Singer/songwriter/performer Jeff Straker (not to be confused with the iconic adult film star with a similar name, although we get the impression that this musician wouldn’t be overly insulted by the comparison …) grew up in a small farming community in rural Saskatchewan, Canada, with a population of 250. Most Americans would not be able to find Saskatchewan on a map if their high definition TV depended on it. But, as we’ve learned, music is a universally essential element… especially really great music. For those of you who can’t afford a passport to watch Jeffery Straker perform his great music live in his native land, you’ll be glad to know that he has a new album, available for your listening pleasure no matter where you live. It’s named “Step Right Up”. From the first strike of a piano key soon followed by the first time Jeffrey opens his mouth for the album’s zesty kickoff “Hypnotized”, any lucky listeners soon learn that they’re in for a wild ride. I had the privilege of meeting Jeff Straker three times: once in (of all places) Princeton, New Jersey; once at the since-closed NYC live music hotspot Mo’ Pitkins; and once in New York City again at the 2006 OUTmusic Awards, where Jeffery’s album “Songs From Highway 61” was nominated for “Outstanding New Recording, Male”. Even when he wasn’t performing, the artist’s cheeky personality and endless energy made him stand out… and indeed, when Straker took to the piano to belt out a few songs, all that personality and energy made its way into the music in a big way. In the sprit of any first rate performer, Straker realizes that reaching the audience is just as much about presentation and delivery as it is about the musical quality.
Straker classifies “Step Right Up” as “chamber pop”, with elements of cabaret thrown in as well. Straker may be from Canada, but the spirit of the great American musical makes its way into many of the songs on this album. For example, the unambiguously named “Tykie’s Comin Out”, one of the many high spots on the CD (complete with fierce female background vocals and a “Get up and dance!” attitude), could be the theme for the big “coming out” musical number from “High School Musical 3”, if the producers of that film were bold enough to consider a scene like that in the movie. But as I describe Straker’s new album, I hesitate just a bit to invoke the term “show tunes”, because that word often conjures up images of Broadway musical revivals which try to squeeze the last few drops of life from overheard, overly kitschy standards. Jeffery’s music, by contrast, is original in every sense of the word; Think of it as cabaret for a new (and smarter) generation, as modern pop with classically-trained musical talent and an old-school show-stopping mentality running through. His lyrics are ripe with enough imagery and metaphors to inspire a million daydreams, with many songs displaying more than a touch of his trademark sarcastic and knowing sense of humor. After the dynamic, high-octane opener “Hypnotized”, next up is “Sad Songs”, which features some amazing musical and vocal nuances. Reinventing the torch song, expert piano and electronic gimmickry (and just a touch of jazz flavor) really boost this track. “Flat Lines”, a song ostensibly based on the story of a schizophrenic woman, is drama set to music– darkly humerous, provocative, and disturbing if you really listen to the indulgent lyrics:
“She’d dream late at night, always in black and white
And her ups and downs were flat lines;
Runnin with no end no angles or bends just flat lines,
She was almost dead… almost dead.”
We can’t help wonder if the song was based on a real life acquaintance of Straker’s, although the descriptions of this character are so vivid that we suspect the story can possibly be made up. (And I thought that characters like this only lived in New York City…) The amazing “Furious Butterfly”, the most delicately beautiful track on the CD, goes for a very different tempo and mood:
“(I’m just a) furious butterfly flapping my wings– oh,
Trapped in a jar, beautiful thing;
Face pressed to the glass, spirit weakening– oh,
And I’m callin’ out, callin’ out… can you hear me?”
It features Jeffrey’s naked, stripped-down voice showcased to perfection. Two minutes into the song, it seems like Jeffrey’s emotions are busting right out from the disc as the tempo changes, and the effect is intense. Next up is “Special K”. (And no, all you club boys out there, it’s not THAT kind of Special K…) After beginning with a dark, almost ominous piano intro, the track turns out to be one of the most unorthodox songs about lust that you’re likely to hear. It’s another mini-soap opera set to music. “Slippery Slope”, with a neo-swing sound(Think Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ hit “Zoot Suit Riot”) is purely indulgent joy; Is that tap dancing we hear in the background? We envision an entire room of guys and gals heading to the dancefloor and turning it out in perfectly choreographed unison. “Snowflake”, like “Furious Butterfly” earlier in the CD, displays the vulnerable side of Jeffrey’s elastic voice; it’s a provocative love song that leaves no distance between the artist and his listener. “The Storm” has a grand, soaring sound. This one bridges the gap between power ballad and rock anthem, both in the lyrics and in Jeffrey’s subtle intensity. Simultaneously grounded yet ethereal, this one’s another gem on the album.
Jeffery Straker has a lot to offer his audience with “Step Right Up”. As a music writer, my first instinct with any artist’s new album is to attempt to “classify” their music into a particular genre– or genres. But more and more, my attitude is, “Why bother to classify?” Jeff Straker is truly his own original creation– and in turn, he creates some great, highly original music. And as I said before, great music is a universally essential element…
AN INTIMATE INTERVIEW (Or at least a HEAVY PETTING SESSION…) WITH JEFF STRAKER!
JR: Hi Jeff. Congratulations on the new CD!
JS: Thank you, Jed!
JR: “Step Right Up” has been in the works for a long time. How long, in your estimation, did the entire journey take– from your concept to the finished product?
JS: Hmmmmm… Good question! Really my previous album was put out in Jan ’06 and this one in mid- ’08 so you could REALLY say it was 2+ yrs if you count the writing that I had started doing in ’06. I met the producer (Justin Gray) in July ’07 and knew he was the guy I wanted to work with. And he and I really started working on this in Dec ’07 in Toronto and LA. I released it in Canada in June 08. I think it was on I-Tunes a wee bit earlier. That’s a long time. But Rome wasn’t built in a day. Not that I’m drawing a comparison….
JR: (Laughs) Is there one song on the CD that means the most to you?
JS: I have to pick two. “Hypnotized” was one that I always felt affection for – because after doing about 200 shows over the past two years singing it (starting even way before the album was out), I never, ever, ever got tired of singing it. I had this gut feeling that it could be a single. And now it’s in the top 10 on the Canadian Video TV channel “Much More Music”. “Snowflake” is likely the one that I’m the most proud of for the lyrics. I also love how Justin approached the production of that song. I’ve had a lot of e-mails from people about that song. It’s polar opposite to “Hypnotized”; it’s delicate and feels like it could drop on the floor and shatter at any moment. I kind of feel like I hold it out in my cupped hand when I perform it, preventing it from breaking.
JR: Wow! We live in an age where artists seem to make their own genres, and don’t feel the need to fit into one classification. But for the sake of our readers who don’t know your stuff yet, how would you classify yourself, musically?
JS: Well, the music on this album has been described as “piano-driven cabaret-pop” or “chamber-pop”. Influences are early Elton John, some Rufus, Ben Folds, Freddie Mercury, and lots of the classical stuff I listen to. As well as the “songwriters” Joni Mitchell and the like. LOVE her!
JR: What’s coming up next for you, musically?
JS: I’m doing shows in Canada like a demon. I’m so busy that I’m actually finding it hard to slot in time to write. It’s a horrible feeling – knowing I have this idea for a song in my head, but that I can’t sit down at the piano to work it. Some ideas just blow away in the wind! BUT I am finding a wee bit of time to write, so that is at least a step in the right direction. Although I’ve got my sights set on the next album with this new writing, I still know there are so many ways to get this current album out there, and I’m more focused on that. I’ve recently signed to a booking and management agency in Taiwan (for Asia) and that has opened up some great new possibilities. Plus video play across the country in Canada has helped get the songs out there to a bunch of new fans who had never heard me before. So there is a lot going on right now. Before I really hone in on what is next musically, I have to get this current material out there as much as I can.
JR: What’s the hardest thing about being an independent musician?
JS: (Laughs) I think I just touched on that: The hardest thing is… doing everything! And trying to do it well. Amen. Music has been my full time work for three and a half years now. There was a point where doing everything was possible and fun. Now I’m at that weird point where I physically can’t do it all. I always wondered how one would know when the right time would be to get a manager or a booking agent etc. And once this album started to get out there and bookings really ramped up, and the work piled up, then I knew the time was right. I literally found myself with not enough hours in a day to do all the work. Never mind write new songs! And then conversations organically started with booking agencies and the like. So I guess the musical universe has a way of reaching out when the time is right. But trying to do all this work– writing, touring, booking, rehearsing the band, marketing, interviews, website updates, ordering CDs… never mind doing the laundry, and cruising– is really tough! (Laughs) But I do absolutely love it – and you would never get into this if you didn’t really love it.
JR: How true! Did anyone ever suggest that you should move to New York or LA, for example, to further your musical career? How do you react to that?
JS: I have had it suggested that I move to LA. However I have a good thing going in Canada and really want to expand on it before I think of the US. The US is a huge market for music. But honestly, I’m not sure for what I do, if it’s that huge… or right. I’d think actually, that the UK or continental Europe would be better suited. I could see me setting up an apartment in Paris and eating baguettes and chocolate spread, while sipping deliriously strong coffee for weeks while plunking on a grand piano. Now that is my style. I could see me feeling at home in that. I’d likely also get a striped shirt and wear a loose fitting scarf even in the heat. I’d likely have to rent a bike and put that baguette in the basket too, for full effect!
JR: (Laughs) What do you do for fun, when you’re not performing or writing music?
JS: I LOVE to muck around with my old house. I just landscaped the backyard and built a fence! it looks GREAT if I don’t dare say so myself. I’m gearing up to have a kickin’ back-yard party. I literally went to my last band rehearsal with sawdust in my hair. It’s fun. I also love hanging out with my band – and drinking dark beer and talking about music. I run a lot – possibly to combat the effects of the dark beer. I’m not the marathon type – but I really love getting outside for runs on a nice day. I wear scandalously short shorts cuz it makes me feel FAST! Somehow I’m just not the treadmill type tough – have to do it outside. I love going to theatre and live music shows. Time to do that is rare – but I try! When in Toronto I love checking out new places, hanging with friends at our favorites haunts. I also really dig local history wherever I am. I like checking out the off-the-beaten-track things to see if they are of historical significance. Kind of nerd-y I know!
JR: Sorry, I’m still stuck on the short shorts… Anyway, when we met a while back, you mentioned how, because of you’re name, you are often confused with a well-endowed former porn star. Does that still happen?!
JS: You know, it happens a bit still, not a ton! It does come up. I joke about it in my shows when telling audiences my website or YouTube address. I found it actually helps them remember it when they get home. Depending on the show, I reference Jeff’s penis size. It always gets some kind of reaction. Not that I’ve ever seen it – people have told me…..
JR: A simple Google image search should solve that! Now, about Canada… What distinguishes Saskatchewan from the other provinces, in your opinion?
JS: Saskatchewan is full of really down-to-earth people – with very little pretension. It’s so refreshing in that way. Don’t get me wrong, I love the big city! And Toronto is where I hang my hat half the year. But Saskatchewan is HUGE in terms of its space and has only about a million people. Just so you have a reference I just Googled and did the math – Saskatchewan is 4.7 times bigger geographically than NY State. BUT, NY State has about 20 million people and Saskatchewan has only a million people. SO, imagine the SPACE! it’s so wide open. The skies are endless, and the air is so, so clean. I find myself really uninhibited creatively here. To me, there is so much potential here. And as a total aside, the economy here is still booming. (It’s been written about in “The Economist” recently.). They say, that you can see your dog run away from home for a week here. (Groan!)
JR: Is there a big cultural/arts scene there?
JS: The arts scene in Saskatchewan is definitely not as big as say Toronto or New York! But for its size, it does very, very well. There are some really great cultural supporters/organizations here like SaskMusic and The Saskatchewan Arts Board. They really enable the local arts to flourish. For its small population there are TWO symphony orchestras. There are many, many, many theatre companies and schwacks of galleries. The indie music scene is really, really growing with some great acts coming out of here. I find actually that this place allows for some great creation.
JR: Wow, I didn’t know that! Now, let’s have some fun: Where would you draw the line when it comes to promoting your career? (Think Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian’s sex tape…)
JS: Are you asking me if I’d have sex with Paris Hilton? Hmmmmm – not sure who’d be on top! On another note, Jeff STRYKER has a country band. Although no one believes me when I tell them that! Not sure if he’s using the music to promote the porn or what? My hunch is that he makes more money off the porn. Where would I draw the line for me? Like, what is the furthest thing I’d do – or really have to consider doing before I did it? Man, I’d likely never EVER dress up in biker/WMCA leather and carry a skunk down 5th Avenue in NYC! Unless there was a bet, a camera, and lots of liquor involved…
JR: (Sighs) And I do that for free, and totally sober, and I’m not even famous! … But, back to our “educational” questions… What would surprise most Americans to learn about Canada and Canadian people? Of course, I ask this but don’t want Americans to assume that all Canadian people are the same either!
JS: (1) Canada isn’t covered in ice.
(2) Canadians spell ABOUT the same way Americans do – we just say it in a slightly, more charming way.
(3) All Canadian porn is begins with the actors/actresses wearing snow-suits and mittens. They first take off the mittens and then the fun begins.
(4) The Canadian government rules the country out of a huge snow castle in our nations’ capital ‘Ottawa’. In the summer they wrap it in thermal blankets and point giant fans at it to keep it from melting. All visitors to the snow castle are encouraged to bring zip-loc bags of ice cubes that they make at home, and dump them at the base of it. it’s our civic duty. True story!
JR: Wow! Some people, especially the kids, say we live in a “post-gay” world. Meaning that being gay is no big deal anymore. A lot of people disagree, obviously. Being an out artist, how do you feel about that?
JS: Oh those kids….They are so completely 125%……wrong! I find that many kids, especially those living in bigger urban centres, are able to (thankfully) enjoy the ability to be ‘out’ and do their gay thing in many parts of their cities that they couldn’t do even 5-7 yrs ago (hold hands, be really openly GAY without being bashed, etc…). But take a step outside those cities and PRESTO – not the same deal! I tour to many locations where I notice this. I’m quite, obviously (I think…) gay, so there’s not really an “Is he? Isn’t he?”‘ mystery attached. I would find that cumbersome. So people who come to my shows generally are of the “I don’t care” mind set. But I can describe more than once instance of touring to smaller cities where, when in a store/gas station/bar I overheard guys saying things like ‘”Yeah man, If I met a faggot I’d kill him” or “That guy is a dirty faggot” or whatever. And you really realize that homophobia is quite real and alive. I have friends who live in the gay village in Toronto, which is quite huge, and feel like the whole world is gay and rosy and all is well. And they are quite incorrect. I think actually the really bad part of this is that the gay/out “kids” really are losing any feeling of responsibility for helping advance the gay cause, or reducing homophobia, because they think it’s “fixed’. Pride parades are somewhat becoming big marketing opportunities for big companies. And yes, I get that this helps fund the big parades! But along with that, it’s kind of becoming “Mc-Pride” and the sense of why it started is disappearing. The kids in the urban centres where so much progress has been made really have to step it up to help those out in the areas that aren’t so fortunate.
JR: I couldn’t agree more. Now, a serious, very important, socially responsible question: MySpace, Facebook, or Twitter? Which is the best?!
JS: Facebook. Hands. Down. Just love it. MySpace is starting to have crickets chirping on its pages. Twitter – hmmm – although I tweet, I haven’t really figured out how to use it for what I do yet! Jury still out.
JR: Any plans to come to New York City?
JS: Are you inviting me for a sleepover? Id love to! We can cuddle the skunk.
JR: Anytime! (Does that imply a threesome?!)