When you reach a summit, there’s a tendency to want to plant a flag, set up a tent, crack open a cold one and enjoy the view from the top.
But it’s equally as understandable to look at the next mountain over, see how much higher that one is and set about planning how to reach that particular peak.
And so on.
That’s the situation Calgary singer-songwriter JJ Shiplett finds himself in.
After a year that was, by most musician’s standards, pretty fantastic, he’s not as content as you’d expect.
In fact, now, days before the release of his full-length major-label debut, sitting in the Wild Rose Taproom, there is no sense of real accomplishment, no sense of contentment, but rather an itch to get onto that next slope and begin to scale it with all he can muster.
“I feel like 2016 was,” Shiplett says, pauses and, artistic license, chooses a different, non-mountaineering metaphor.
“You know that moment when you’re trying to get a car out of snow, and you’re rocking it, and you finally get traction but you’re not unstuck yet?
“That’s what I feel like 2106 was. The car got moving. And I don’t know what to expect of 2017 yet. I have a youthful optimism that I just feel like this year I have to push harder than I’ve ever pushed. The work ain’t going to get any easier, but I’m ready to work, I’m ready to get my hands dirty and try and make and build the foundation for a career.”
He continues. “I think that’s the mistake that artists make all the time, right? You feel like you got to a point and you deserve for it to keep rolling. But I don’t deserve it. I’ve got to work as hard as the next guy if not harder …,” he says.
“And not just the business side of it, I’m ready to work on the music side of it, too. More so than ever before do I love music and I’m invested in trying to create quality music, quality art. I want to do it now, because tomorrow’s not guaranteed for me. So let’s go, now.”
He does so, despite that urgency and drive, with a great deal of momentum behind him.
Actually, last year began much the same way.
After being taken under the tutelage of Canadian soul-country nice guy Johnny Reid, Shiplett then released an EP teasing what he’s capable of, hit the road for an extensive cross-country tour with his believing benefactor — which featured the highlight of a standing ovation for Shiplett at Massey Hall — and signed that major-label deal with Warner Music Canada.
The golden ticket?
Shiplett, possibly because of the past decade or so spent in the trenches, in the clubs of Alberta with his own earthy, roots excellence and a voice that is as warm, weathered and welcoming as a corner booth in your favourite watering hole, knows that one shot at it — albeit a pretty great shot — is not one to be taken for granted or squandered.
It’s why, once again, mere days before the drop of that debut Something to Believe In, the 31-year-old, well, believes that it’s only the beginning.
“I have to get fucking better at it. If I don’t then I’m just taking up space for the other artists that are writing better songs …,” he says with his eyes displaying a spark that threatens to blaze.
“I think that as you get older in the music industry it’s so easy to become jaded and think that your way’s the best way. But my way’s not the best way. I’ve got a lot of learning to do.”
Something to Believe In, which dropped Jan. 27, is still a pretty fantastic place to start. Recorded down in Nashville with Reid and some high-priced session musicians, it was then brought back home and infused with a little added personality and raggedy soul by Shiplett’s longtime touring band — or “band of brothers” — which includes drummer Nathan Giebelhaus, bassist Greg Peace, guitarist Daniel Huscroft and keyboardist Ari Heinikainen.
And the songs, true to his belief that this really is only the beginning, represent something of a greatest hits of Shiplett’s indie canon, some of them having been written as far back as five years ago, including the title cut that opens the album, with the closing cut, Always for You, representing his most recent tune, still being a couple of years old.
In between are some true gems, including the twanged-out, bold country-rock shuffle of Higher Ground and the sweet, rollicking Am I Dear, and, perhaps the album’s highlight — and the obvious first single — the tear-tinged, nostalgic hard-drinker and slow-dancer Darling, Let’s Go Out Tonight.
Perhaps admitting that he’s already learned some pretty great songwriting lessons, Shiplett notes that the latter hit-in-waiting has a “classic Springsteen vibe,” albeit one that’s a little more hopeful than the personal and lasting lessons he was taught by a healthy diet of Bruce back in his early twenties.
“I think about my personal life and I just think that every relationship is destined to fail. And it’s like, ‘Why do I think this?’ ” he says and laughs.
“It’s fucking Springsteen, man. All my relationship advice is based upon Springsteen’s idea that it’s all going to go to shit.”
Love-life aside, Shiplett’s hoping to take another aspect of The Boss’ — and his own boss’s —secrets to a lasting run in this biz and that’s both Springsteen and Reid’s commitment to showmanship.
Granted, the latter is a little more Vegas now and the former has become a category of entertainer all his own, but Shiplett admits that what they do, how in the moment and genuine they are when they take the stage, how they truly give it their all to any audience they’re in front of is something he and his band, are trying to emulate.
He relates a story of playing a gig in Dawson Creek, when they were first on the bill, behind Edmonton rising country act The Dungarees and headliner Dwight Yoakam, and were given little time for soundcheck, had the bare minimum of monitors to work with.
Before showtime, Shiplett says, he rallied the troops, asked them to realize the limitations they were working with, ignore them and overcome them — thereby putting on what he considers to be one of the best shows they’ve ever had.
“That’s what I’m trying to learn to do, is give it as much as I can and ask the boys in the band to go with me: ‘Follow me, let’s do this together, and help me,’ ” he says.
“And try and put on a show that’s … entertaining in the sense that, ‘These guys are giving it their all and they mean every ounce of it.’ ”
And it’s those successes, both major and minor up until now — be it the label deal, the release of the EP-now-album, shows at Massey Hall or in Dawson Creek — are the real reason he and his band of brothers are ready to move on to the next mountain or, rather, get that car out of the slush and onto the open road.
They haven’t yet seen the highest summit or felt the traction that dry pavement provides, but they’ve been close. And want to and believe they can get closer still.
“I think we’ve all got the itch,” Shiplett says.
“All of the boys in the band thought, ‘Hey we could get used to this. Let’s go.’ And I think that’s why we want to work so hard because we’ve tasted it.”
JJ Shiplett’s new album Something to Believe In is available now. He performs Feb. 10 at the Alexandra Dance Centre and Feb. 12 at Festival Hall as part of this year’s Calgary Folk Music Festival’s Block Heater. For tickets and more information please click here.
Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for theYYSCENE.ca, and the co-host of the show Saved By the Bell, which airs Wednesdays from 4-6 p.m. on CJSW 90.9 FM. Follow him on at Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He likes beer. Buy him one.