Jessica Speziale has a special connection to Prince George. She has family relations here, it is like a western home away from home for the Toronto pop-rocker, but the best part for her is the audience base that has welcomed her music. Her show here tonight is essentially sold out, just like the others have been in recent years. She is excited to meet that extended family at Nancy O's.
Speziale is bringing a special gift. Her new EP of original songs is at the front of this concert appearance.
"This particular project has been 100 per cent the result of twists and turns, soul searching, getting to know myself, getting over fear," she said. "I look at every single song on this record and remember having to go back and re-work it because what we had wasn't right so we had to go through it all again. There was some identity crisis for me and my sound, and it all came out in the making of this record, and the whole project is so much stronger for having to break through all that. We are calling the EP Awakening and that's because it truly was, and I'm so proud of it and passionate about it."
Her life-partner and music-partner, Darnell Toth, agreed that this project was more labour than most. Speziale is such an effortless power-vocalist and such a dexterous musician that no one style seemed to predominate. As a studio producer, Toth is used to building a sound around the natural fits and feels of the artist at the microphone but Speziale kept defying genre logic. A lot of people offered advice. There were many cooks in the kitchen, so to speak.
Finally, he said, it was time to make some difficult decisions. The most important one turned out to be shutting off the outside input and looking inward.
"There was a lot of trial and error, a lot of experimentation, but eventually we just said 'why don't we all just let Jess do what she wants to do?' and that worked every time."
It wasn't so much a compromise as it was a practical reality that they recorded two versions of each song. Part of the genre confusion had to do with presenting the songs in concert, since many shows could only be done in an acoustic and intimate format even though she kept gravitating in the studio to big, loud blasts. So they concluded it would be smarter and more authentic to give both those mirror images on the EP.
She used Dave Grohl's acoustic version of Everlong performed live on the Howard Stern Show as her inspiration for turning a growly, gravelly rock tune into an unplugged alternate that audiences re-loved or discovered for different reasons than the original.
The stripped down version is what Canada got to hear on their trip from Toronto. Toth and Speziale were the onboard entertainers on the Via Rail journey that wended all the way to Vancouver where they shifted gears and dove into the tumult of Juno Week.
"We are seeing it happen, but rock kinda disappeared for awhile and it's getting stronger again," said Toth. "Jess is bringing rock back. Whenever people at Juno Week would ask her what her genre was, she'd say rock and everyone would say 'thank you, finally, yes, do that, we need it' so everything is lining up."
"It's such a beautiful time for music," Speziale said. "There's nothing standing between the artist and the audience anymore. We have all the communication tools to meet each other and share the experience. People will find the stuff they like."
She makes it easy for her fans to find her. In the modern music world of streaming platforms and social media, the word 'fan' doesn't even apply like it did when the music star was an alter-ego up on a disconnected stage or impersonal screen. Speziale hosts a weekly internet show where she plays whatever music happens to be on her mind and the fans can make comments, she can make responses, all in real time. She calls it Sunday Chunes, and it's like inviting the world into her living room each weekend. It is still TV, in a sense, but it has portals through the so-called "fourth wall" of theatre.
"I used to go to the MuchMusic studios when I was young and watch their Intimate & Interactive performances," Speziale said. "I loved being there," up close with the acts and usually hearing a stripped-down version of the big hits, and when she fashioned Sunday Chunes those memories were on her mind.
"How do we have a fan experience that is connected to the music? How do we interact with fans when we aren't out on tour?," she wondered, and these conversational social media broadcasts were the answer.
Via Rail was another kind of answer, getting to perform sometimes multiple times to the same people in a venue as big as a condo kitchen. Even people's breathing could be detected as she performed on the rails. Some artists might find that setting to be claustrophobic or too vulnerable, but Speziale and Toth were energized by the closeness.
It even inspired them to work on a song, as they wheeled westward through Canada. Prince George will get the first sample of a tune called The Orchid that they composed on the roll.
Speziale will be in the spotlight tonight at Nancy O's with special guest Selina B. Showtime is 9 p.m. Admission at the door is $15 if any tickets remain.