Published on June 28th, 2017 | by Craig Silliphant0
Jazzfest: Gillian Snider Sings Joni Mitchell
Gillian Snider sings Joni Mitchell on the PotashCorp Club Jazz Free Stage on Saturday, July 1st at noon. We chat with Snider about the show.
Gillian Snider grew up in a musical family. In fact, her Mom was a regular on The Tommy Hunter Show (she was one of the Allan Sisters) and in addition to owning a couple of record labels, her Dad was music director for the CBC from the late 50s to the mid-70s.
On Saturday, July 1st, at the PotashCorp Club Jazz Free Stage (from noon to 1:30 PM), The Gillian Snider Quintet will pay homage to icon Joni Mitchell, with Gillian Sings Joni. I had a chat with Gillian about her own music, as well as what drew her to doing a cover session of Mitchell songs, and what has become of Mitchell’s legacy in Saskatoon, a city with a complicated relationship to the star.
THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY: I know your parents were very musical. How much of a role did that have in getting you into music? What instruments do you play?
GILLIAN SNIDER: We always had musicians in our house rehearsing, and we got to go on tour with them every summer, and as kids we also spent a good deal of time at Uncle Dave’s music store waiting for our piano lessons from our grandfather. I kind of rebelled against my father in my late teens, though, when I decided to study classical repertoire at the Royal Conservatory and only sing in choral ensembles. I have played piano my whole life, and but I write songs primarily on the accordion and guitar — which I play poorly at best!
TFS: How long have you been playing professionally now?
GS: I guess my first professional gig was when I was six and all of the Tommy Hunter casts’ kids were hired to sing on one of the Tommy Hunter Show Specials. My next professional gig was when I was forty.
TFS: A pretty broad question, but what have you been doing musically for the last few years?
GS: I’ve got my fingers in a lot of musical pies right now. I still play the occasional jazz gig with my favourite Saskatoon musicians, but my focus has been on my own project The Whiskey Jerks. We’ve gone on a couple of tours west and we’re touring east at the end of August. We released our debut album ‘Neat.’ in 2015 and we’re currently recording our second album ‘Baba Was A Bootlegger’ to be released officially in the fall (we already released an EP with four songs from that album, called ‘Just A Sip’).
Another musical project close to my heart is The Ray Elliott Band (Ray is a wonderful ‘canadianamericana’ story-telling songwriter). There’s The Lost Highway Navigators which emulates that wonderful old-time country sound, and I’ve also been co-writing some songs with a good friend of mine which we are now in the process of recording. So much fun!
TFS: I love this idea of doing a Joni homage show. It makes a lot of sense around these parts and for the Jazz Festival in particular. What made you want to do that?
GS: The idea just came to me at the spur of the moment — I was applying for the Sasktel Jazzfest this year and decided that I wanted to do something different and to break out of my comfort zone. And, well, I absolutely love Joni Mitchell’s music! After putting the idea across to my usual crew of kick-ass musicians and getting a unanimous ‘yes,’ I applied for a spot at this year’s Jazzfest and then approached Don Griffith about doing a show at the Bassment in the spring. He agreed, and it was an absolute success! Folks love Joni Mitchell’s music, and easily identify her songs with events in their own lives that hold meaning. And, being in Saskatoon, there were a lot of people at the Bassment that knew her personally. It was probably the most intimidating show that I’ve ever performed, but I look forward to doing it again at Jazzfest!
TFS: What have you learned about her songs and style by learning this set? What are you bringing to it from your own point of view? Or will it be covers that are meant to sound as much like Joni as possible?
GS: It was a difficult task deciding which facet of Joni Mitchell’s amazing musical career to perform: the popular tunes, or the really cool jazz projects like ‘Mingus?’ I decided that for our first homage to Joni Mitchell’s music, we would focus primarily on her most recognizable songs, and also the jazz standards that she decided to cover on her 2000 release ‘Both Sides Now.’
Her earliest songs affected so many people and also broke the barriers of traditional folk music. Alongside the music, I’ve also included some personal stories associated with the songs that we’re performing, as well as some of Joni’s story, at least what I could glean from interviews. As far as the music goes, her songs are so complex and brilliantly written, I thought it best to keep them as true to the originals as possible. The jazz standards are, on the other hand, fair game.
TFS: I wrote an article years ago that talked about how Saskatoon was sort of stalking Joni Mitchell. We think of her as ‘ours,’ but she only really lived her for a couple of years; she was also raised in Alberta for a time. And of course, years after that article, Saskatoon and Joni had a bit of a falling out over some comments she had made. What do you think of all this? Are we historically oddly obsessed with Joni and her fame? Have we broken up more recently? Where does Joni’s Saskatoon legacy sit now?
GS: It’s funny, I haven’t really paid much attention to this supposed falling out, or whatever it is…I know that she’s always spoken her mind very frankly, but I’d still never presume to know how she feels about most things, nor would I venture an opinion. The only Joni that I’ve ever explored is her music. She said once in an interview that, “people always get everything wrong — when someone gets something right I’m always delighted, you know?” And that, “being interviewed guarantees misunderstanding…but I don’t go around feeling misunderstood, I don’t hold onto it.”
The thing that I think about mostly when it comes to Joni and Saskatoon, is the attachment that she’s always had with her long-time friends here and her parents who she visited often. I think that Joni’s Saskatoon legacy lies in Nutana High School’s yearbook of ’57 — when asked what her ambition was, she responded “Not to be a Latin Professor”. I think that’s brilliant!
TFS: That’s a great way to look at it. So, what other Jazzfest shows are you really excited about? Why?
GS: I’m pretty excited to see Kenny Barron at the Bassment. He’s an absolute brilliant jazz pianist. And I already have tickets to see Ms. Lisa Fischer and Grand Baton. It’s going to be such a great show.
TFS: What do you think of the Jazzfest mandate of booking local acts to play alongside international acts?
GS: I think it’s amazing! That’s what I love so much about Saskatoon — our International Jazz Festival makes a point of showcasing our local talent and the Jazz Intensive Program gives high school students the opportunity to be mentored by famous international artists, and share the stage with them. How cool is that?