She uses the term frequently: “imposter syndrome.”
It’s one that she dropped often both during this most recent conversation and a previous one to promote her glorious 2018 debut EP Won’t Wait.
Perhaps she should consider retiring it permanently.
Because there is nothing about Jess Knights’ new album that would even remotely hint at the fact the Calgary artist is an imposter or a pretender or a faker or any other word the thesaurus site wants to spit out when a lazy writer is seeking a synonym.
Best Kind of Light is testament, proof positive that the green-eyed, soul-pop ’n’ roots singer-songwriter is the real GD deal — one who can play in the big leagues with some of this country’s best musicians and not only hold her own but own it all.
“I certainly feel like I’ve elevated myself as an artist,” Knights understates, while sipping a pint in Inner City Brewing’s 11th Ave. taproom. “(But) this imposter syndrome, if it keeps me grounded and humbled, then I’ll stay that way.”
In every other way, she carries herself like a diva.
Best Kind of Light is a honey-dripping, heart-popper, so infused with life and love and soul and sweat and sex that it requires an ab workout prior and a shared cigarette after.
Thankfully, Knights takes the thinly veiled metaphor as the compliment it’s meant.
She laughs. “My old producer when we would make music, he’d say, ‘OK, but how do you fuck it? Is this song really aggressive and in your face or is this song really smooth — and I love that idea of: ‘OK, how do you fuck to this song?’ ”
Recorded last August in Toronto with producer Josh Van Tassel — whom had been recommended to her by friend Donovan Woods, who also co-wrote one of the 11 all originals on the record — and a handful of Eastern-based strummers, thumpers, pumpers and twangers Van Tassel handpicked, it is an album that (note: self-loathing Calgarian comment upcoming) could have been made in this city, but sounds as if and benefits from the fact it wasn’t.
“I’m a huge advocate for Calgary and the arts community and our musicians and players. (But) I did a lot of research and there was a sound that I really wanted to achieve.”
With Van Tassel at the helm and his musical menagerie in place, she saw, after a brief meeting with them a few months prior, that they were onboard and could deliver what she was looking for.
“Everything just unfolded so quickly that I was like, ‘If things are rolling out this easily then I have to go for it.’ And it was very fluid and very easy. So I don’t know that it was a deliberate thing to go outside of Calgary, but when I heard the sound that I wanted I knew that I had to go.”
That sound, when heard in its entirety, the way it’s meant to be, is one that’s incredibly unique, remarkably well-defined, and is that of “vintage soul hearkening back to Donny Hathaway, Sam Cooke” but with her bluesy, rootsy twist, and a set of pipes that can belt it out or pull back and send out all of the shivers.
And, again, she sounds so confident and assured in the bed that she and the players masterfully messed up together that you realize nobody could fake it that well.
She admits that she has “grown up substantially” since that initial EP, and is now comfortable being the “boss of her career and sound” and, if appears, her life in general.
Best Kind of Light showcases material culled from a period in Knights’ tale that featured the breakup of a long-term relationship and the Gorilla Glue-ing back together of all of those shattered pieces that you’re invariably left with when you’re now alone. It’s powerful, it’s empowering, and the artist is both of those things — even if she’s wont to admit it.
“If you ask me if these songs are personal I’ll deny it,” she says with a smile, “but this archives a chapter of my life in a lot of ways.”
As for how she chose to share those chapters, it’s done under the umbrella of “soul roots blues,” but dances into other wonderful territory — from the ragtime piano-based One Last Shot and dirty and gritty skronker Try A Little Harder (which she calls her “Tinder song”) to the countrified Candi Staton-esque title track and the beautifully, poppy Halfway that sounds like an Eliza Doolittle outtake.
“It’s very whitebread reggae,” she says of the song with a laugh. “Like, I don’t have sick flow.”
Which actually brings up a subject that’s a little touchier than songs to fuck to — that of race and cultural appropriation.
But the fact that Knights’ sound is very much steeped in music considered the realm of Black artists (blues, soul, R&B) doesn’t even come close to meeting the threshold of exploitative.
While she’s aware of how race relations are front and centre in the social discourse right now — proceeds from the first two days Best Kind of Light was on sale went to anti-racism charities in the city — her love of the music is real and her own music is a celebration of that.
“I would hope that I would never be scrutinized for cultural appropriation,” she says. “I truly feel like Black artists raised me musically.
“I was singing Aretha before I heard anything else. And Etta James. Later in life, I fell in love with Sam Cooke and Donny Hathaway. I would hope that it would be seen as the ultimate respect …”
She pauses. “Hopefully no one is a dick about it.”
She laughs again. “I do it because I love it, I love the sound.”
And trust us. She definitely ain’t no imposter.
(Photos courtesy Sebastian Buzzalino.)
Jess Knights Best Kind of Light is available now.