back with more emotional truth
by Nova Herman
July 30, 2009
As people come and go in the quaint setting of a Regina coffee house, Jack Semple greets each of them by name in between telling me about his latest CD ventures. It's one of the reasons Jack likes it here. It's that comfortable place where everybody knows your name. "I have everything I need here...I couldn't afford this lifestyle if I lived in Toronto, that's for sure."
Jack discovered music at the age of seven when he saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and his older brothers taught him some chords. At that time, he says, there was no Saskatchewan music scene. "There was no place for a band to play to an audience. There were bands, I guess, but they played church basements and garages. There were no venues like there are now to play."
Flash forward. Since his humble prairie beginnings, Jack has toured the country, released several CDs, and written scores for and appeared in film & television. Jack admits it isn't always easy conducting business from here, and some things haven't changed a whole lot. "It is difficult sometimes because there aren't a lot of places to play. There's a couple of venues but you can't play them over and over again. So I have to go on the road and play to make a living." He adds that while a musician living in Toronto may have more venues and fewer travel costs, there is a higher cost of living and a much tougher market. "People who live in larger centers tend to have a protective cynical vibe about them - in order to make yourself successful and known, you've got to really, really crawl your way to the front of the crowd. I'm not saying we're less competitive (in Saskatchewan), but we're nicer here. Way nicer."
In Jack's travels, he's come across many perceptions of Saskatchewan people and their music. The biggest myth is that outsiders believe all Saskatchewan artists write about is wheat, or at least their geography. Jack believes they simply view flatlanders as good musicians. "One thing about Saskatchewan, which other people from across Canada will tell you, is that there is a really high concentration of excellent guitar players here for some reason."
Is there a such thing as a Saskatchewan sound? Jack considers this carefully before answering. "Other people perceive it (Saskatchewan music) as, 'it would work in a coffee house, no amps or anything'. I think they all center on their own stylistic characteristics rather than a regional one. My music doesn't sound like 'Saskatchewan' at all...it's more rooted in Southern U.S. R-and-B, funk and soul type styles."
Theme-wise, "we're the Mississippi of Canada. There isn't a lot of money here and the only thing people have left is their souls to express." So we write soul music ...the Blues, or as Jack puts it "emotional truth." While sometimes that may be connected to the land around us, it certainly isn't always. In terms of Jack's songwriting, he's quick to add, "I tend to be more self-centered in that. I tend to write more about me."
Those who've been anxiously awaiting another dose of Semple in their stereo will not have to wait long. Jack is working on two new releases this year. The first, "Live at Chaos", was recorded one night at the Chaos club in Calgary, and consists of material previously released on Jack's studio albums. The music was recorded originally for the 'Saturday Night Blues' radio show. "When they sent me the CD to listen to, I couldn't believe how good it sounded, so I'm releasing the CD based on what was recorded that night."
In speaking of it, Jack describes his excitement in recording live, which makes his songs 'jump' on the album. He says studio recording is about composition. Live is about performance and the expectations of yourself and your audience. "There's honesty in a live performance because you're not second guessing what you're playing you're just doing it. The best situation for a musician is to be ready to play and let the music come through them rather than try to make it up in their head as they're playing. You just open it up and let that energy, wherever it comes from, flow through you and connect with the audience. In studio you are so concerned with making it perfect that you take off the rough edges that are appealing to you. If you make something too smooth, it doesn't have any realness to it. It's like the difference between your Grandma making you cabbage rolls or going and buying them at a supermarket all packaged. There's a realness and an immediacy to live performance that you can't get in the studio."
The second CD, being recorded this month, will contain his favourite traditional blues songs. "I'm gonna play tribute to all my favorite blues musicians like B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Muddy Waters." It's an art form that Jack respects and admires. "Blues music is the roots of a lot of other kinds of music. Blues is the root of rock 'n roll, the roots of hip hop, and the root of jazz and country. The notion of blues being an improvised art form with a loose structural theme. The theme is 3 lines: the first line is a statement. The second line is a repeat of the statement and the 3rd line is a resolution of the statement. As far as the lyrics go, that's the plan. As far as the melody goes, it's based on something called the Pentatonic Blues scale, and the possibilities in that scale for emotional expression are endless because the pitches aren't fixed. In other words, you can't find a blues note on a piano; it's the note that's 'in the cracks'. So with that, there are all kinds of colours of emotional content, it's a musical form that will live for a long time."
The prolific Jack is also working on a CD with wife Tara Semple, tentatively called "Strawberries in Song", which will be based on a series of concerts that Tara, a flutist, held at Knox Metropolitan Church. Jack also tells me he is planning on releasing an original CD next year from his 'duffel bag of songs'.
Jack's CDs will be launched nationally in cities across Canada and the U.S. not an easy feat for an independent artist. He will be hiring a few people to help him, including a publicist and manager, and appealing to all the funding agencies that he can. "You've got to keep applying. You get turned down most of the time, but it's a real help when you get it." He remarks that he'll probably spend more money marketing the CD than recording it.
Jack doesn't resent not having a record deal to help him out. He admits his music's not top 40 or radio material - and he doesn't think a deal is the ultimate solution. "Out of the whole musical population maybe 1% have a record deal. What do the other 99% do? They're making a living as musicians. I make a living by teaching, by composing for film, by playing live."
There is something that he wishes someone would have said to him before he started out. "Practice more than you ever thought you should. And do it now. Go to a large center and starve it out for a few years. If you are going to starve, you might as well starve with the best of them." Do you need to leave Saskatchewan to be a success? Jack adds, it's not like Regina's the only place you have to do that from. If you live in Vancouver you should get to a different center, because it opens your mind to possibilities."
So how has Jack Semple from Saskatchewan been able to be so successful for so long without abandoning his home province, and without relying on a major record label? "I have enough nerve to put my name out front, put a band together, hire musicians, make a CD, and go out and play."
Another reason, perhaps, is that Jack is just a regular guy whom people can relate to. He is not only a musician, but a fan. He is humble, telling me that he is honoured to be in the company of those he performs with, and awed by the simple fact that great musicians are playing his songs.
"When I'm an old grandpa and I'm in the home, and I put on my live performance CD, I wanna go, 'Wow, these guys are smoking'."
"And that's me?"
"Yeah, that's me." The next opportunity for locals to see Jack in action will be at Flatland, where he headlines the Friday night lineup. So will Saskatchewan's guitarman have any special treats planned? Well, he hints with a twinkle in his eye, he might set his guitar on fire and smash it. I guess we'll have to go to find out.