Wiseman’s wisdom

Local singer-songwriter turned to fellow Manitoba musician to push her limits


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"You have to be willing to be uncomfortable to see results."

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/01/2015 (2876 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

“You have to be willing to be uncomfortable to see results.”

That well-worn motivational fitness adage usually refers to building muscle but, for Manitoba singer-songwriter Jess Reimer, the sentiment readily applies to making music. For her latest album, The Nightjar and the Garden, Reimer enlisted the talents of producer (and founding Blue Rodeo keyboardist) Bob Wiseman, who pushed her out of her comfort zone and demanded the best from her.

“It was an extremely challenging experience,” says Reimer, 37, over the phone from her home in La Riviere, which she shares with her husband, Jer Hamm, and their three kids.

Supplied photo Singer-songwriter Jess Reimer communes with nature.

“The ideas he came up with were so different from anything I would have come up with, which was tremendously exciting for me.”

Reimer met Wiseman at the Trout Forest Music Festival in Ear Falls, Ont., a few years ago. Wiseman, a Manitoba expat, was interested in working with an artist from his home province. So, he made the trip to La Riviere and, after a home-cooked meal, Reimer and Wiseman sat in his truck, listened to some Joni Mitchell and discussed what kind of album Reimer wanted to make.

“The vision was to meld traditional styles of writing and singing with his exciting in-depth store of musical ideas,” she says.

Wiseman went home to Toronto and Reimer sent him songs — about 20 in all. “It was interesting,” she says. “Like getting to know someone through writing letters.”

She appreciated Wiseman’s big-city bluntness: he was very clear about which songs he didn’t like and which songs he felt should go on The Nightjar and the Garden.

He also suggested Reimer tackle a pair of covers: Warren Zevon’s Heartache Spoken Here and Patti Smith’s People Have the Power. Reimer resisted initially; she had shied away from including cover songs on albums in the past.

“It’s sort of a point of pride for songwriters to have all-original music,” she says. Still, she was intrigued — particularly by the Patti Smith suggestion. She loved the lyrics — “the language is almost what you’d find in a hymnal” — but she wasn’t crazy about the melody. So, she made it her own. Her rendition of Heartache Spoken Here, meanwhile, displays a similar sense of ownership.

Those songs fit seamlessly within a tight collection of affecting alt-country tunes that will doubtlessly yield favourable Neko Case comparisons. Reimer is a gifted storyteller, painting harrowing scenes of domestic abuse (the murder ballad Maggie the Retriever) and teenage lust in a conservative small town (1,500 Appeals).

Reimer never writes songs with an album in mind, but The Nightjar and the Garden ended up taking a more personal, though not always autobiographical, bent. “There were a number that were a decade in the making,” she says. “Some of the newer ones come from experiences that were high stress or were needing an outlet.”

Perhaps the most personal entry is Whippoorwill, which is about getting pregnant with her first child at 22. Her daughter, Sofia, sings on that track. “It’s a meaningful one,” Reimer says. But then, they all are. Along with Wiseman and an estimable cast of backing musicians that includes a who’s who from the Manitoba music scene, as well as vocals from Ron Sexsmith, Reimer has set herself a new benchmark.

“I feel like everything after this (album) is icing,” she says. “I can’t ever thank (Wiseman) properly.”

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Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.

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