensemble is Fred Guignion (guitar), Don Cummings (keyboards) and drummer Mike Essoudry. (They will be joined Monday by singer Anders Drerup).

We stay together as a band because we love the music, we love the way it feels, we love the experience of playing together, of performing together. 

I take care of all of the aspects of putting on my concerts. I write the songs and the lyrics. I rent the venue, I write the press material, I make the posters. I work with Agnes Malkinson of Bytown Sound on my website and press materials. I send releases to media and to personal email lists. 

I try to make it as easy as possible for people who might like the music to know about the music and the show.

Q. What does Megan Jerome in 2018 know that the Megan Jerome who recorded album No. 1 did not? 

A. Our first record was 2004, 14 years ago. Mike and I had been married for one year. We’re still married — that’s an amazing wonderful journey — we have a wonderful community of friends and musicians who were at our wedding and with whom we’ve now shared so many life experiences – babies, no babies, health, illness, successes and failures, times of recognition and support, times of feeling isolated and invisible. As artists we were emerging and we’re now established — that’s a lot to stay the course through. 

My parents have both died since I recorded my first record — that’s a lot to go through. 

I think I’ve always been intuitive, always listened to a strong inner voice. I may not always have called it that, but I think I am true to myself and that has always been my aim.

Mike and I  started dating at Carleton six years before we got married. Mike is wonderful. We share so many values, we have so many conversations about what we think we’re aiming for artistically, what matters to us, what worries us, when we feel we’ve gotten too far away from who we really are.

Q. Are you working on a new record? 

A. I love composing, recording and performing, and for sure will continue. I love the whole creative process. Right now I’m in an exploring phase, learning, gathering, listening, filling the well, taking time. I’m happy in all of the phases and just want to enjoy this phase now.  

Q. Being a jazz musician, being any kind of musician in Ottawa is not the easiest career. Is it hard to make ends meet?

A. I am lucky and grateful to teach piano lessons. I LOVE to teach. I love teaching at home. I love this life. I love our home. Mike and I live in a home we can afford that feels cozy and comforting to us, where we can both play, practice, teach and compose. 

I love writing music at home, practicing. I love my community in Ottawa. 

I’m not so much a jazz musician as a singer-songwriter, and my gigs are more like concerts than regular gigs. Pay for concerts can vary greatly and I feel lucky that I’m not dependent on that income to live on. I think that more and more gigging is an extremely difficult way to earn a living.

I earn my living primarily from teaching piano lessons and have also been very fortunate to receive funding for composing songs from the City of Ottawa. 

I’ve taught for more than 20 years and have honed a style that suits me, and I set up our home so that it’s comfortable and welcoming. I have a full roster of students with whom I love to work. 

This means that I have artistic freedom. I can present my own concerts, produce my own recordings, really and truly follow my heart artistically and create what moves me at a pace that feels  right to me. This is my dream life. 

Q. Do you tour a lot?

A. In 2006 Petr Cancura, Mike and I played something like 26 gigs in 28 days from here to B.C. and back. That was my first and almost my last tour. I really love the domestic artist-teaching life I’ve set up here. 

And I think that a touring life is a totally different life and path. 

Megan Jerome Together Ensemble
Where: NAC Fourth Stage
When: Dec. 17 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information: 

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.