by Roman Mitz for Open Spaces
Every successful performer can recall one big break that helped propel their career forward. For Calgary-based roots rocker JJ Shiplett, that break came in the form of acclaimed and much-awarded Canadian country icon Johnny Reid, who first heard the singer on another performer’s record. The fateful encounter with Johnny actually came while JJ was just putting the finishing touches on a new independent album.
“I met Johnny a couple of years ago,” says the gravel-throated Albertan, whose voice sounds even raspier during our early morning cross-country phone conversation. “I had sung on a song called ‘Truce’ by Joni Delaurier, and Johnny heard it and reached out to me. I was in Kingston recording a record that I’d financed on my own and I was mixing it at the Bathouse Studio which is the Tragically Hip’s studio. I finished on a Friday and on Sunday I flew from Toronto to Nashville and started another record with Johnny. I think that both of us connected on pretty even ground. We have different styles of music that we like but we both appreciate it the same way. We both really want to put our heart and soul into it because so much art out there is just manufactured. That’s how Johnny and I connected and from there it blossomed into him becoming my manager. Johnny guided me every day and he’d chat about how I can survive the somewhat crazy music industry where there are so many moving parts and so many different opinions. I’m also pumped about the album being released on a major label because not a lot of artists get the opportunity to do that,”
Once they wrapped the album entitled ‘Something To Believe In’, JJ issued a teaser EP featuring four of the six songs that he would perform as the opening act for Reid on his 2016 Canadian tour. The singer put out his debut record ‘Drifter’ in 2012 and five of the songs from that album reappear on Something To Believe In, along with six new tracks. JJ’s calling card on all of the numbers is his exceptional and immediately captivating voice. Some liken him to Bob Seger (“It doesn’t hurt that I have long hair and a beard”) while others cite Chris Stapleton as a reference point. The singer’s unique pipes don’t really fit those molds, nor do they readily lend themselves to one particular musical niche.
“It takes time to develop your voice and it takes time to develop the style and character that comes with it,” he says. “Some of it is conscious and some of it is sub-conscious. I’ve always tried to put as much emotion in my voice as I possibly can. As far as my musical niche, I would say its roots music but it’s fortunate that the people in the Canadian Country Music industry have been very kind to me and welcomed me with open arms. Isn’t roots just rock and roll, country and folk kind of all put together? Just look at how many great songwriters throughout the ages have combined those three styles. It’s just rock and roll but I understand the sub-genre is happening because people need to file it somewhere.”
The record begins with title track which starts off with JJ softly singing over an acoustic guitar, but gradually builds and peaks with the killer chorus. The song is about building faith, but it also has an autobiographical tone as strong belief is what’s sustained the singer through the years.
“Oh yeah, there have been times where it’s waned a bit, but a little bit of self-doubt isn’t bad for somebody,” he says. “It’s been a long journey and right now there’s a bit more light at the end of the tunnel than there’s been at other times. It’s been a hell of a fun ride. I’ve been able to go across the nation multiple times and make friends that I would never dreamed to have been able to make if it wasn’t for music. Now I just need to keep it going. The ball feels like it’s starting to roll but now we have to really get it moving.”
Another very personal song on the record is ‘Sorrow’ in which the singer reflects on losing his father as a teenager, and the grip of hardness and sadness that fell over his household as a result. (“I just kind of looked at the sorrow and called it out, saying its time has come and it was time for a new season in our home.”) “Higher Ground” is more upbeat courtesy of some jangling guitar and an infectious melody, and this very much reflects JJ’s philosophy on substance over style.
“You know, I read a quote from (alt country singer) Brandi Carlile when she was talking about too many artists focusing on vintage rather than timelessness. Although you can go out and get the coolest vintage tone, you have to remember that the song is the most important thing. The song is king, and it’s all about coming from the heart for me. I don’t write that many songs because it takes quite a bit for me to hammer them out and ensure they’re coming from my gut. We have enough music these days written by a couple of guys in a room with fluorescent lighting and green walls. They write the song and pass it on to the artist and although there can be a ton of emotion in the performance, I want to be the guy who put his soul into it and left everything on the stage.”
JJ includes a couple of lyrically ambitious numbers on the album including ‘Waters’ in which he describes a strong connection with the elements and reincarnation. The singer is hopeful that people will dive deep into the lyrics but, if not, he still wants them to feel the emotion of the song. On the other side of the coin you have “Am I Dear” which features a rollicking barrelhouse piano that suggests there may a honky-tonker within JJ waiting to break out.
“I hope so because I’ve been searching for him,” he laughs. “I love those old type of tunes, and when we were piecing that song together we added that barroom piano to it. At the end of the song we decided that a singalong would be good so we got a bunch of buddies together in the studio and we gave them some whisky. It was like ‘Ok, boys, in a little while you’re going to sing but first you need to drink a bit more’. We tried to give it the most authentic feel that we could.”
JJ takes his inspiration for songs from his everyday life occurrences. In ‘Loaded Like A Freight Train’ he’s spurred on by ‘the wisdom of a record machine’ and his flirtations with a waitress. Still, none of his songs have that bro-country vibe fueled by whisky, women and endless partying. ‘Darling Let’s Go Out Tonight’ is a song about enjoying the night life but the undercurrent of the tune is really about rekindling a relationship. ‘Seeking Shelter’, a sure fire single with a serious hook, is actually his paean to his fellow group members.
“As far as Darling Let’s Go Out Tonight goes, I was heavy into a lot of Springsteen. I always love the way he tells a story of a relationship gone awry, that sort of rekindles and finds its way back. I’ve never been in a relationship when something’s gone that awry but I feel like everybody’s kind of been in that moment where they need to make a conscious effort to fix things or to just try harder.
“Seeking Shelter is about the emotion of coming off the road with the boys in the band,” he continues. “When you’re on the road and things are good you just feel invincible, but when things don’t go good it’s just a struggle. I wrote that song with the idea that we’re all in this together and there’s going to be times when I need to lead the guys home and others where they need to lead me home. That thought brought me all of the emotion I needed and I knew if I put some angst into it and sang my guts out, the song would translate.”
Speaking of the road, look for JJ to embark on a cross country tour in the near future. In the meantime the singer is soaking in as much hockey as possible. He’s a huge fan and can spend hours on end talking about the game. Strategically, however, the subject of the Calgary Flames who have thus far had a woeful season, was best left for the end of the interview.
“That’s okay because I’m a Leafs fan,” he crows. “I lived and went to high school in Whitby where I developed a strong taste for the Leafs. There are a couple of Flames fans in my band and they’re fighting through things right now. It’s the same thing I went through with the Leafs. There were way too many years of darkness, but now they’re pointed in the right direction.”
Roman Mitz on Facebook Click Here