Someone once said the best education in life you can get is in a bar.
Probably an alcoholic, but still, the point is a valid one.
It’s certainly one that Mariya Stokes would agree with. Or, maybe just outside of a bar.
The local country singer-songwriter was set on her current path at an early age when her parents purchased the watering hole in her hometown of Stavely, AB, which is just over an hour south of the city.
“That’s kind of how I got into music, is they would have bands coming through town and I would just sit on the steps right outside of the barroom and just watch and hang out,” Stokes says, sitting in the Phil and Sebastian in the Simmons Building.
“And they would sneak me in on Friday nights for jams and stuff like that.”
Again, it was only the beginning of her education in the world of music, one she says she was always drawn to, always singing even for her own enjoyment. Then it was for others, as she began performing at those jams, then for larger audiences, singing the national anthems at local rodeos, eventually releasing an EP when she was only 16.
And when she officially chose music as her life and career?
“I don’t think I chose it,” she says simply. “I’ve talked to so many musicians about this — I think it chooses you.
“I really always wanted to do music but I’m kind of a realist, so I didn’t even really think it was possible and I didn’t know what that would look like, but it was actually my parents who encouraged me after I graduated.”
So after her academic education came to a close, she took steps toward a post-secondary degree in the hard knock life of arts, moving to Calgary just over five years ago, working a waitressing job seven days a week. During that time, she was also writing, gigging around town, performing at jams when she could, and getting her name out there.
“And within a year and a half after moving to the city, I was able to quit my job and do this full time,” she says. “The first few years I don’t know how I survived, I was extremely broke.”
She laughs. “But you know how it goes, you figure it out.”
Not entirely, though, she admits. There was still some more formal education she needed in the music business. For that, she went east to take part in Canada’s Music Incubator program, which is, according to its mission statement, “a not-for-profit incubator based in Toronto with a mandate to help artists and artist managers evolve from starter companies into sustainable businesses through hands-on networking, mentoring and collaboration.”
It was, she says, quite an educational experience.
“I’d been developing as an artist-entrepreneur for a lot of years, but I felt like I was wading through the mud blind because there’s no real education for musicians, like what your rates are and all of those things,” Stokes says. “So it was really cool to do that program because they just basically opened my eyes as to how to make a sustainable living as a musician.”
They also provided her with an opportunity to open for local legend Jann Arden, something she still seems awed by.
With her diploma from there she then began to focus more on having that sustainable and thriving career, performing steadily not only mainly cover material for corporate shows but in bars and clubs around town, making a concerted effort to get her own work out there.
She’s now at that point where she has, and has definitely made a name for herself in the local country scene. So much so that for the second year, she has made it to the Top 12 of the Project Wild competition — a contest, which, while also helping her continue her musical education, due to the mentoring and feedback aspect of it, should push her career further.
As should the recent release of her first single Hands On My Body. It is sexy, sultry song that is as much R&B as it is C&W, finding a late-night groove in which Stokes and her vocals seduce you inside of.
It was, she admits, a song she was uncertain of, until she was down in Nashville doing a writing and recording stint with producers Spencer Cheyne and Justin Kudding.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know, it’s so edgy and pretty risqué and it’s pretty honest.’ And (they were) like, ‘Well, that’s you, you dumb idiot. Start with that and then you can introduce the rest of you.’ ”
She continues. “I don’t want to stick necessarily to one thing, which a lot of people say isn’t a good idea. But I’m a songwriter first and I’m in it for the slowburn, and I’d just rather release interesting music.”
She’ll have the opportunity to do that when she drops a new single later this summer. But before that comes the busy Stampede season for her, which starts with another pretty amazing opportunity — a show Thursday, July 4 at The Palace performing with and backing up celebrity drag queen Trixie Mattel, along with fellow locals Nice Horse.
Stokes says she’s a “super big Trixie fan” and friends with the ladies in Nice Horse, so the opportunity for a collaborative show is one she’s thrilled by.
Even more important for Stokes is the fact that the kickoff party is proudly being billed as an LGBTQ+ safe space, something that’s not normally a consideration or all that easy to find when it comes to the upcoming 10 days.
“I’m just excited to have a safe space and a collaborative space and an inclusive space for people to go during Stampede, because there’s not enough of that, so I think it will be cool,” Stokes says.
“I think it will start something and hopefully it will get bigger next year and there will be more of that.”
Mariya Stokes performs Thursday, July 4 at The Palace with Trixie Mattel and Nice Horse.