Astonishingly honest vocalist Shaye Zadravec makes musical interpretation an art

It’s hard not to flinch every time Shaye Zadravec uses the “c” word.

It’s something she does often during a chat at the Wild Rose Taproom on this Saturday afternoon.

It’s not that it’s offensive or it’s falling on prudish ears, it’s just that the connotations it carries doesn’t quite do justice to who she is and what she does.

So when Zadravec calls the songs she performs “covers” it seems like something of a disservice to her talents as a musician and vocalist.

Perhaps, instead, we should call them interpretations. Gorgeous, moving, singular, heartfelt, haunting and affirming interpretations that the artist makes her own.

And, yes, she is an artist and, of course, her reimagining of other songwriters’ work is an art.

“More and more I’m learning to not be ashamed of that,” Zadravec says. “Because that’s how I started, that’s what I did as a youngster, was just listen to music that my dad played and I would mimic what I heard. I think that’s a very early form of learning and developing your voice, just trying to see how it feels to actually know what you’re listening to, to try and sing it yourself.

“It makes me happy to do covers, it makes me feel good. It’s neat to be able to take someone else’s song, keep it essentially the same but put it in your own context and have your own backstory, because whatever reason, depending on how you sing it or how you play it or what key you sing it in, it can add a totally different meaning to someone who’s heard that song hundreds of times by Patsy Cline or Frank Sinatra. So I think just because a song’s been recorded and released doesn’t mean that’s all there is to it. I think there’s lots that you can learn from a song.”

And there’s a lot you can learn from the singer.

In a few short years, Zadravec has become an integral part of the Calgary roots and Americana community — on a trajectory that seems to mirror that of now scene stalwart Mariel Buckley. The number of those championing her many, the opportunities coming her way many more.

She and her sad, soulful, doe-eyed yet cotton candy coated vocals, rightly, are a now ubiquitous presence on the city’s stages, and can also be heard this Saturday, Feb. 23 as part of the Calgary Folk Music Festival’s Block Heater and will, early next month, get an even greater audience as the opener for popera quartet Il Divo on their Western Canadian tour, including a March 8 Jubilee Auditorium date.

It has all happened gradually, organically and, for Zadravec anyway, surprisingly.

“Up until about seven years ago I didn’t really know that live music existed and that it was a thing,” she says.

“I was in my own little world and I was like, ‘Oh, you can buy CDs,’ you don’t actually think there are people that do that and still actively make a living singing and playing an instrument. It didn’t really occur to me until I discovered this musical world.”

Her gateway into that universe was open mic night at the Ironwood. A friend she was singing with in high school recommended she go and dip her toe in the water, so one evening she went with her father, watched, listened and was enthralled.

“And I went back the following week and I got up and sang,” she says. “And I kept going back.

“They couldn’t get rid of me.”

They didn’t want to. Especially not the musicians who make the Inglewood venue one of their local haunts, such as Steve Pineo, Tim Leacock, Tom Phillips and Kit Johnson — the latter local luminary getting up onstage with her unannounced during one particular vocal-only performance and adding his guitar into the mix, shocking her, surprising her and thrilling her further.

It was those early experiences that she says gave her the “green light” to pursue music, to enter into the fray and become part of a tight-knit and supportive community.

Since then, she’s become a fixture, be it in a duo with her sister Sydney, accompanied by Leacock once a month at the Blues Can, or as a member of Phillips’ backing band The D.T.’s, which performs every Tuesday at the Can as well as other gigs around the city.

“I see the support growing,” she says. “It kind of started with close family, close friends, but to see it grow especially in the last two or three years, it’s really, really inspiring. And not just the audience but musicians as well,” she says.

“I realize every time I’m singing with someone like Tom, he’s one of the best songwriters that’s come out of Canada, in my opinion, so it’s just neat that he is so encouraging and wants me to be part of that.

“So that support system has been really incredible.”

Another key figure in her rapid ascent has been Neil MacGonigill, who has taken her under his wing and taken her further. MacGonigill, who previously worked with such acts as Ian Tyson, Billy Cowsill, Joe Nolan, and, most famously Jann Arden, introduced her to Chip Taylor, with whom he had a longtime working relationship and friendship.

Several years ago, Zadravec, still relatively green, opened for the American songwriter responsible for such hits as Wild Thing and Angel of the Morning and the two hit it off.

She eventually interpreted his tune I’ll Carry for You, which he included as a bonus track on his album of the same name — getting even more accolades than his own version — the working relationship continuing beyond that when Zadravec hit the studio to record a number of tracks for an EP. 

New to the recording experience, things didn’t go entirely as planned, but Taylor then sent some of the artist’s vocal and ukulele tracks, “stripped down, sparse,” to his producer in Norway, Goran Grini. He gave them some love, left them with their honesty and warmth, and returned them to her for what would become her debut EP, Norway, which she released late last year.

It’s astonishingly naked and honest and hints at much greater things to come, with Zadravec lending her tender touch to that aforementioned Taylor tune, as well as the oft-covered James Shelton song Lilac Wine, Shelby Lynne’s If I Were Smart and Cris Cuddy’s Dear Elvis (with a reprise that closes the album out).

They are, like everything that she sings, songs that she “emotionally connects with,” and is able to make her own, while simultaneously, effortlessly connecting with her audience.

“I auditioned for a cover band years ago and I had to learn the song Moves Like Jagger and I was like, ‘Yeah, this doesn’t work for me. I cannot connect to that at all. It’s fun, but people don’t buy it if I try to sing it,” she says. “Personal connection when you’re interpreting a song helps.”

And while right now she’s content to be an interpreter of other songwriters’ work, Zadravec admits she is dallying in the craft herself, having now composed a pair of songs that make their way into her set.

It’s early days, but she admits it’s something that she’s hoping to get better at, while still honing her vocal skills and making her mark with the words of others.

“I’m going to explore more, I’m going to write more, but I’m putting in the work outside of that as well,” she says.

“I want to be a singer before anything else.”

She is.

With a voice you should know.

Shaye Zadravec performs Saturday, Feb. 23 at the King Eddy and new Central Library as part of the Calgary Folk Music Festival’s Block Heater. For tickets and set times please go to https://www.calgaryfolkfest.com/blockheater/artists#/artists/alphabetical.

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.com. Follow him on Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at mike@theyyscene.com.