Over two years after Jeffery Straker released the successful “North Star Falling,” he returns with an outstanding new collection of songs, “Dirt Road Confessional.” Straker is already known for his piano prowess and skill as a keyboard-oriented balladeer, but here he stretches his wings and explores new musical territory.
For this project, Straker chose to work with multiple producers, including Daniel Ledwell, Royal Wood, and Dean Drouillard (who produced “North Star Falling”). The resulting album is terrifically unified in its scope and vision, however – exploring themes of love, separation from loved ones, and finding the courage to stand for what one values most in life.
We are really pleased that Jeffery took the time to talk with us about his new album.
Working with multiple producers on a single project can occasionally be risky as the results can end up sounding disconnected (not here, however!) – what drove you to take this approach with your new album?
It CAN be a risky approach but I felt (or hoped) that with my voice as continuity across all the songs that it would help to tie it together. Also, I had a vision of what I wanted the overall sound and feel of the record to be like which really helped. A roots-inspired flavor was something I really wanted to bring to the songs on this recording so I communicated that to each producer and they used that as a guide. Also, importantly, the producers I picked all have made recordings that I’d heard, with sonics that were within the realm of what I was aiming for. So I knew I wasn’t trying to get orange juice from apples so to speak. I was present on-the-ground with all the producers too, so I was able to help them create a through-line between the songs.
Listening to this album in comparison with your previous project, “North Star Falling,” it seems to me that you’ve really upped the ante in terms of instrumentation and stylistic variation. A little more country, a little more blues… are there new and/or different influences that are beginning to work their way into your songwriting?
You’re right – it’s a bit more country and a bit more blues-y. I don’t know specifically where this came from to be honest. I think as living creatures, if we are tuned in to the world around us, we observe and absorb as we go about our day to day, and our output is the sum of our inputs in some strange subconscious way. So certainly there have been some new influences that have helped to steer the ship in a slightly different sonic direction here. Part of what you’re hearing is the sonic stamp of each of the producers as well. Together we sat back, with the songs at hand, and asked ourselves ‘what will sonically serve these songs the best’? And we all agreed that these songs were suited to living in a country-ish/roots-y place.
The first time I listened to “Walking Shoes” happened to be on the anniversary of my mother’s death, so the song really resonated deeply with me. (Thank you for writing such a beautiful song that so aptly captures what we as children take away from our parents, if we’re fortunate.) What are some of the ways in which your parents have inspired your career as a musician, a career that’s taken you far away from the family farm?
Oh I’m so glad you liked the song! Thank you. Both of my parents played instruments while I was growing up. Mom was (and is) a piano player and played the organ in church on Sundays. She has a great ear. Dad played 5-string banjo for some time. I had musical grandparents too – playing guitar, mandolin and fiddle. All that old-time music was part of my upbringing. Neighbours would gather at our house on a Saturday night and jam until the sun was coming up. I didn’t realize at the time how special it was really. My parents paid for my piano lessons for years and years too while I was in school. They really saw that I liked it and without the lessons from local teachers I’d never be doing what I’m doing now.
Importantly when I left my “job” in Toronto to pursue music (and it was a decent job at that), though I think my parents thought I was just a little bit insane, they didn’t question it ‘too’ much. Rather they felt that if I figured I wanted to give a music career a try, then that was that. That support and unquestioning attitude was really great. Also, I grew up on a farm as you mentioned, and the thing about growing up on a farm is that you really really ‘get’ what work ethic is. If you don’t plant the seeds, there’ll be no crop. If you don’t get up and work all day during harvest, there will be no grain in the bins. Sitting back and complaining just isn’t an option. The work ethic I observed growing up on a farm is something that has been incredibly helpful to me as a musician. There is so much work to be done running an indie music career, but if you hunker down and do it you can see some really nice rewards.
I find it intriguing that you bookended the album with songs on the theme of ‘grey’ (“Beauty in the Grey,” “Fades to Grey”). Grey can mean so different things to different people – the absence of bright color, the presence of ambiguity, just to name two. What drew you to begin and end the album with these two songs?
You ask the million dollar question…. haha. I open the album with the song “Beauty in the Grey”. The tune talks about the sentiments of being a musician and why I do what I do and what I boil it down to in the song is: I seek beauty in the grey. That’s to say, I thrive on the unknown. The lyric reads “I follow fate through the shadows, seeking beauty in the grey, I’ve got wandering in my bones and I let go, let my heart lead the way”. Some people say to me “it must be so horrible always being on the go”. And I think “it would be horrible to always be in one place”. I’m just hard-wired differently in that I really enjoy getting somewhere and seeing how a show will go, or wondering who I’ll meet, etc. I’ve become so open to the idea of “possibility” that a day can bring if you just “go with it” and try not to control it. The mysterious ambiguity of grey can be wonderful.
The final song on the album, “Fades to Grey” is less optimistic, in its ‘grey-ness’ however. It’s kind of realistically sad in that it’s about “the end”. The end of something: a relationship maybe, maybe ‘life’, maybe something else. So while grey can be an area of wonderful uncertainly that you can find possibility within, it can also be a brooding place that is a hue en route to darkness. It felt appropriate to book end the album with these two very different takes on the same colour.
When I was Googling you to prepare for this interview, I came across a rather heinous story of your being harassed with homophobic slurs in an ice cream shop in 2014. Down here in the US, tolerance and diversity are really being challenged in the current political climate; do you see that spilling over into Canada right now, or is the above still more the exception than the norm? How do you see music’s role in building a more tolerant, open, and diverse society?
Oh yes! , that really happened. I’d say – thankfully – that the incident was an exception vs the norm. Most places in Canada are quite accepting of the LGBT community, but that’s not to say that there isn’t more work to be done. Through my touring and performing I’d say most people know I’m gay/out and it’s not really a big deal. I certainly don’t make any efforts to hide it, as one shouldn’t. What I’ve found, as a pleasant surprise, is that when you’re truly yourself and comfortable in your skin, no matter what skin that is, that people can see it or sense it. I’m really comfortably “out” and I think doing what I do and being in front of people being comfortable as the person I “am” in some strange little way may help to build more acceptance. I don’t go about my day thinking of myself as any kind of role-model at all. I just think that all LGBT people have a bit of a duty to be themselves and share it in some way. That all cumulates into better overall acceptance.
In terms of music, it doesn’t seem matter who a melody or lyric is coming from – as long as it moves the listener. If a song moves someone they don’t get caught up in things like wondering about the sexual orientation of the songwriter. They care that they were moved. Music has that crazy way of overpowering everything else.
It seems like guitarists and other string musicians get all the gear questions – hardly anyone asks pianists what we like, so I’ll pose the question: preferred acoustic piano (e.g., Yamaha, Steinway, Bosendorfer)? Other keyboard gear of note?
I tend to gravitate to Yamaha digital keyboard for touring purposes. I find the weighted keys to be incredibly realistic in terms of touch and feel. I also think their piano tones are superior. I won’t go on a rant here about some other digital piano brands lol, but some are god-awful. I studied classical piano for 13 years and over that time you really get to know how a piano ‘feels’ and responds. Yamaha does the best job digitally hands down. And for the record they don’t pay me to say that lol. Acoustically I gravitate to Yamaha or Steinway grands. They’re so so lovely. Recently I played a Fazioli grand and was BLOWN AWAY. It was a 9-foot concert grand and honestly, I don’t think I’ve played a better piano. However they’re way out of the realm of anything I’ll ever be able to afford – I’m pretty sure. A few songs on my album were played on Rhodes and I’m sorting out if I replicate that in my show, OR, leave that be the sound on the record, and just play piano in the show. There are so many ways to skin a cat… I do love that old Rhodes sound though too.
You have a pretty lengthy tour planned in support of the new album… are there any highlights on the calendar to which you’re especially looking forward?
The tour kick off in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, at the Broadway Theatre should be a great night. It’s a lovely old theatre and the vibe in there is pretty great. I’m also looking forward to getting back to Hugh’s Room in Toronto. It was closed for awhile due to money issues and has re-opened and I’m happy to head back. It’s a lovely room to make music in. I’m really looking forward to the Calgary Folk Fest this summer. I have built up a great fan following in Calgary and that festival is a pretty big one so I’m delighted to be playing it with those being the first performances of these new songs in that city. I’ll return to Calgary in the fall for a seated concert again too.
Photo credit: Ryan Nolan
Pre-order “Dirt Road Confessional” here. (The album releases on 19 May.)