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Jazz for justice

Motherhood gave musician jolt to put social passion into songs

Motherhood gave musician Elizabeth Shepherd a jolt to put her social passion into her songs.


Motherhood gave musician Elizabeth Shepherd a jolt to put her social passion into her songs.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/11/2014 (2088 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Three years ago, Elizabeth Shepherd's world was rocked by the arrival of her baby girl.

Indeed, becoming a mother -- to a daughter, specifically -- was altering for the Montreal soul-jazz innovator, putting her feminist politics and passion for social justice into sharp relief. A switch flipped.

Written during her pregnancy and right after her daughter's birth, the songs that compose Shepherd's fifth record, the stunning, challenging The Signal, reflect that change in perspective. What's Happening tackles the controversial charter of Quebec values proposed last year that would seek to prohibit all public-sector workers from wearing religious symbols. The song Lion's Den was inspired by a harrowing story about a 12-year-old Ethiopian girl who was beaten and gang-raped by seven men who were chased away by three female lions. Another Day, meanwhile, is dedicated to Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin -- the unarmed, 17-year-old African-American boy who was fatally shot by a 30-year-old white man named George Zimmerman, who claimed it was an act of self-defence and was acquitted.

Elsewhere are songs about the societal expectations and pressures placed on mothers, female archetypes and Monsanto.

"While I've always been interested in social justice and what makes for a good life and good world for everyone -- I don't think I really put that into song before," says Shepherd, over the phone from Montreal. "There was a disconnect for whatever reason. Maybe I thought people didn't want to hear about that. Or maybe I didn't feel the need as strongly. And giving birth to a daughter and having that massive perspective change and starting to look at the world much more critically and see that this is not an abstraction. This world is the one she's going to grow up in.

"I felt like this is what I have to write about because this is what I care most deeply about. Before, it was more about my own self and my personal angst and complexes and love stories or whatever. It's not that those things don't matter; there are things that matter more."

Becoming a mother also forced the three-time Juno nominee to get creative with her time -- something she didn't have the luxury of. "I couldn't say, 'I'm going to sit and write for a month.' It was more like, 'I have 40 minutes while she's napping.' Or, 'I have an idea and I'm breastfeeding so let me grab my one free hand and go.'"

The record's final song, Baby Steps, features a looped sample of her daughter's giggles. "I was working on an idea. I hit record and she liked the idea and she laughed. It worked."

Shepherd gave herself creative assignments to keep herself on task -- particularly when she was feeling tired, emotionally depleted and bereft of ideas. The title track, for one example, was built on samples from her favourite radio show, CBC's The Signal, hosted by Laurie Brown.

"I was spending a lot of time at home in this mommy bubble -- which is a beautiful thing, but it's also very disconnected with a certain face of the rest of the world. I was feeling like I had nothing to say, but then it was like, 'No, no, no you have something to say -- you just have to dig for it and here's how you're going to find it.'"

A rich soul/jazz/hip hop tapestry crafted from grooves, loops and inspired collaborations with veteran jazz guitarist Lionel Loueke (Herbie Hancock, Gretchen Parlato), The Signal is as smart, challenging and imaginative musically as it is lyrically, and it rewards its listeners a thousand times over. (It's best experienced on a good pair of headphones.) While some might not think of jazz as an avenue for political commentary the same way that, say, hip hop or punk rock are, Shepherd would argue that is absolutely is.

"I feel like jazz is a huge word that has not only become hyper-narrow and super-focused and elitist, but has also been watered down so that what is allowed within and associated with the word jazz is a lot of terrible shlock and really not challenging music in any way.

"To me, that's the antithesis of jazz. Jazz has always been about freedom, expression and dialogue -- and a vehicle for social justice. I feel like in Canada especially, the J-word is a curse. It's like, 'Oh, so you do lite lounge music.' The assumption is not 'Oh, you do progressive music that demands something of your listener.'"

Shepherd doesn't concern herself with labels these days. She makes the kind of music she wants to hear in the world. "My own personal reasons for doing this are my own," she says. "I grew up in the Salvation Army (she was raised by ministers) and music was a huge part of it. It was a form of spiritual expression and communion with something other than oneself. And it was also big into social justice in a lot of ways.

"While I took some distance from the Salvation Army, I feel like when you have a kid you start to revisit and reinterpret your own roots. I've come back to this mandate of music as a vehicle for spiritual growth and expression and that it can be something that challenges people and gets them thinking about social justice."

The Signal does both. And it's also one of the coolest records of 2014.

"I really care about it," she says of the album. "I had a vision for how I wanted it to be, how I wanted it to sound and how I wanted it to look. It feels great as an artist to have a vision that is that crystal clear and to feel like you've really executed it."

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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Updated on Thursday, November 27, 2014 at 5:43 AM CST: Replaces photo

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