Stephanie Urquhart on her debut album, composition, and gear
1. Tell us a little about what made you go into jazz music - was there a pivotal memory for you?
I remember being in Grade 10 and being in the band room at lunch playing what little piano, which was a song I had lifted from Super Smash Bros. I'm a big nerd, and am also not classically trained at all. The band teacher heard me and asked if I wanted to play in Jazz 3, which is the lowest level of the three Big Bands the school had. I said "Yeah!" and got introduced to jazz that way. It definitely was a learning curve. By Grade 12 I was playing in Jazz 1 and the Jazz combo and was totally obsessed with Count Basie and Charles Mingus, but most especially Moanin' recorded by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Every day in math class when we started doing homework, I always put my headphones in and started with Moanin' because I could not get enough of it. Sometimes I even just looped that one song.
2. Tell us all about your DEBUT ALBUM! Why is it called Concealment? Is it a conceptual album or no? What was some of your inspiration for the music? Who designed the visuals for it? What does it represent to you? Concealment is definitely a conceptual album. The music in it is specifically songs that reflect my experiences with having depression, which I hid from everyone for a long time, hence the name. Beyond the prologue (Precursor) It starts with what I think being a kid feels like, all innocent and playful (Paint Cans and Crayons) and eventually going through troubles and experiences, as we all do, but eventually it becomes what it's like to be someone who's sad into someone who is depressed, and the difference in structure that that feels like as time and harmony slowly disintegrate into chaotic free jazz (This is Not a Question). It then starts coming out of depression into something more hopeful and grasping of rationality again even though there's still chaos all around, (Atlantic Vision). Then I start feeling ok and happy again (Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax) but the album ends with the realization that the depression is still there. That realization made me really sad but then I also realized that I'm in a different place now, and I have both professional and friend support. It's as if I have been trying to swim to the shore for so long now, and I'm exhausted and tired and scared that the water will drown me, but then I realize that I can stop, and float and rest. That's an option too that I never truly considered. I really wish I was at the shore but I'm not there yet, and truly accepting that that is ok is what the ending of the album is. (Treading Water). To be honest, the ending of the album only came up as I was writing it. I thought it would end all happy, but I discovered while writing that it certainly was still something I am dealing with despite me thinking otherwise. So accepting that ending was definitely a part of the process. A lot of my inspiration for the music came from Esbjorn Svensson Trio and The Bad Plus, I've also heard that it sounds a bit video game music inspired, like it sounds like The Legend of Zelda and Kingdom Hearts. It doesn't surprise me at all to hear that. It wasn't on purpose but I can definitely hear it. The visuals were designed by Tal Marsolais. She loved my story and I told her just to paint whatever she wanted. I love what she came up with.
3. As a musician and composer, does a geographical location affect your work? Meaning, do you gain inspiration for your works from aspects of the Candian regions (prairies, shield, oceans, etc)?
I don't really get much out of geographical location, although I have thought of trying that for future work. I grew up near the mountains in Alberta and we went hiking or skiing almost every weekend so that's why I think it's in there somewhere as a possibility. Honestly when I write, I just start playing on the piano and keep what excites me, and build the song that way. Later I look back at the music and realize what it is. It's usually my feelings, haha. This album of course is related to experiences with depression, but I also have some Big Band music about different things, like one is about going to the bar and another is about anxiety that I feel in airports because for whatever reason I'm terrified that I'm going to be framed for having something I shouldn't in my bag in security or that I'm going to miss the plane. Planes are fine, it's just airports that give me grief.
I did write one song on the album called Atlantic Vision, which I wrote on a ferry called Atlantic Vision that rides from Sydney, Nova Scotia, to St John's, Newfoundland. It was during a Canadian road trip I did with my friend driving from Edmonton to the east coast because neither of us had ever been there. I couldn't sleep all night on the ferry so I wrote it based on the tempo of the waves and my delirious, lack of sleep visions of a hypothetical storm coming to attack us yet feeling comforted and safe in the ship despite that thought.
4. Let's talk about your gear for a moment - what are your go-to programs and tech as a musician and composer?
I always use Finale. I know a lot of the shortcuts and I work so fast in it. I tried switching to Sibelius once because my friend insisted it was better but I really didn't get it. It also didn't seem worth it for to me to relearn a whole new program. Plus I work faster in Finale than he does in Sibelius. We've raced before.
5. The composer's symposium in Colorado, what's it like? What do you get from it? Would you recommend it? How should one prepare for a symposium?
The symposium was amazing! I met so many other jazz composers from around the world. We shared our music with each other and went to lectures by people like Darcy James Argue and Vince Mendoza. Also just hanging out with everyone every night was so fun. The symposium helped me realize where I personally am at as a composer and where I can go next. I got advice from fellow composers about the piece I was there to present which was fantastic. It really pushed me musically to be getting advice from the guest lecturers seeing but also seeing what other people are doing and writing. I definitely would recommend it. I guess one should prepare by being ready to learn and socialize. Also if you're presenting, making sure you're ready to present. Some presenters were very obviously prepared and those were some of the greatest sessions. All in all, it was a fantastic experience.
6. What would you like to tell the young women and gender non-conforming jazzers out there?
The thing that I think is so great about music, especially jazz, is that it can and should be different every time. What I play one night is purely based on what I feel in that moment. As long as you're enjoying it and are passionate it about it, I've learned that people will feed off that, both fellow musicians in your band and also audience members. People can see when you care about what you're doing, so just make sure that you do, and that you're enjoying it!