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Justine Vandergrift had a clear goal for her fourth record.
The Calgary-based singer-songwriter thought the album should be geared toward getting airplay and, more specifically, airplay on CBC Radio.
In 2018, she received an Experiment Grant from Calgary Arts Development to record a single. As the name suggests, it encourages artists to move out of their comfort zone. But Vandergrift and producer Josh Rob Gwilliam of OCL Studios didn’t opt for a typically experimental, free-for-all approach. They were more methodical.
“We did some research and looked at some of the tunes that get played the most on CBC,” says Vandergrift. “So we took the song I wrote, Stay, and produced it that way. It actually did quite well on CBC and got quite a bit of play. Following with that same sound, we completed the album.”
Stay became the title track of the new record, released earlier this year. While this approach may sound a touch mercenary, it should be stressed that the 10 songs hardly sound pandering. Yes, the album has a certain radio-friendly polish. That’s at least partially due to Gwilliam’s perceptive production and a top-notch studio band that included guitarists Russell Broom and Joey Landreth, pedal-steel and dobro player Mitch Jay and bassist Chris Byrne. But it also doesn’t sound like it was cobbled together by a marketing committee out of Nashville, either.
Instead, Stay sounds like the well-crafted work of a singular artist intent on opening a new chapter in her career.
“My first three albums were pretty experimental, just having fun,” says Vandergrift, who will be playing Mikey’s on 12th Avenue on Nov. 26 as part of a new series of Blue Jay Sessions. “I’m self-managed, so I don’t have a label or anyone trying to get me to do anything a certain way. But I worked really closely with the crew at OCL Studios. We were going for Americana, older-style country but more on the easy-listening side of things.”
Other than a gorgeous reworked version of Bob Dylan’s Oh Sister she sings as a duet with Landreth, the 10 songs are all originals that offer a mix of melodic acoustic folk, heart-breaking country laments and, on You’re Already There, even hints of flamenco.
American Dream, a co-write with Brady Enslen, is a bit of an outlier on the album. Written back in November 2016 on the night Donald Trump won the presidential election, it veers from Vandergrift’s usual tales of relationship strife and heartbreak into something broader. In fact, the song now seems unsettlingly prescient in how it reflects a certain anxiety that has crept into our modern consciousness these past eight months.
“We thought it was a joke, you know, that there was no way Trump (would) get in,’ ” she says. “And then he did. It’s an interesting song and it’s become more interesting because it references not going outside your home. It’s spooky how relevant how it became.”
Born and raised in Lacombe, Vandergrift moved to Calgary in 2016 and immersed herself in the local music scene, often hanging out with fellow songsmiths such as Mariel Buckley and Colter Wall. In 2018, she began hosting an open-mic showcase on Sunday afternoons at the King Eddy. She was also one of the original participants when the multi-performer Blue Jay Sessions first launched in 2019, originally at the late and lamented Oak Tree Tavern in Kensington.
“ When you’re sitting on a stage with another performer who is bringing their A-game, you learn a lot from that moment,” Vandergrift says. “You’re in a hyper-focused performance mode. You get to reflect on your own songs and your own songwriting and own process and how other people do it.”
Vandergrift did manage to sneak in a CD launch show at the Ironwood Stage and Grill in early March before the world shut down, but a regional tour planned for Stay and even an appearance at a Montana music festival had to be shelved. Since then, she has used the time to write new material and offer her fans live-streamed performances. Her first in-person performance was in early September, when she participated in the first round of 2020 Blue Jay Sessions at Mikey’s on 12th.
“I have a few new tunes that I haven’t release yet,” she says. “It’s been sort of a strange time because you have to make that transition of not doing the thing you thought you were going to do. The touring phase of a musician’s life is very different than the writing and preparing for an album. I still feel like I’m transitioning back into that other mode.”
As for the new material, Vandergrift says she may be entering a new phase with that as well.
“I think it will be less personal,” she says. “I’ve started to delve a little more into political thought with my writing. Being on stage with other performers naturally teaches you different approaches to songwriting and melody and even instrumentation.”
Justine Vandergrift will perform as part of the Blue Jay Sessions at Mikey’s on 12th Avenue on Nov. 26. Doors open at 8:15 p.m. The Blue Jay Sessions run from Nov. 25 to 27 at Mikey’s on 12th Avenue.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020