Music

Elizabeth Shepherd shares love of jazz and ’90s hip hop

Not your grandpa's jazz singer
Not your grandpa's jazz singer

Elizabeth Shepherd cruises east on Highway 1, her baby daughter dozing in the back of their Subaru. With her husband, she’s driving east to Brandon, Manitoba, where she’ll perform the following night. As the frozen prairie glides past, the internationally celebrated jazz artist is thinking about what it means to live on this complicated planet.

“Becoming a mother really forced me to take my responsibilities as a human seriously,” the Montréal-based singer and pianist says over the phone. “There’s this little person looking up to me. It made me realize that I’m responsible for someone else and that we’re all collectively responsible for generations to come.”

From this global awareness comes The Signal, Shepherd’s fifth album. It’s a swirling mix of world politics, Rhodes piano, ’90s hip hop and feminism. It’s a mature, accessible record full of ideas that will likely open new audiences for the Juno and Polaris Music Prize-nominated artist.

The Signal deals with serious subjects: Monsanto’s enforced monoculture in India; Quebec’s proposed ban on religious symbols; a tribute to Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina; and the story of a 12-year-old Ethiopian girl who was saved from a group of seven rapists by female lions. These are songs about women—triumphant women, oppressed women—and Shepherd calls the record her “personal feminist manifesto.”

The sonic inspiration is as far-reaching as the subject matter. Shepherd says she had a sheltered childhood musically, raised with only Salvation Army brass band and classical piano. Her mid-to-late teens were years of voracious discovery, where she eagerly consumed the rock and pop she’d missed.

But it was hip hop that sealed her destiny. She remembers falling in love with ’90s hip hop—she dated a rapper for seven years who introduced her to the streetwise rhymes, tight drums and samples.

“I was really drawn to the samples in this Fugees record,” Shepherd says. “Then I was reading the notes and I found it was a Herbie Hancock sample. And that’s really how I got into jazz, from working backwards from hip hop. Hip hop really is the grandchild of jazz.”

For The Signal, Shepherd got to work with one of her heros: Lionel Loueke, legendary guitarist for Herbie Hancock and other jazz giants. Keenly aware of the New York-based Loueke’s huge standing in the jazz world, Shepherd nevertheless mustered up the courage to ride her bike up the street to a Montréal jazz club where he was performing. She humbly handed him some music and told him she wanted to work with him.

To her astonishment, Loueke called her up from New York and a musical partnership was born.

“I love his musical voice,” Shepherd says. “He’s really about the music. And he’s very generous and humble so I felt very at ease.”

The Signal, with its confidence and groove, is jazz with broad appeal. Shepherd says she hopes Canadians will learn to be open-minded when it comes to the “j-word.”

“Sometimes, people in Canada, as soon as they hear jazz it’s a curse word—they want nothing to do with it because they assume it’s going to be something it’s not,” she says. “But jazz by definition is raw and free and really groovy at its core. It’s music that gets in your soul and shakes you up.”

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