JJ Shiplett calls for depth in country music

by Trisha Evelyn
JJ Shiplett

JJ Shiplett is a cowboy who isn’t afraid to spend as much time calling bar patrons onto the dance floor as he is composing songs about achingly sincere loss.

The Calgary alt-country artist is in Toronto, this week, to take his place on stage with his five-piece band at The Dakota Tavern on Saturday, March 23, as a part of Canadian Music Fest.

Thanks to a busy schedule before CMF, flying around the country to record with other bands and still playing regular weekend gigs, Shiplett agreed to pop on Skype for a few minutes to talk about his upcoming show, his songwriting values, and what’s coming down the pipe for him.

Answering our call from a studio in Calgary, Shiplett kindly took a break from recording and after making sure to collect hurried hellos from the band members, because it would be impolite not to, he found a quiet space to talk.

Not that Shiplett is soft spoken. Toronto-born, but Calgary-rooted, Shiplett has a voice that can draw audience members off the street with its sheer power and passion. He is as easily identified by his shoulder-length red hair as he is by his densely autobiographical songs, delivered in-between hilariously casual stage banter.

“I always write about my life,” he says, then laughs and carries on, “I’ve never challenged myself enough not to.”

Shiplett expresses that he wants to grow in this and cites his idols as those who can tell convincing stories about individuals completely removed from themselves. “I look up to guys like Billy Joel or Elton John,” says Shiplett, earnestly. Upon further consideration, he smiles and then throws in Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen for good measure and for references he would feel more comfortable appearing in print.

The show at the Dakota is Shiplett’s first time performing his own music at Canadian Music Fest, but he is familiar with the format, thanks to time playing guitar for Ryan McAllister. His relationship to McAllister extends beyond the stage, as together with Daniel Huscroft and Barnaby McRae, they make up Cowboys and Indians, a no holds barred band of solo artists coming together for the special project. They are currently in the middle of some new recordings at McAllister’s studio in Abbotsford, B.C.

McAllister also produced Shiplett’s most recent album, Drifter. The record came out in 2012 and is characterized by both unrestraint and softness. Audiences have been connecting equally with tracks like “Darling, Let’s Go Out Tonight”, and “Something To Believe In”, which tells us that Shiplett’s audience gets what he is trying to do.

Because despite his sound growing and changing with each release and performance, Shiplett says that his songwriting values will never waver. “To me, art is about showing emotion and creating emotion,” says Shiplett, as he carries his phone through the studio hallways and out into the sun for a smoke.

“I want to give people a little bit of heart.”

Through his new squint, he shares that he cannot separate substance from music and extends the common artistic value of expression to any venue. “Bar tunes can still create emotion,” he says.

JJ Shiplett will bring this emotion on Saturday to enjoy a full room and more importantly, as Shiplett says, “A celebration of Canadian music.”

Doors for the showcase at The Dakota Tavern open at 8:30 p.m. and you’ll want to go early because advance tickets have been sold out for weeks. Canadian Music Fest wristbands will be accepted.

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