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This article was published 27/8/2020 (388 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Even though live shows have been in short supply throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, Calgary-based country artist with Brandon roots JJ Shiplett is staying busy, having released a new album, "Crossed Fingers," this past Friday.
Outside of featuring one new track, this project is entirely comprised stripped-back or reworked versions of songs from Shiplett’s previous album, "Fingers Crossed," which debuted in March.
Since the world has changed so rapidly in such a short period of time, the 34-year-old musician, who spent a lot of his formative years in Brandon, thought it was appropriate to put together an alternate version of that original album that is alot more raw and intimate.
So, in a Aug. 17 conversation with the Sun, Shiplett talked about what went into making this new project a reality and how his artistic output has changed throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
The Brandon Sun: I know that your debut album came out in 2017, but how many years have you been playing music professionally?
JJS: I’ve been playing music for most of my life. I grew up in a super musical household. I’ve been releasing music and doing that sort of thing since about 2006 when I first released a little home recording that I had done.
But 2017, that was the release of "Something to Believe In," which is a real big shift for me, at that point, into actually making it a viable career.
SUN: What is your connection to Brandon?
JJS: I was born in Alberta, but I moved to Brandon when I was one and I lived there until I was 10. So my childhood years were spent in Brandon and I have a great love for the city. I’m still a big Brandon Wheat Kings supporter. I met Kelly McCrimmon one time and he gave me a jersey and it’s my go-to jersey whenever I want to go out and play some outdoor hockey here in Alberta.
SUN: Did growing up in Brandon factor into your decision to pursue a career in music?
JJS: My parents … really focused on teaching us the arts. And so, growing up, my parents gave me any musical instrumentation lesson that I wanted to take.
I took drums when I was a kid, I took piano, I took guitar, and it was all in Brandon. My parents … when it came to music, they wanted me and my brother and sister to have every opportunity to be able to learn it. So I’m super grateful to them for that.
SUN: After your debut album in 2017, you underwent a major career shift in 2018 when you parted ways with your label, Halo Entertainment Group. So what was that experience like?
JJS: Creating music and having business partners within art can be a really challenging thing. And it feels like one of those rites of passage to get dropped by a label. And I’m grateful for everything they did at the time, I really learned a lot from that experience, but it forced me to ask a couple questions about what direction I wanted to go in.
When you look back at your past you can always wonder about the "what ifs?" and that sort of thing, but I’m just grateful to be able to create music and do it for a living right now.
SUN: Did this experience help shape the creation of "Fingers Crossed," which came out in March 2020?
JJS: It totally did. When I was asking those big questions and I was trying to figure out who I was as an artist and as a human being, I realized that I just wanted to take the weight off of my music and I just wanted to write and sing the songs that I want to write and sing.
You can get so focused on what you think people will like and what could possibly help you get you to the next level of your career that you often are making decisions with those blinders on, and it can get so entrancing at times.
So for this (album) I just took the weight off myself and decided to sing the songs I want to sing, write the songs I want to write and play them the way I want to play them, and not really hold myself to anything other than (the idea that) "I like to sing this song."
SUN: You released that album just as the pandemic was ramping up, so was it difficult not being able to tour and do shows following its release?
JJS: We had plans to announce a tour that went right across Canada. I had many festival dates lined up, was scheduled to play at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, and I was really looking forward to that. So all together, I had just under 40 shows cancelled.
That’s a large part of what I feel like I can do well, is when I get live in front of you you can hopefully hear and feel the emotion that I’m trying to get out in a song. So without being able to play live, that really hurts me.
I did some live streaming stuff, but it’s not the same as being in front of people and connecting with people and being able to chat about it afterwards. It’s just not the same, no matter how hard we try.
SUN: That frustration you were feeling, is that part of the reason why you decided to release a stripped-back version of this album for the summer?
JJS: You’re right. I was sitting at home and I was frustrated about what I was feeling.
So I just decided to create music, that’s the thing I love to do.
Instead of sitting there and pouting about what was happening around me … I decided to get creating again, and out of that came "Crossed Fingers."
It wasn’t easy. It was challenging. It was stressful. I really tried to push myself, but I ended up with a collection of eight songs that I feel like are true, strong representations of what it’s like to hear me play and sing (live).
It’s raw. It’s me sitting there with a guitar. I tried not to be too fancy. Some songs I explored a bit more production. Other songs are really stripped back. But I just wanted it to be a "this is what it’s like when you hear JJ Shiplett sing and play guitar. "
SUN: For somebody who picked up "Fingers Crossed" in March, why should they listen to "Crossed Fingers" as well?
JJS: There’s a (new) song. It’s a song called "Bluejay Highway."
Once the COVID pandemic hit and I was doing some live shows, people kept asking for me to play that and it was an old, old song of mine. I was kind of taken aback by it because I couldn’t remember the lyrics at all.
So I dug it up and listened to it and began to rework it a little bit.
But I reworked so many of those songs from "Fingers Crossed." I took "Waiting on the Rain," which had a full production in it led by the acoustic guitar, and I just made it a massive piano ballad. I didn’t add anything else, I just made it piano.
"Closer" was a bit more of a syncopated beat on "Fingers Crossed," and I turned it into a straight-forward love song on "Crossed Fingers." "Northern Lights" I brought from a big, upbeat song that was me at the top of my range … and I brought it down and made it into a song where I’m singing in my lower register, to make it more intimate.
So I’ve explored a lot of different ideas, just trying to figure out how to make the songs connect to people even more.
SUN: Has the pandemic given you time to reflect on where you want to take your career?
JJS: It kind of forced (me) to do that. It kind of forced everybody to do that.
I’ve asked a lot of hard questions about my career and where it’s headed and what it’s going to be like. And at this point I have no clue. I don’t know if there is going to be anything left of the music industry when this all gets back to normal.
So at this point I’m trying my best just to create and stay focused on creating.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
» Twitter: @KyleDarbyson