A year ago this January, Ellen Doty decided to embrace the old adage of “less is more.”
No, it wasn’t a New Year’s resolution to strip away all of the clutter in her home or kick a few bad habits out the door.
It was a new musical direction.
And it changed her life.
The Calgary artist was in a studio in Toronto with drummer Davide Di Renzo and pianist Mark Lalama, having just spent the entire day with other musicians working on what she thought would be her new jazz album. That night, though, they began playing with a song that they’d been recording earlier, Stranger, this time with only her gorgeous voice, their instrumentation and the atmosphere of the room.
So much so that all of the other musicians were told that their services were no longer required, and she and her two new collaborators set about making her new record guided by the question of: “How can we play as little as possible and do as little as possible to make something that’s so special?”
“Leaving all of that space for the music was really a key part of that coming together,” says Doty, while sitting in Kensington pub the Oak Tree Tavern, with a steaming bowl of vegan chili and a cider in front of her.
The result is the stunningly sparse, warm, elegant and intimate Come Fall — an album so personal, naked in its delivery that it sounds like you’re hearing pillow talk, a whisper in the ear, the crinkle of the sheets.
That’s due in great part to it being recorded completely with Doty, Di Renzo and Lalama in the same room and attempting to keep things “as real to that experience as possible.”
“There’s something special about the feeling of us playing off each other and being in there together,” she says. “We didn’t want to lose that in translation when we got to the other side of the recording, so we wanted to capture as much of that as possible.”
Still, Doty admits that following the path to its natural conclusion, seeing things through, was a “scary” proposition.
Not only was she defying current contemporary jazz conventions, she was also highlighting the fact that she’s an unconventional jazz artist — one that has as much to do with, say, Cat Power as Diana Krall.
“I’m already different in that I have other influences in there so it was just a little scary to be like, ‘I’m going to do everything very different,’ ” she says. “But at the end of the day that’s just what gave me the best feeling about the music and really brought out the stories and helped me connect with it. I think that’s important.”
As for those songs, they also help up the intimacy level, the material deeply personal, despite the fact that there are several co-writes on it, including with Justin Rutledge, Andy Stochansky, Danny Vacon and Scott MacKay.
The latter track is one of the album’s highlights, Dreams You Don’t Remember, which is something of a followup to Just So You Know, a single she wrote for a friend who passed away suddenly a few years ago.
On Dreams, a duet with MacKay, it tackles the idea of her friend’s husband, who saw his late wife, spoke to her after her death when he was asleep — it becoming less and less so as time passed, he thinking it was her telling him it was time and it was OK to move on.
“That was a pretty heavy song to try and put into words. So I was really grateful to have Scott’s help and another perspective to that song,” she says.
The rest of the album, Doty says, follow the good and the bad of the previous few years, including more tragedy — the album is dedicated to another good friend who passed away at a very young age — and relationships past and present.
“There’s been a lot of ups and downs, it’s been a roller coaster couple of years,” she says. “Some really great triumphs and joyous moments and others that have been really difficult, so I think this album captures that up and down.”
Well, presumably there will be a great deal more ups following Come Fall’s release.
There already have been since its completion, with Doty signing to Toronto-based Alma Records, after interest from several other suitors on the strength of the completed projected. Her choice was made, in part, because Alma has partner labels in the U.S., the U.K., several European countries and Asia — with her having ambitions to take her career in a more international direction.
That’s already on the horizon, actually, as, having just returned from a showcase in Japan, she’s also finalizing plans to return overseas next October for some dates in France and Germany, as well as a full tour in Japan.
First, however, she needs to launch it properly with a hometown show at the Bella Concert Hall on Saturday, March 3. Not only are Di Renzo and Lalama flying out for the concert, and Vacon and MacKay will make an appearance — the latter is actually opening the show — but she has also enlisted Diana Krall’s lighting designer to help “make the show a show.”
“Not just a performance, but a show,” she says.
So, OK, maybe it’s just musically that Doty has embraced the “less is more” philosophy.
She has, after all, realized that Come Fall and all that has happened in the past year has taken her a “level up,” and she’s more than welcoming of what’s to come.
“New windows are opening, new doors,” she says, “so I have to be ready to answer.”
(Photo courtesy Brendan Klem.)
Ellen Doty’s new album Come Fall is available now. She celebrates its release with a show at Mount Royal University’s Bella Concert Hall on Saturday, March 3. For tickets please click here.