NAC Presents: Elizabeth Shepherd pays tribute to her hometown with new album MONtreal

Elizabeth Shepherd. Photo: Richmond Lam

The Montreal-based jazz singer Elizabeth Shepherd just loves her hometown of Montreal … so much so she’s dedicated a good chunk of her artistic life what has become a multi-media project to telling the stories of people who live in the city. On Thursday night she will perform some of that music inside the NAC’s Fourth Stage but before the show she answered some questions from ARTSFILE.

Q. This is album No. 6 for you. Album No. 1, Start To Move, was a debut success story in 2006. What would that Elizabeth say to Elizabeth circa 2018?

A. Keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t get sidetracked by trying to make it, by trying to sound a certain way, by trying anything other than trying to hear what it is you have to say. 

Q. For those who have not heard you, can you describe your music. Are you a “jazz singer with a pop sensibility?”

A. Yes — I would say I’m that. I’m a jazz musician who incorporates elements of funk, soul and hip-hop. I love the accessibility of pop music and find esoteric music to be at times taxing. I want to connect with people, so I try to make music that is challenging, that you can sink your teeth into, but that you don’t need a degree in something or other to get.

Q. Your last album The Signal saw you collaborating with Herbie Hancock band member Lionel Loueke. Was that collaboration important for you?

A. It was a great collaboration in that the musical fruit of it was beautiful. Lionel was passing through town, playing at the Upstairs Jazz Club. I went to the show, and asked him if he’d be on my album. He said he dug the music, and agreed. It’s simple when it comes to musicians. The takeaway lesson for me is that even if you revere someone, don’t be shy. Musicians across the board just appreciate good music, and if they see that, they’re on board.

Q. The new album is about Montreal. What was the spark for it?

A. Here’s what I put in my liner notes, which I feel sums it up quite succinctly: Montreal is my home; while I’ve moved around so much in my life, starting from the time I was two years old, Montreal is the place I’ve always returned to. It is also the family home, and my own spiritual home. That said, I’ve always felt a little on the outside; people ask where my French accent is from (I learned French in France as a child/teenager and the accent there is very different from the Québécois accent).  The next question to follow is inevitably ‘Where are you really from?’ — as though the answer ‘from Montreal’ didn’t quite cut it. It made me pause and wonder how many people similarly call this great city home, yet also feel that their claiming it as their own is sometimes called into question. So I wanted to see if I was right, if Montrealers have as complex a relationship to this place as I do.

Five years ago, I set out to interview people — complete strangers that I met on the street, at the market, in the subway. I asked them to tell me something about their story, their Montreal. I collected all kinds of tales — some humorous, some tragic, some outright bizarre. I then sifted through the interviews and narrowed them down to 11, which I then wrote into songs. The bulk are in French, and some are in English — which accurately reflects our bilingual city’s divide. Each song tells someone’s story, and refers to a specific location in Montreal. From there, the project exploded. I realized that I could place each of these locations that I was singing about on a map, and that they were all within walking distance of each other. I then decided to create a 60-minute walk that, in the time it takes to listen to all 11 songs, would also physically take the listener through each of the places the songs were about — so people can actually walk the album, so to speak. But then what about those who can’t be in Montreal? That’s when the idea of the film entered in.

What I learned over these past five years cannot be summed up quickly, which is why I have also written a book that touches on the people and places behind the story, the ongoing changing nature of this city, and raises the bigger question of whose history is being told, and whose history has become invisible over time.

MONtreal is a play on words: in French, the word mon means my. So it’s really about my Montreal.

Q. The cover art is pretty cool. Who did that? Have you worked with them before? 

A. I had never worked with Gene Pendon before. He’s a world-famous Montreal-based graffiti artist I met through Stefan Verna, the videographer I work with. Gene did the 22-storey mural of Leonard Cohen in downtown Montreal, as well as a number of murals of jazz artists around town.

Q. The album (and presumably the entire project) is bilingual. Why? 

A. I am bilingual, the city is bilingual. Part of the reason I feel so at home in Montreal is because of its unique bi-culturalism. I grew up between English Canada, Montreal, and France, so Montreal seems like the common ground. I exist in both languages, and wanted to flex both those muscles when writing. It also would be an innacurate representation of the city to do either French / or English.

Q. One song carries a title in Mohawk? How did you come to write Tio’tia:ke? 

A. It’s the opening song on the album. I felt it important to recognize the origins of this place from the very beginning — it’s first people, it’s original name. Tio’tia:ke means “where the currents meet” in Kanien’kéha. It’s the most poetic name for this place that I’ve yet to hear.

NAC Presents Elizabeth Shepherd
Where: Fourth Stage
When: Nov. 15 at 8:30 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.