Halifax composer, arranger, vocalist and pianist Zoe Leger has just released her debut recording The Girl From Yesterday. Recently we spoke with her about her passion and profession.
What inspired you to take up music?
Music has always been the answer to my questions. I’ve been singing since I was a little girl and am very fortunate to have always had family and mentors that have supported my musical endeavours. I don’t think there was ever a time in my life when I doubted what I wanted to do or who I wanted to be. When the time came to choose which direction I wanted to take my career, I suppose there wasn’t really a choice to be made - music was my only answer!
Are they the same reasons you do it today?
Yes and no. Music is still what brings me the most joy and sense of purpose in my life, however when I was young I think it was more about my personal experience writing and making music. Now, I see the joy and excitement that comes from creating music with others and learning from those that have come before me. Now the challenge is finding out how I can most contribute to the music community, both at home and abroad.
What are the challenges of the vocation?
I think the hardest thing about being a musician is accepting that the thing you love doing the most is also your ‘grind’. When you have to survive based on your creative output, it puts stress on the mind and body, which I think is why many musicians and artists get discouraged when they’re first starting out. You also have to be able to ‘hustle’ a bit to get work and sell yourself, which is always hard to do, especially if you’re a bit shy. But I think if you stay true to what you’re trying to accomplish and who you are as an artist, people will embrace that and support you as a result.
What are the rewards?
Each day presents new challenges and an opportunity for growth and discovery if you are open to stepping outside your comfort zone from time to time. I get bored easily with routine and predictability, so I love the idea that I don’t know what the next month, year or decade holds for me. I never have a day where I wake up and say to myself, ‘man, I really don’t want to go to work today’. As long as I feel that way, I’ll know I’m doing what’s right for me.
How have you grown as an artist over time?
I studied jazz in my post-secondary education: I did my Bachelor of Music in Jazz Studies at St. Francis Xavier (Antigonish) and my Masters of Music in Jazz Composition at Birmingham Conservatoire (United Kingdom). Learning a creative discipline in an academic environment allows you to devote time to discovering artists and working your craft in a way that few get the opportunity for. It also means, however, that you end up creating a lot of music in a certain way just because it seems like the ‘right’ way to do it. In the past few years I’ve really been able to break free from any preconceived notions about what jazz is or how I should be composing music, and just writing the music that I want to make. I think this has allowed me to become more true to myself and create music that is honest and representative of who I am as a person.
Is your creative process more 'inspirational' or 'perspirational'?
I wish I could say ‘inspirational’, but I’m a bad liar. I love deadlines and I work well under pressure so some of my best songs have been written under stress and definitely some perspiration. Sometimes that urgency is actually what the body needs to find some inspiration!
What makes a good song?
A good song is one that the listener can connect to. Whether it’s honest lyrics, a memorable melody or a groove the body wants to move to, it doesn’t matter the genre or style. If the listener understands what you’re trying to communicate, your goal as the songwriter is achieved.
Lots of that inspiration and perspiration. The Girl From Yesterday has been a long time coming. I’ve wanted to make an album for the past few years, so when I finally mustered the courage and determination, I booked the dates and didn’t look back. The album was a huge undertaking as I composed and arranged all the music, played double duty in the studio (voice and piano) and produced the album as well. Although this created a massive amount of work, it was amazing to be able to do things exactly the way I wanted to. I also had an incredible group of musicians working with me - Ronald Hynes on bass, Damien Moynihan, drums, Paul Tynan on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Jeff Torbert and Nelle Callanan on vocals. All of these musicians contributed so much of their unique musical voices and ultimately shaped the album for the better. The record was also recorded and mixed by Thomas Stajcer at New Scotland Yard Studio (Dartmouth); Thomas really got what I was trying to accomplish and was super sensitive to the music which is hard to find and made working with him an absolute treasure.
How did you feel when it was completed?
Excited. I was expecting to be completely tired of listening to the album and ready to take a mental break, but each time I finished a part of the process - recording, mixing, mastering, etc. I was already planning my next release.
What has the response been like so far from those that have heard it?
I feel so fortunate to live in such a supportive music and arts community here in Nova Scotia. This is a place where artists really support one another, so it’s been amazing having other musicians and members of the creative community helping me to promote my first full-length album. As the record was just released a few days ago, I’m excited - and nervous of course - to see how the next few weeks play out as the music reaches more ears.
What are your thoughts on the state of jazz Atlantic Canada?
The jazz community in Atlantic Canada is small but definitely thriving. With major events like the Halifax Jazz Festival happening this month, it always serves as a reminder that the ever-evolving genre is alive and well in this little pocket of the universe. There are some amazing musicians that live in this part of Canada that are creating really unique, innovative music; it’s an exciting world to be a part of if you’re willing to discover it!
Do you have any advice for young musicians just starting out?
Work - really, really hard. Be kind to yourself. Keep asking questions and don’t be afraid to make mistakes because everyone does, all the time.
What's next on your creative agenda?
I’m playing a show on Sunday, July 17th at 2:30pm as part of the Halifax Jazz Festival. I’m also a finalist in the Stingray Music Rising Star contest happening during the jazz festival so I’m gearing up for that currently. Summer is my most creative time of the year so I plan on doing a lot of writing - I have one major composition commission on the go - and planning some collaborative projects for the fall.