As we continue to count down these last remaining days of what has been a challenging year, I glanced back to our postings from early January, and recalled that my first article of the year was a review of the single “Catch,” released by Serbian-Canadian artist Dana Gavanski. So, it seems perfectly appropriate (and truly coincidental) that the focus of my final album/EP review for 2020 also happens to be for a musician of Serbian-Canadian descent – the Icelandic-based singer-songwriter Jelena Ćirić, whose debut EP, “Shelters One,” was released recently.
Born in Serbia and raised in Toronto, Jelena was both exposed to the rich melodies of her European roots, and bewitched by the strong songwriting traditions of her adopted North American home. Having studied music in Spain and lived for a while in Mexico, Jelena has found a home in Iceland, thriving on the support of a strong musical community that encourage her creativity, and ultimately, the release of this stunning debut EP – songs that light bright as a match, and burn slow as a candle.
Taking to Google for some research, I found numerous (good-intentioned) comparisons to stalwarts such as Joni Mitchell and Regina Spektor; artists with expressive voices and delicate piano as they, too, sing of home and identity, and the exploration of what it might feel like to belong. Impressive company for a rising artist to be associated with, that’s for sure, yet I find both distinctions equally justified. Offering an intimate collection of four songs, each are a carefully crafted shelter for both artist and listener, leaving me drawing my own comparisons to Sara Bareilles and Beatrice Martin too. These piano-led songs are imbued with warm folk overtones, courtesy of some accordion and viola that are spacious and thoughtful; accompanying, not dominating, allowing Jelena’s ethereal vocals to shine.
With some soft, incredibly warm piano tones, the EP opens with “Lines,” a tale of entrusting a fortune teller to find the answers to her pretty big questions: “She peeked out of the back room, took my twenty in her hand / Her hair was graying at the roots, held back by a rubber band / She asked me questions, told me lies, I had expected more / Heard a fight break out somewhere, glanced towards the door.” The gentle pace and slightly bouncing piano strokes offer those hints of Sara Bareilles, a comparison that extends into the vocals, as we discover the power of Jelena’s range, hitting highs and lows with apparent ease – all the strong hallmarks of an accomplished piano-based performer.
“In Time” sees the pace slow further still, starting out with a vintage ‘cocktail lounge’ feel, before transforming into a heartfelt ballad thanks in part to both those sweet vocals and the precision of the perfectly timed strings. “Is it cloudy where you are? / Are the Northern Lights strumming on the stars? / Play one for me, oh how you touch those strings / I miss your careful way of doing things,” Jelena recites, with this song that she considers “a mantra affirming that love can trump over distance,” before moving on to the short 1:51 third track, “Concrete.” A little quirky, this itself is a great tongue-in-cheek (yet equally serious) response to the common refrain of “Get A Real Job” that most artists endure, with notable Spektor influences, and may I add, slight hints of Bjork – maybe Jelena’s newfound Icelandic identity is already subconsciously filtering into her music?
Jelena credits a visit to the shores of Lake Ontario as the inspiration for “Loughbreeze,” a slow-burning, yet emotionally-wrought closing number. “Loughbreeze is about letting go of others’ expectations in order to reconnect with the essential things,” she offers, again sharing some deeply moving and personal lyrics. “They checked you in yesterday, it was a total surprise to me / I wanted to run away, when you turned your eyes to me,” she recites, with some noticeable vulnerability in her voice, and the source for my comparison to Quebec’s Beatrice Martin in style. “Bandage up the wounds, sunflowers too / Remember your tough, hope it’s enough / You don’t have to share your story with anyone / If you don’t want to.”
With these four tracks, Jelena Ćirić offers a pretty short, yet incredibly moving and enjoyable debut EP. “If emotions were gems, these songs would be an attempt to pick them up carefully and turn them until they refract the light,” she shares. Clocking in at a short fifteen and a half minutes, these are fifteen and a half minutes well spent for those who take the time to sit and truly listen. And I know that the holidays are approaching, and the pressure is on to accomplish as much as possible beforehand, yet I strongly encourage everybody to make time for those fifteen and a half minutes. No excuses accepted! I do not want to be held accountable for your missing out on this stunning debut, and offering me no future forgiveness for your own misdeeds. (Thanks to our good friend Shawn William Clarke for introducing us to Jelena – we very much appreciate you thinking of us).
Photo Credit: Julie Rowland