Hidden Beats

We Are Story Tellers

Today our Spotlight – ES:MO. Toronto/Montreal-based Jazz artists, Michael Occhipinti and Elizabeth Shepherd make up this fantastic duo and we sat down to chat about their recent work. Check out the convo we had right now.

Thank you both for joining us today. Would you like to give an introduction to our readers?
MICHAEL:

Hi readers, thanks so much for joining us on Hidden Beats. My name is Michael Occhipinti, and I’m a guitarist and composer based in Toronto, Ontario, and one half of our duo project ES:MO.

Elizabeth:

I’m Elizabeth – the other half – a pianist singer-songwriter based in the Laurentians, in Quebec.

Who were your early inspirations? The reason you fell in love with music.
ELIZABETH:

My earliest inspirations were hearing my parents as I fell asleep at night – my mom singing, my dad playing the piano. They were both ministers, and music was an integral part of being at church, so for as long as I can remember, I was always surrounded by music. I studied classical piano at the RCM, and later at the conservatory in Paris when we moved there; my dad would play me entire symphonies, and so I had a solid classical knowledge. But it was really my older brother who introduced me to everything else, from Duran Duran to Stevie Wonder to Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. I fell in love with music because it was what makes me feel whole and connected, and what has always been a constant as we moved around, changing cities/countries every few years.

MICHAEL:

I’m the youngest of five siblings, and both my brothers were already gigging musicians when I was a kid (my brother Roberto plays bass on some of our albums). Through their record collections, The Beatles and Stevie Wonder definitely inspired me and made me fall in love with music, but my brothers also pointed me to the rest of the British Invasion, funk, soul, and groups like Weather Report, The Police, and a range of guitarists from Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, to Lenny Breau, George Benson, Pat Metheny, Bruce Cockburn, and Ed Bickert. In high school, I got into bands like Talking Heads, and the British New Wave, but then dove hard into a whole range of jazz, classical, and music from other cultures in my university years.

Tell us a bit about ES:MO. How was it founded?
MICHAEL:

I’ve been a fan of Elizabeth’s for a long time, and I asked her to be part of my album Shine On The Universe of John Lennon (2012). We started touring together and discovered that we hit it off musically and as friends, and developed a tight bond with each other’s families. Elizabeth asked me to tour with her group, and as part of those tours we would often start or end with a smaller gig or two with just the budget for a duo, and we discovered that we really enjoyed that format.

ELIZABETH:

We decided after some time touring as a duo that we should really record this material, seeing as it’s a completely different repertoire than either of us play in our own projects. So our first album, The Weight of Hope, is just out, after many Covid-related delays. We’re now writing a bunch of new material together, so ES:MO is really a growing, evolving entity.

What is more challenging – writing original music or trying to compliment already recorded songs?
ELIZABETH:

For me, the hardest thing is writing music as a duo; I’ve always worked on my own, and only recently have come to see that writing with others is an incredibly rewarding and commensurately difficult process – knowing how to make space, how to stumble and awkwardly work out ideas – things that for me have always been done alone, without anyone there to witness it. In all my years of performing, I’ve rarely done other peoples’ music, only occasionally throwing in a cover tune, but even then, it is deeply important that I really own my version of the song. The beauty of ES:MO is that we’re each being introduced to tunes that we would not necessarily think to arrange on our own and that we’re working through ideas creatively in a way that we wouldn’t normally on our own – so it’s all got its set of challenges, really.

 

MICHAEL:

The challenge in writing original music is in coming up with an idea that feels like it merits getting developed, as I find it pretty easy to come up with small ideas or scraps of music. But most don’t end up as finished compositions, as for me I’ll usually only finish something if it’s a strong idea, to begin with. Adding words is of course a whole other matter, as I love great lyrics and language, so I want anything I do to be interesting even if the subject matter is familiar. Arranging someone else’s music for me is perhaps more challenging, as it means finding ways to respect the song and the composer, while still doing something to make it your own. I think it helps to love the songs and to have a willingness to explore whatever genre you’re taking a song from. Sometimes I hear jazz musicians just take a song and swing it, and powerful lyrics just sound misunderstood, or it’s too apparent that the interpreter has taken the genre the song is from for granted. Interpreters are of course free to take the song wherever they want, but I always try to take the approach that I want the composer to be both pleased and a little surprised by what we do with it.

How good is your song-writing chemistry? Where do each of your talents shine?
MICHAEL:

We just spent four days in Banff Centre for The Arts doing some song creation, and I think our chemistry is really good, as it is in most things like playing music or touring. We only started writing music together during the summer of 2020 when the Covid situation let us get together at Elizabeth’s house in Quebec to jam and to build on a few starting ideas we each had. Up to that point, we’d both written alone, and were mostly developing arrangements of other people’s songs together for our gigs (and for The Weight of Hope). Elizabeth is a really strong writer, as her albums can attest, and she has a way of combining really sophisticated musical elements with memorable and compelling lyrics.

My background as a solo artist has mostly been focused on instrumental music for a variety of ensembles, but writing music together has been a lot of fun and has revived my own interest in lyric writing. We both can improvise ideas and then edit them down, and since we don’t live in the same place, fire ideas back and forth electronically. Elizabeth is great at finding the gem moments in our improvising and editing them into the scaffolding to build songs on.

ELIZABETH:

It’s great; if it weren’t, I think I’d have been scared off a while ago! I’m very quick to come up with ideas, and really go with instinct, but rarely have the filter to step back review, and then rethink/rework ideas accordingly. Having another person to create with who challenges me and thinks differently is a great way to grow and learn, and come up with new approaches that I would never have found on my own. I think together, we have a very cool, unique sound that combines our collective and individual love of so many genres, but ultimately, always feels good.

The press pictures are very weighty and thoughtful. How do these line up with the mood and message of the songs.
MICHAEL:

I think SOME of the pictures are weighty and thoughtful, but I also think some of the photos we did were kind of humorous and playful, and I like to think that’s the range of the album too. Songs like Riverman or Night Comes On are atmospheric and definitely thoughtful, but one of the reasons we included the live version of Wondering Where The Lions Are was to make sure people know there’s a lot of loose fun to what we do also.

ELIZABETH:

We wanted to capture something playful and moody, that communicated our interaction and complicity.

Tell us about the process. How did you make the songs on “The Weight of Hope” your own?
ELIZABETH:

We each had a relationship to the songs on the album, and have made them ours by performing the material repeatedly.

MICHAEL:

I think at this point we both have a pretty good sense of what our strengths are as musicians and an awareness of the elements that shape our personalities as performers. Part of making a song our own is that act of adding our personalities to what we think is a strong song, so sometimes in my case, it’s a matter of taking the guitar sounds I create and deciding how to wrap them around what Elizabeth is singing or playing at the piano. But there’s also of course the decision-making process around things like tempo, mood, time feel, and harmony, and then specific things happen to get an arrangement going. With “Riverman” Elizabeth created a really wonderful chord interlude that ultimately gave us something to build an ending over, and the overall mood inspired me to develop an intro of an atmospheric guitar. With “Any Other Way” we changed a couple of chords to give it a different flavor partway through, but at its core, I think the arrangement comes to life because of the drum groove that I suggested to Mark McLean, as it creates momentum but still gives space for Elizabeth’s voice and lets me sound like me in the guitar solo.

When it comes to Canadian Jazz, you two cannot be beaten. With countless nominations under both of your belts, which accomplishment shines the most in your eyes? What is your current goals?
MICHAEL:

That’s very nice of you to say. I tend to be the kind of person who thinks the current project is the best one yet. I feel I keep developing as a musician and I hope that my best work is still in front of me, but I’m pretty happy with the guitar on this album and feel like we’ve captured some things not heard on previous albums. But if I’m looking back, I’m generally really pleased with all the original music we did with my big band NOJO. In terms of what shines in my eyes, I guess I’m most proud of the music I’ve done with my Sicilian Jazz Project. Putting my own spin on Sicilian music has been a deeply personal way for me to connect the gift of language and heritage my parents gave me to my experience as a Canadian musician, and I feel like I did it in a way I haven’t heard anyone else do. That project has been a way for me to keep the Sicilian dialect I grew up with a living thing.

ELIZABETH:

Wow, that’s kind. Thank you. I don’t know that I have one thing I’m particularly pleased about looking back, but I am overall very proud to have 6 albums of original material and to have had the chance to work with so many great musicians over the years. I pinch myself sometimes thinking of the good fortune I’ve had to play to audiences all over the world. I’m currently finishing up a new album of original music that touches on my spiritual heritage, reconciling where I’ve come from with where I am today; it is celebratory and ultimately is a way of expressing my sense of gratitude in music. I started working on it before the pandemic, and worked on it throughout the many lockdowns, creating remotely, so it really has a unique, Frankenstein kind of sound, and pushes some boundaries, at least for me. We’re also writing the next ES:MO album, which I’m very excited about, and I’m producing Vancouver-based singer/ songwriter Andrea Superstein’s upcoming album.

How many instruments do you play? Which are your favourite and least favourite?
ELIZABETH:

I play piano/keyboards and E-flat tenor horn (from growing up in the church). I waffled between studying horn or piano at university and eventually concluded piano is ultimately more versatile. I love that horn is by definition part of an ensemble and is, therefore, something that always means you will be playing with others, whereas the piano is an entire symphony orchestra under your 2 hands. The piano is great for writing, and expressing all the ideas I have that usually come out fully formed (bass lines, rhythm, melody, chords). I dabbled in guitar (found it very unintuitive) and took some drum lessons for a while. And of course, my voice is my first instrument, I would say – the one I was born with, and have been using since day 1.

MICHAEL:

I play guitar in a variety of styles (electric and acoustic), and I love all of them, though most people think of me as an electric player primarily. I am a decent electric bass player (the benefit of having an older brother who left a bass around for me) and I love playing jazz drums when I get the chance to in my student ensembles. I like playing banjo when asked (which is rare but does happen). I don’t have any least favorite instruments, but I play just enough violin and clarinet (my first instrument) and piano to wish I played any of those well. I guess I play some electronics too, but I see those as an extension of my guitar playing, not something separate.

As a self-proclaimed “Genre avoiding creative artists,” could you explain what that means to you? Would you categorize yourself in a couple of different genres or does nothing quite fit?
MICHAEL:

To be honest, I think we’re both confident enough not to worry about what genre we’re working in because we’re freer to create and take chances and draw on all the different music we listen to. I also feel like a label like “jazz guitarist” is unsatisfying, not because I don’t admit to playing a lot of jazz and loving jazz guitar, but because it limits the story and overlooks just how much music that isn’t jazz I’ve performed over the years.

 

The fact is, I’ve lifted a lot of rhythm guitar from people like Prince or Catfish Collins (James Brown) or Leo Noncentelli (The Meters) or Ali Farke Toure, and my skill with creating guitar sounds starts with Hendrix and goes thorough Jeff Beck, Andy Summers (The Police), Adrian Belew (King Crimson), The Edge (U2), and John Scofield and Bill Frisell, but when people think of me as a Jazz guitarist typically overlook all those other sources besides the two jazz names I mention, even though all those sources are in my music if you listen for them. So I think when I say I avoid genre, it’s mostly because I want people to know the whole story.

Genres

As for whether I fit into genres, I think there are times when I clearly fit into what I call jazz, but since even the jazz world can’t agree on what that means, I’m not sure. A lot of the music I’ve performed or created blurs the boundaries. If I think about the Sicilian Jazz Project that I just mentioned, for example, I have to ask “what is it?” Yes it’s rooted in Sicilian folk music but it’s not really folk, yes some of it is definitely jazz or informed by it but much of it isn’t, and some of it is better described as chamber music or reggae or funk. When I look at what we’ve done on the Weight of Hope, I feel the same way. We’re both accomplished jazz musicians, but some of the tracks like Pacing The Cage or The Weight of Hope are just as easily described as Americana or folk or electronic music.

 

I am comfortable with it all falling under jazz in that “jazz” remains a big word for me, able to absorb almost anything, and more importantly I tell people that even if not everything we do is jazz, most of it couldn’t be created or performed the same way without our jazz brains hovering in the background!

What kind of music do you listen to in your free time? Any artists you recommend?
MICHAEL:

We both listen to a big range of music. Just thinking about our recent trip west and what we played in the car, it was everything from the Black Pumas to Herbie Hancock, to Anderson.Paak to Fatoumata Diawara. I’m currently telling everyone they should listen to Madison Cunningham who is a great young singer-songwriter/guitarist, and at home, I’m teaching my oldest daughter to play bossa novas by Joao Gilberto, while my wife has singer Gregory Porter on a lot (and he’s great).

 

ELIZABETH:

I listen to the radio a lot – mostly Ici Musique (French CBC Music); I love being introduced to new music, so often I turn to the radio to curate. I have my favorite shows (“Un nomade dans l’oreille”, for example), but then my 10-year old daughter is now introducing me to what the kids are listening to. I love touring for many reasons, not the least of which is the chance to explore new music as band-mates introduce me to what they’ve been checking out. I always find there’s something interesting in any music – production, lyrics, chords, movement, intention

We heard you’re out on tour, what can we expect from your shows?
ELIZABETH:

Story-telling, like an invitation into our living room. Shows are at reduced capacity, so it’s really the perfect environment to enjoy our duo. We manage to pull off great variety and range, in spite of just being the 2 of us. We incorporate looping and electronics, and always like to throw in something new, to keep ourselves and audiences on their toes.

MICHAEL:

I know I’m the performer and I’m not supposed to say this, but I think they can expect some magical stuff, as that’s how it feels to me on stage. Even though we’re both very confident performers, a duo show like ours is ultimately a vulnerable experience because the audience is aware of every sound and gesture, as one fan recently told us. We both like to tell stories about the songs, and between those and the way we communicate on stage, I think people feel like they get invited into a pretty special and intimate world. That’s not to say it’s all subtle and quiet, as I am an electric guitar player after all (ha-ha). We’re playing most of our album, but we also like to surprise the audience and ourselves by pulling out songs we don’t always know that well, or new compositions that we’re just trying out and developing, and we’re offering a taste of the more electronic/loop-based sound of our next album. Can you give us a small sneak peek of any upcoming projects?

ES:MO

We’ve already been at work on our next album for a while. We actually had a few songs ready that could’ve gone on “The Weight Of Hope” but we decided that the focus of this album should be the songbook we’ve built up, and we’ll make the next record all about our own compositions. We’re using a lot of found sounds that we’re manipulating (in Banff we started writing a song based around a sample of the Johnson Canyon waterfall for example), and having fun running Elizabeth’s voice through guitar pedals. Meanwhile, Elizabeth is recording an album of her own music in December, and Michael has an album with the group In Orbit (w. American saxophonist Jeff Coffin and bassist Felix Pastorius) that’s basically finished, but waiting for a time when we can feel comfortable crossing the border and gigging together again. What does the world need to know about Canadian Jazz artists?

 

MICHAEL:

I think the world is well aware of Canada through its songwriting tradition (Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, etc.) and more recently in the world of pop that is dominated by The Weeknd and Drake. From a jazz perspective, I think the world needs to know that ours is a country of so many different cultures and that jazz musicians here are exploring and connecting with a variety of traditions. Sure we have great musicians who play the jazz standards songbook, but I think the really cool stuff that I’d like the world to hear are the albums that really sound like Canada (and I might as well give a shout out to Elizabeth’s album “Montreal” that is a tribute to Indigenous, French, English, and Black Montrealer’s, or the group Avataar that I play in, that fuses the influence of music from India with very modern jazz harmony and advanced song forms).

Thank you for joining us today! Before you leave would you like to give a shout-out to any person, organization, or charity of your choice?

We’d like to give a shout-out to all the presenters and small concert organizers who invite us to tour every year, and especially those who’ve stayed hopeful these last months that we would actually tour this November. It’s been really special for us to be back in front of audiences. None of our tours would be possible without the Canada Council for the Arts and FACTOR as well, as it’s a big, expensive country to cross without having some travel costs covered, especially when venues are just getting back on their feet.

This Spotlight – ES:MO is officially a wrap! Big thanks to both Michael and Elizabeth for taking the time to chat

Check out The Weight of Hope right now

Keep up with the Duo here

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