RECORDED LIVE OFF THE FLOOR: MUSIC OF CIVIL WRAY
Civil Wray is Andrea de Boer, an established Toronto-based musician who has channeled all of her past experience into a new and fresh identity. Civil Wray represents a new musical and lyrical direction for de Boer. She infuses pop/rock sounds with jazz, blues and soul, highlighted by her trademark smoky vocals, and her unique violin style. She came up with the concept for Civil Wray when she contemplated retiring her previous stage name blueVenus. As blueVenus, she released her album Grin in 2009. This period also included tours of North America and Australia, along with a six-year residency at Castro’s, one of Toronto’s legendary music venues. Civil Wray marks Andrea de Boers new role as mother.
“It’s about discovering meaning,” as she explains, “and having the understanding that all the different people and experiences you’ve had will eventually combine themselves into art.”
Kofi Forson: To fully understand Civil Wray, I listened to songs by blueVenus, your previous stage name. It felt to me like music you take with you on vacation, sitting at your favorite cocktail lounge or on the beach. Songs from the Civil Wray album seemed more fitting for a get-together, something more intimate. The songs are less frenetic, more trendy, hip and sophisticated. How do you explain the difference in sound between blueVenus and Civil Wray? What was your working relationship with Chris Stringer in getting that unique sound?
Civil Wray: I think the main difference in sound between the two is that blueVenus was my voice when I was still finding my voice, so I can see how you could feel a sense of escapism in the music. Civil Wray is my voice.
Chris Stringer suggested we record live off the floor with a group of studio musicians and overdub if needed, depending on the song. Chris came over and listened to a bunch of my songs and some of my newer song ideas, then picked his favorites. He asked me to keep making better demos for the band to learn the songs from …well what a great way to get me ready for the studio! After recording me and the band, aside from a few vocals, we added violin, viola and percussion.
Forson: The first single is Numb. There’s a very snazzy and cool video for it. You seem to be in your element. You possess a subtle acting prowess. You’re very much in the moment. I don’t sense a herky-jerky attitude. Everything is elegant and lush. Who was the director? What was it like making the video?
Wray: The “Numb” radio single was produced by Matt DeMatteo. The video to that version was made in Australia where I was touring. My tour mate Marta Pacek suggested I make a video similar to Martha Wainwright’s “Proserpina” with director/photographer David Gilliver. David and I made eight full takes by ourselves. A couple nights before the shoot, I had my heart broken and I was crying a lot, which was unusual for me, and I was worried that I was going to cry on camera. Somehow, I pulled it together. I’d been on the road with my then four-year-old daughter and it was one of the few times I had peace and quiet…that probably helped.
Forson: It’s a song you originally recorded as blueVenus. Why the decision to rerecord it? What makes it appropriate as the first single?
Wray: Numb was a transition song from blueVenus into Civil Wray. It made sense to make this the first single since I already had the video ready to go.
Forson: The lyrics for the songs have a sense of adventure and placement. What I like about your music is that there’s trust between the listener and the performer. In a way it is inviting and I like where it’s taking me.
Wray: I keep working hard to make music that connects. I’m glad that you feel it.
Forson: You’ve been a part of the poetry scene in Toronto. Where does your knack for being an intuitive writer come from? There is absolute awareness in your lyrics.
Wray: I’ve been writing poetry off and on since grade school. I don’t know where my knack comes from. Lyrics or poems all have different muses. Sometimes the words come through me from somewhere else…it depends if I know what I’m writing about.
Forson: You’ve been recently performing around the Toronto area to promote the album. What is the set up to perform these songs live? With blueVenus you had accompaniment, perhaps another guitarist. Certainly, there’s more of a productive value on the Civil Wray album. How are the songs represented live?
Wray: I have a few guitarists I work with including Luke Roberts and Jessica Stuart who are very good at bringing a full sound to the acoustic duo set-up, coupled with my violin, in many styles which textures the sound. This acoustic duo set-up is very intimate – great for small listening rooms. I also will be playing with the musicians who played on my album when our schedules sync.
Forson: You’ve spoken about other artists and how they may have inspired the album. What records were you listening to at the time you made the record? Given the creative process, did you consciously imitate what you were listening to or did it more or less seep through?
Wray: I listen to all styles of music. I learn and get inspiration from artists I love, so I would say I let it seep through. However, during that time I was listening to my friends: bluesman Paul Reddick and soul singer Tanika Charles to name a couple. I think the sounds seeped through but because the album was recorded live off the floor there was a lot of subtext. I’d also made another album beforehand that I wasn’t able to release. The emotions of that heartbreak were probably seeping through the most.
Forson: Your music has been described as indie rock. I sense also a strong pop sensibility and musicianship. You happen to play the violin.
Wray: I trained classically on the violin at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto but I was also writing pop songs. I went to music school for jazz, fiddle, etc. at Berklee College of Music. I needed to study in a formal environment. I wished many times that I was self-taught.
Forson: Who are the musicians you worked with on the album?
Wray: The stellar band! Champagne James Robertson (guitar), Joshua Van Tassel (drums), Robbie Grunwald (piano, keys) and Devon Henderson (bass). They were tremendous.
Forson: You’ve been quoted as saying you made your first album at a time when your father passed away. What was his influence on you early on? How did you come about your love for music, bands you listened to, albums you bought, concerts you went to?
Wray: My Dad played piano. His favourite composers were Bartok, Mahler and Gershwin. He taught me my first piano lesson when I was six. I learned where middle C was. He also taught me a boogie-woogie which he could play with his left hand in octaves. I tried to play it with my tiny hand…it was nuts. My Mum was also a big music lover even though she could only hear with one ear. Ironically, my Dad had one glass eye. They had a good marriage.
When I was a teenager, I listened to music that I found at garage sales. Surrealistic Pillow by Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin in Concert, Jimi Hendrix Are You Experienced, The Rolling Stones Hot Rocks, The Beatles White Album and lots of The Who and and…and music I found elsewhere…I love Sun Ra, Kate Bush, Oumou Sangaré, Brazilian music, Cuban music, John Coltrane, fiddle music…it doesn’t end there. I bought my first sound systems from garage sales, so I rarely listened to what the hip crowd was into. Well, I listened to what the hip crowds from days gone by listened to…radio, music videos or streaming…the medium, it’s always changing.
Forson: I once ran into Jane Siberry at a bus stop in New York City. Many years had passed since her hit songs like “Calling All Angels”. How has the Toronto music scene shaped your career over the years? What known Canadian performers have you admired?
Wray: Well, Toronto has many different scenes that I still discover that are vibrant and awesome. I don’t know how the Toronto music scene has shaped my career. I’m still shaping.
Forson: Through Pledge Music there’s a pre-order for the Civil Wray album. What information do you have about that and your upcoming tour, sale of merchandise, promotional events, website and availability on social media?
Wray: I have a Pledge Music pre-sale page which is currently my online store at www.pledgemusic.com/civilwray. I’m working on new videos to be released later this year.
I’ll be touring the East Coast of Canada at the end of August including Halifax’s HUFF Festival. An album release will occur in Toronto at the end of September followed by a tour of Ontario and Montreal. I’ll be touring more of Canada, the U.S., Europe and Australia in 2018.