For many musicians, releasing a CD is an exhausting milestone involving logistic hurdles and stress galore. Then there’s Ottawa’s Jill Zmud, who launches her new album Friday. As she tells Peter Hum, she’s a new mom of not quite six weeks.
How have the last five weeks and a bit been for you (and for your husband, Alan Neal)?
What’s the midpoint between exhausted and exhilarated? Exhauslerated? It’s been a beautiful strange trip with this perfect little daughter. Well, the neighbours might not think she’s so perfect. She’s very vocal. I don’t know where she gets it from. But she’s perfect to Alan and me. Everything has been such a brand new experience: the changes in sleep, the magic of feeding her, the not-so-magic moments of diaper changes.
And then at the same time, there’s all the work for the album release. So there’ve been days where it’s like “Okay, breastfeed, breastfeed, pass her to Alan, pick up CD artwork to approve.” Or she’ll be my built-in audience as I’m practicing. But then again, she’s been there inside me through the whole recording so she probably knows all the songs.
How much composing and recording did you do while you were pregnant? What was the influence of having a child growing inside you?
We recorded most of the album in January when I was about 28 weeks pregnant. Steve Dawson, the producer, had wanted to record at Tragically Hip’s Bathouse studio which I was very excited about. But I realized I would not be playing much guitar on the album given the fact that, well, there was no place for my guitar on my belly. Also, I was terrified about my voice. Breathing was a total issue. There are moments on the album where I’m singing and fairly strong Braxton Hicks contractions are rocking their way through. That was the recording, anyway.
But the composing? There were a few songs I was still finishing, finding the right words for while pregnant. A song called Carry Me Home on the album is about how I felt at one point in my life when I lived in Toronto, and me calling home to my parents. And I realized as I was writing it, ‘Oh my God, someday my daughter could be making this call to me.’ Which was a powerful realization.
But it was actually the title that came to me while pregnant when I was realizing all the stuff I was grappling with and coming to terms with on the album while pregnant and I kind of sighed to Alan, “Oh, you know, just these small matters of life and death.” And he looked up and said “Hey, there’s your title.”
When you booked the CD release concert, did you know it would coincide with being a new mom?
No. I don’t think anyone would’ve planned the CD release a month after giving birth. It was this beautiful, wonderful surprise when we found out in August we were pregnant and then we thought, “Whoa. Does Jill still try to put out an album?”
But one of the things that’s kind of tied to the theme of the album is that there’s never the perfect time for anything … and you may regret what you put off. So I decided to plunge ahead. I’m thrilled with how it’s all turned out.
How do you think Friday’s performance will go?
It’ll be a big debacle, Peter. No, I’m hoping all will go well. I have a few excellent musician mom role models who I’ve seen juggle it all: Oh Susanna, Jill Barber, Kellylee Evans, Measha Brueggergosman, Jerusha Lewis. I may be calling on all of them for advice. But luckily on stage at the NAC there’ll also be Steve Dawson who’s coming in from Nashville for the show, plus the gospel greatness of Jerusha and Christine and Marc Decho on bass. So I won’t be all alone and exhausted and mommy-brained up there.
Now that you’re a mom, will the experience of performing be different any different?
It is interesting, how after childbirth, it’s kind of like, ‘I can face just about anything now.’ Whatever was scary before… now, not so much. So whatever used to be daunting about “Oh my goodness, what if I step on stage and everything isn’t flawless?” doesn’t seem scary after you’ve done that seemingly impossible task of pushing a first baby out.
Also, singing these songs from this album, that are so connected to the idea of those who went before us, and my family … that means something more too. So this concert feels tremendously significant to me.
It says on your website that the theme of your new album is “examining how we carry on after any loss.” Why does this theme resonate so strongly for you?
I lost my dad three years ago this month. When that happened so suddenly, it became almost impossible to fathom, how you go back and how you go on. And it’s not like it all ever returns to normal. The normal changes, I guess.
But it was through some of these songs on the album that I started to heal, and through healing that I wrote some of the songs. It’s a profound, painful thing, losing a parent. I make reference in two of the songs to having lost an anchor. That’s how it feels. You’re lost.
But then there was the idea that even when loved ones leave us, a little of them lives on. Like a piece of my dad does in my daughter. And in a different way, like my Uncle Eddy on the reel-to-reel tapes I found.
Tell me about the influence of your uncle, Eddy Clynton, on this CD.
My Uncle Eddy was a member of the band Witness in the 1960s and ’70s and had left the band to pursue a solo career. He was killed in a car accident before I was born.
But a few years ago I was back in my parents’ basement in Saskatoon and found this dusty box that had these reel to reel tapes with my uncle’s songs on it. I listened to them and it was this powerful experience, listening to songs that had sat there for 40 years, unheard. I cover two of them on the album, including New Jersey Turnpike, which Jim Cuddy sings with me on the album.
And then others I used as jumpstarts for songs of my own, where I’d take a line from one of his songs and draft a new song… or some were inspired by Eddy’s works, like there was a tune of my uncle’s called Frank Jones where he wrote about this guy who was leaving town and leaving behind a woman named Victoria Tucker. So on my album there’s a song called Victoria Tucker told from her point of view.
What comes after the May 23 concert, musically and otherwise?
Well, I’m going to spend a lot of time with my lovely little girl. That’s the main plan. And then I’ll return to performing in September with a show at the Ottawa Folk Festival and some out-of-town shows in the region. Hopefully I’ll also get a bit of sleep.
February 28, 2014 THE GLOBE AND MAIL (Brad Wheeler)
Bob Dylan and the Band have their Basement Tapes, and Jill Zmud has hers.
The Ottawa-based singer-songwriter is currently finishing her second album (Small Matters of Life and Death), which takes inspiration from demo recordings made by her uncle, Ed Clynton. The crackly reel-to-reel tapes from the early 1970s were discovered by Zmud in the cellar of her parents’ house in Saskatoon.
Clynton was a member of the late-sixties pop band Witness Inc., before splitting to pursue a solo career. While on tour in 1974, the singer-guitarist died in a car accident in Northern Ontario. His tapes gathered dust for decades, until Zmud happened across them and resurrected a pair of the tunes for her forthcoming record. (One of them, the elegiac road song New Jersey Turnpike, can heard at soundcloud.com, while the story of Small Matters of Life and Death is documented at Zmud’s crowd-sourcing site.
The album is expected to arrive a few weeks after Zmud delivers her first baby in mid-April. One of her uncle’s songs that won’t make it onto the album is Frank Jones, about a drifter who “left behind the precious things that are not too often found.” Lost and found, life and death – these things have a way of working themselves out.
March 8, 2014 CBC Radio's IN TOWN AND OUT (Giacomo Panico)
Click here to hear Jill talk about the new album and Indiegogo campaign.
November 21, 2009 THE OTTAWA CITIZEN (Lynn Saxberg)
Before Jill Zmud appeared at Westfest earlier this year, as a guest singer with producer Dave Draves's band, few people had heard of her. Within minutes, however, her rich, soulful voice imprinted itself on the crowd and she left everyone longing for another sample.
Well, here it is, proof that the Saskatchewan-born, Ottawa-based artist has much more going for her than a pretty voice. Her CD shows she is also a fine songwriter, gifted lyricist, strong guitarist and an inventive piano player. Plus, she knows how to pick a co-producer. Draves's stamp is evident in the intimate production, warm sound and mostly acoustic instrumentation.
Highlights of a wonderful album include the folk-pop lilt of Gold, the beat-plucking motif of Shark and the swelling Late to Bloom.
Other shining examples of her talent are the gospel-tinged Reconcile and the understated groove of East of the Line, a poignant song about her roots in Saskatchewan that features another Ottawa singer-songwriter, Jim Bryson, on electric guitar and back-up vocals.
Zmud is definitely one artist to keep an eye on in 2010.
November 13, 2009 Culture Magazine (Kris Millett)
One of the many things the Online Music Revolution has begat is an unprecedented explosion of successful female artists. Which is a refreshing change after decades of women lying on the outside of a now-dying male dominated industry model -- largely shut out from lucrative record deals, major tours, and radio play. With the Internet as a distributional and promotional tool, women now have the platform to record and release music as they please, and more control over the way they are portrayed visually.
The consequence of these developments is an ever-brimming glut of female singer-songwriters possessed of good voices, solid tunes, but very little else to distinguish themselves by.
Enter Jill Zmud into this complex scenario. She arrives with a significant head of steam--nominated by Ottawa Xpress as the best new local artist of 2009, she has received backing by CBC Radio's Amanda Putz and airplay on Bandwidth. For the recording of her debut full length, As We Quietly Drive By, Zmud has capitalized on this buzz by surrounding herself with ace collaborators. In the producer's chair sits Dave Draves, who was behind Kathleen Edwards' 2003 breakout debut, Failer. Zmud added another key component to Edwards' debut, the vocals and guitar work of Jim Bryson. The Draves-Bryson team invested heavily in Edwards' promise, in turn moving her from obscurity to the stages of Letterman and pages of Rolling Stone. Zmud appears to be their latest protégé.
With As We Quietly Drive By, Draves may have hit pay dirt for a second time. The production is stark and satisfying, and the songwriting boasts a level of maturity rarely attained on a debut record. Draves' experience with the genre shines through on arrangements subtle yet adventurous, as exemplified in the opening track, "Gold", which contains an unexpected tempo change at the 1:25 mark -- serving to inform the listener The production is stark and satisfying, and the songwriting boasts a level of maturity rarely attained on a debut record. that this is no ordinary county-folk waltz, and no ordinary female singer-songwriter. Zmud's opening line refers to her unusual sounding surname, singing "don't be afraid to sound it out" -- you may be saying it a lot. Other moments of the song expand on this allegorical premise, addressing her future audience as a newfound lover, extolling her "good fortune to be with you" and later saying, "You are gold". This is a tactic she returns to on the chorus of the album closer: "Even in the dark/I fit right by your side" -- inducing the listener to dim the lights and put on headphones.
The sonic adventurousness reaches its pinnacle on "Shark", boasting Krautrock-sounding breaks, and a playful standup bass that seems to taunt the sneering anger of her vocals and backing music. The opposing forces conspire to produce something both unsettling and addictive, with unpredictable arrangements that refrain from becoming goofy and overly theatrical in a way Canadian contemporaries Christine Fellows (and to a lesser extent, Jenn Grant) are prone to do. One can do anything in a studio these days, so it can be hard to know when to hold back.
"Reconcile" perfectly exemplifies this album's prevailing sense of restraint. Expertly sequenced between the plodding madness of the aforementioned "Shark" and upbeat jangle of "Late to Bloom", "Reconcile" is wonderfully understated and sparse, providing plenty of room for the dobro work of Ottawa institution John Carroll and Zmud's blues-tinged singing and contemplative lyrics -- almost Gospel-like in its resignation in the face of unspecified adversity. The song creates a unique mystique for Zmud, painting the little-known singer as a purveyor of ancient wisdom.
As We Quietly Drive By contains plenty more little pleasures for the listener to sink their teeth into, from the male baritone backing vocals in "Late To Bloom" that spark the chorus with a chain gang buoyancy, to the grandiose payoff to slow-burning album standout "Wish", (featuring more adventurous background singing). The sonic consistency of Draves' production helps tie together a collection of songs that distinctly vary in melodic, lyrical and rhythmic approach, and could run the risk of sounding disjointed in lesser hands. No songs qualify as filler, though "Precipice" does give in to some of the aforementioned theatrical excesses I bemoan. Here, Zmud's voice adjusts to take on a Feist-ian whine. She pulls it off with ease, but it falls flat in my books. "Pilot Light" revisits this concept, but proves to be a more satisfying fusion of piano-driven song fragments, mainly due to a killer chorus that sews the splinters together.
Does As We Quietly Drive By do enough to distinguish Jill Zmud from the fem-rock fray? She wonders aloud on "Precipice" -- "Will I always be on the edge of this/A cliff up high a precipice".
The album certainly lays the foundation for exciting prospects to come. The final track "By Your Side" possesses a melodic swagger and uncomplicated lyrical approach that is ideal for radio, only I doubt it will meet the play list formats of Live 88.5, 89.9, Virgin, or Chez. Maybe it will find a home on one of those hipster television soundtracks. Either way, Zmud doesn't sound too concerned, surmising at the end of her album that it's "funny how not getting what I want can be beautiful". No matter how the album performs commercially, she can be satisfied that on As We Quietly Drive By her reach and grasp have coincided beautifully.
July 12, 2010 Ottawa Tonite (David Yazbeck)
The Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest started just over 15 years ago with one stage and three days. It’s now grown to a multi-staged, 12 day event with some of the best music you’ll experience in one location. Less a bluesfest than an eclectic music festival, the Ottawa Bluesfest is a must-see event. And while one of the standards to measure any festival is the quality of its lineup, another way is to watch the fans. I did this on Saturday, and found many smiling faces, dancing legs, grooving heads, and plenty of clapping and cat calls. The fans love the Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest.
The Bluesfest has done a great job of programming Canadian music, both local and from across the country. With that in mind, my partner, Louisa, and I first headed to the Barney Danson Theatre to check out Jill Zmud’s performance. Transplanted in Ottawa via Saskatchewan, Jill is a young and very talented singer songwriter, with a sweet voice and a unique ability to draw out the best in her accompanying musicians.
[But first, an aside - enroute to the Zmud show we passed through the Blacksheep Music and Comedy Tent. I spotted another local music lover, Sean, sitting outside. He wasn't interested in talking because he said I must go see the Mohawk Lodge in the tent. He said they're a cross between the Constantines and Wolf Parade, and from what I heard he was right. Just as interesting were the band's stage antics, filled with plenty of super energetic jumping and banging and all-around cacophony. I asked Melissa, who had seen the whole set, how it was. "Crazy", she replied.]
Back to Jill Zmud. When we arrived about 20 minutes before the show started, there was a substantial lineup. Clearly, these people had heard about Jill. The crowd was as varied as the Bluesfest lineup - young and not-so-young, hipsters, regular music lovers, and lots of people looking forward to a great performance. One young woman spotted an older man in line – presumably a relative or older friend – and asked with surprise, “Do you know Jill Zmud’s music?” With a smile he said yes, the smile stressing that anyone of any age can enjoy good music.
One measure of a musician’s skill is the interest that other musicians have in her. In line ahead of us was Jon Bartlett, from Kelp Records, chatting with Rolf Klausener from the Acorn. ... The crowd loved Jill’s set. She played plenty of songs from her latest CD, as well as some new material, a sweet version of Tennessee Waltz, and some incredible a capella tunes. Jill’s band features local uber-producer Dave Draves on keys and guitar (here’s an idea for a contest – ask someone to guess how many records Dave has been involved with in one way or another), guitarist Chris Page, who plays with gorgeous finesse and understatement, and vocalists Christine Mathenge and Jerusha Lewis from Voices of Praise gospel choir, whose ability to sing is amazing.