If you put a little Elton John, and a little Rufus Wainwright in a blender, tossed in a dash of Freddie Mercury & Ben Folds – then hit puree – you’d get Jeffery Straker. Returning to Vancouver on October 24th for two shows (details below), we caught up with Jeffery via email between gigs of his current Western Canadian tour to ask him about his music, coming out in Saskatchewan and on being a gay musician in Canada.
Tell us a little about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get into the music business?
I grew up in rural Saskatchewan on a farm near a small town of 250 people. My school was about 80-90% aboriginal and we studied Cree as a second language – not French. Pretty neat stuff! I started piano lessons when I was seven. I really liked it from the get go and, strangely, I always practiced. The rest of that path into the music business is long and convoluted but involved piano studies at the University of Regina Conservatory, then a Science Degree from the University of Saskatchewan. Then a stint with a day job in marketing/advertising in Toronto and then finally music full time for the past four years. I always played music though. In my spare time, in my un-spare time. All the time. I came out of the closet in there somewhere too. I think I was close to a piano when that happened.
Is there a single event that helped solidify for yourself where you knew you wanted to be a singer? What was it?
I always knew I wanted to be a musician. I didn’t know I wanted to be a singer. I just happen to sing. But there was an event when I knew I really wanted to give music a real 110% shot. I was visiting a great aunt in an old folks home in Toronto about eight years ago. She was really fading, didn’t know anyone’s names around her – likely Alzheimer’s had set in. I realized that day that we’re all going to encounter our “end” some day. And rather than getting depressed about it, it would be easy to, I instead thought I really wanted to enjoy each day on the way there. And it was really refreshing. I made some big life changes the very next day. It was really cathartic. I can remember the weather that day, the time of day it happened, the people’s faces around me. It was really significant. I cried actually. Some have asked “you mean your magic moment when you decided to do music full time wasn’t when you saw CHER at the ACC in Toronto on her Farewell #2 tour?”. Sadly – that wasn’t it.
Xtra described your music as “cabaret-pop”. How do you describe it?
I think that’s an apt description. I also call it “chamber pop”. I mean, to say “pop” is almost too broad these days. That could be Britney, that could be Celine, that could be Plants and Animals. So you have to give another word as a descriptor. I think the cabaret influence in this recording is quite clear! It likely comes from all my classical training.
Who are your musical influences?
Oh gosh – well I like Elton’s early stuff. I like Billy Joel’s early stuff. I listen to a lot of Joni Mitchell. I like Freddie Mercury and listen to Queen a fair bit. I love, love Ben Folds too. Sarah Slean creeps into my iPod a lot too. There are a ton of new Canadian indie recordings i’m listening to – Chan Van Gaalens stuff, Plants and Animals, Patrick Watson. All that stuff likely plays a part in what comes out of me. I think it’s impossible to hear something you like, and NOT have it influence your creativity.
Where was your first ticketed concert? How old were you?
My god – that’s a good question – hmmmm – my first ticketed concert, ticketed by Ticketmaster was at the Mae Wilson Theatre in Moose Jaw Saskatchewan – early this year! I’ve had on-line ticketing for for awhile though for bigger shows. for smaller shows it doesn’t make sense – paying at the door is way easier for everyone
Are all your songs based on personal experiences?
No actually, many of them are but some are just from ‘occurrences’ in my head!
What is your song-writing process like?
It’s all over the map. These days I write from a groove. In the past I wrote from a ‘title’ idea. So in the past the lyrics came first. Now it’s the music I’m clinging to first. Weird! I like writing about characters though. Stories of people around me are what I gravitate to.
The Chicago Free Press adds you to the list of “Canadians making essential and beautiful music” that included Rufus Wainwright and k.d. lang. How does it feel to be placed in with such illustrious company?
<LOL> That was bizarre to read, quite honestly. It’s really really nice and flattering though. Perhaps the reviewer was drunk?
Your video Hypnotized made the top 10 on Much More Music earlier this year. What was the video making process like for you and has it helped with recognition?
Making that video was such a fun, fun experience. The production company – Rawfootage Productions – was so good. They totally ‘get’ what being an indie musician is and made it easy for me. the cast were all volunteers. The piano was also donated. Craigslist was invaluable in all this! The video has very much helped with building awareness of my music across the country on TV and on-line. It’s now playing in the US too on a syndicated video show which has been great. Sasktel Max on demand has it as a demand video which has really been watched a lot across Saskatchewan, and it’s just been added to Channel Zero in Quebec. You just can’t predict which things you do will get noticed – if anything. So it was a treat to have it out there. I was honestly surprised at how many people actually still watch Much More Music. I thought people had tuned out of TV – but not so.
You just embarked on what looks like a pretty gruelling two month tour across Western Canada. What motivates you to do a tour and what keeps you motivated while on tour?
I like performing. Really love it actually. I love meeting people who like my music too. You just have to tour to promote your music – it’s Music Promo 101. Luckily I like doing it. I remember reading that Carley Simon loved making music but would vomit before every show, so she had to stop touring. That would suck! Luckily I don’t do that.
Where do you find your backup band and singers?
My backing singer is my sister. I found her in the next room growing up. The rest of them are musicians from Regina. My bass player Rob introduced me to the rest of the lot. He seems to know everyone. I have a backing singer in Toronto too – Kim. She’s awesome. I met her via a mutual friend. I think that’s the way it happens. You mine the degrees of separation and find people that way. You have to like what people sound like to play with them! I recall early on putting an ad in the NOW magazine in Toronto looking for musicians. it was bloody awful! The ‘auditions’ were just horrible. Advice to others: don’t do that.
Any plans on taking the show into the USA?
I toured in the US a few years ago – ten dates on the Eastern side – Boston, NYC, New Jersey – it was really really well received. I will do it again. I just hate the thought of the paperwork to be honest. I have a great booking agency now so hopefully they can help get me down there.
We heard rumours of a possible tour in China – is that still on the table?
The China tour has been post-poned due to H1N1. Damn it! There is a crazy quarantine process going on over there and we were booked into a few festivals near Beijing. The chance that we’d get quarantined and have to miss the festival was too risky for the promoter. So Western Canada is now the tour destination – not China. I’ll likely stop at Chinese restaurants all the way along the tour just for shits and giggles though. Every small town has good Chinese food. And Vancouver has some wicked Chinese food. I have performed in China in the past – it was a blast.
I know our readers will want to know – are you attached?
Sort of? <LOL>
Have you ever dated a fan?
Hmmmm – I have gone on a few dates with fans in the past – it has never turned into anything. Siggghhhhhhhh…
Do you prefer to date other musicians/entertainers?
That would be a big NO!
You’re from small town Saskatchewan and as we understand it still spend a lot of time there. How was the coming out process for you as part of rural Canada?
I spend a lot of time in Regina/Saskatoon but not a lot in small town Saskatchewan anymore. Coming out was tough to be honest. Gay didn’t exist in small town Saskatchewan. It barely does now. It’s a different planet when it comes to ‘gay’. I came out just after I left. I was in university. However I shouldn’t say ‘gay’ didn’t exist as there were a few gay guys in our tiny town. like FLAMING gay! Like grab the fire extinguisher flaming. But they never came out – if you can believe that. That’s just ‘how they were’ – they were different. They didn’t hold hands with guys or date guys. They were just ‘different’. So people knew it existed but pretended it didn’t. Strange, but true! However EVERYONE there knows i’m gay now and really doesn’t care at all. I’m really out when I perform. I have a couple really gay songs and many ‘fairly’ gay songs. People get it. I think if the music resonates it resonates. It actually helps people grasp the concept of gay. that we’re not all monsters!
I certainly don’t go around trying to be a spokesperson for the gay movement – but I’m very aware that the more people see, hear and interact with someone who us gay and out they more it helps them realize it’s ok.
Have you experienced any roadblocks as an out-gay man trying to break into the Canadian music business?
Early on I had people tell me that I shouldn’t act gay or sing ‘gay’ songs. But frankly I’ve realized it’s not true. I just performed at the Western Canadian Music Awards in Bandon – quite a ‘cowboy’ town and one of my showcases was set up in a country bar! And honestly, it went over quite well. This was an extreme case of bad programming on the festival’s part but it actually went over really well. I was shocked too. I think because it’s genuine and that I’m not hiding anything helps people enjoy it. It becomes awkward and painful when you see someone who is gay singing about the other sex, etc. There still are people around who think it can hurt you if you’re out.
Where would you like to see yourself in five years time?
Drinking tea with Betty at Windsor Castle in England. No question.
What’s next for Jeffrey Straker?
Late November, early December I’m taking a trip to visit my dear dear friends in Ireland ( I did some university there). December I’m writing for a new recording in the new year. Gasp! That’s the first time I’ve said that! I guess its out now.
Jeffery plays two shows in Vancouver on October 24th:
2pm – Burnaby Lake Rugby Club (Clubhouse), 3760 Sperling Ave, Burnaby
9pm – Libra Room Cafe, 1608 Commercial Drive, Vancouver