Toronto-based singer/songwriter Shawna Caspi hearkens back to a time when those known as folk artists used not only their words, but their music and musicianship to evoke emotion, and to make their listeners think, feel and act.
Besides being able to create powerful, poetic words, Caspi is able to use her guitar as a second voice to not only accompany the dark sweetness of her singing style but also to enthrall audiences with a deft touch on the fretboard, thanks to her remarkable abilities as a fingerstyle technician.
Caspi has been performing throughout North America over the past year, with her final date taking place on Thursday, Dec. 1 in Napanee, ON as part of the Starstop Concert Series. The show will be held in the coffee-house style venue of Ellena’s Café.
“I am getting ready to make a new record starting in December, so after the show in Napanee I will be doing a lot of prep for that. But I am really looking forward to coming to Napanee for the first time. I always love playing new places. I do a lot of different kinds of venues because it’s pretty easy to be adaptable when it’s just you and your guitar. I do a lot of house concerts where I do an acoustic show in someone’s home for 30 or 40 people – that’s one of my favourite things to do,” said Caspi.
“I love being close up to the audience and I very much appreciate playing for a real listening audience where the people are there just to hear music. I have gotten to the point in my career where I really don’t like bars any more, even if they pay well, because it just doesn’t make sense to play those sorts of venues with the kind of music I do. Actually, my favourite things to play are festivals because I just love that whole feeling of being with a large group of people who all love music. I love being there as an audience member as much as I do a performer.”
Caspi was born and raised in Ottawa and after earning a degree in music from York University in Toronto, stayed in the city to forge her professional music career. She released her first EP in 2005, called Trip the Light, and has since released three other full-length independent albums: Paint by Numbers in 2008, Skyline in 2012 and Apartments for Lovers in 2014.
“I didn’t come from a particularly musical family and I just sort of fell into music as a kid. I was in a children’s choir in Ottawa and that led me to going to Canterbury High School, which is an arts school. So I had great luck in being able to go there which led me to going to university and studying music.”
At age 12, Caspi, already a budding singer also began to learn how to play the guitar. She credits the unique training she received throughout her teens for the development of a style that has set her apart from many of her contemporaries.
“Again, it was kind of a fluke. There were classes you could take through the local board of education where you could come and learn basic stuff. So I took one of those basic guitar classes and did my thing and then I got a private teacher and I just happened to be that she was a classical guitar player. So she kind of got me right into playing with my fingertips as opposed to a pick. I actually took classical lessons for about six years and that really gave me my technique as a fingerstyle player,” she explained.
“When I went to university I also took another year of private lessons with a flamenco guitar player and that was really interesting in terms of the combination of flamenco, classical and folk guitar. And because of that I started to become really influenced by people like Bruce Cockburn and Stephen Fearing who are both really excellent songwriters but who were also accompanying their singing with this really complex guitar stuff.”
As a teen, Caspi was also introduced to the music of Sarah McLachlan and soon also began to follow other influential female singer/songwriters associated with McLachlan through the creation of her Lilith Fair tours.
“I always knew that I loved music. I loved going to the Ottawa Folk Festival as a teenager and there used to be a great folk club in town back then. So I became intrigued and passionate about folk music and that followed me to Toronto. Sarah McLachlan was my first introduction to really good songwriting that just also happened to be popular at the time. I think it was the entry point for me getting into more independent musicians at the time. The Lilith Fair was a pretty big deal and they were doing a really good job of highlighting the various independent artists in the places where they were playing. So I learned about people like Emm Gryner and Sarah Slean through that process,” she said.
“And those people were not really getting played much on the radio at the time and may not have been super well known but I was fascinated with what they were doing musically; I just thought there was some amazing music being created by these independent artists. So I started going to as many shows as I could while still living in Ottawa. And the internet was becoming much more important at the time and I began learning about other artists through the artists I had already come to like and admire.
“It was really cool at the time to see how people were starting to make careers for themselves in the early 2000s without record labels. It gave me a lot of hope that I could do this on my own. And Emm Gryner was one of those really inspiring stories. She was the queen of everything. She did crowdfunding before anyone else and she was doing house concerts before anybody else. She is amazing.”
Returning to the subject of Caspi’s chosen instrument, she has been playing a smallish Cort acoustic guitar for many years and has truly become a partner in her life and her musical career.
“My actual first guitar was one of those cheap factory-made guitars that they made in bulk for schools or catalogue stores back in the day. It was okay for school and lessons but when I started playing live and writing my own songs I needed to get a better guitar. A friend and I went to the Ottawa Folklore Centre, which I am sad to report closed a couple of years ago after being around for about 40 years. I was 16 and had gone to the bank and got a debit card for the first time in my life because I had never bought anything that expensive before,” she explained.
“So I went in with my brand new debit card and I played a bunch of guitars. The guy who sold me the guitar that day was Ian Reid who was a singer/songwriter from Guelph who happened to be working at the Ottawa Folklore Centre at the time. He sold me a beautiful Cort guitar. It was kind of smaller than the regular-sized guitars but it fit me because I am a smaller person. And it’s not a particularly expensive or fancy guitar but it sounds more expensive than it is according to everybody who hears it.
“I have played it for more than 15 years and as I have got more and more serious about my career, at times I thought I should probably get a fancier, more expensive instrument. I have tried guitars that are worth five or 10 times more than my current guitar and I still love mine better. It’s become part of me.”
And so have the songs that Caspi has written over the years. Again, like a troubadour from a bygone era, she writes songs from the heart. They are sometimes about her life or the lives of those around her, but increasingly, they are about important social issues. Caspi constructs her songs in ways that are both inviting and evocative. They are meant to make the listener not only enjoy the melody, but to think and reflect upon the message coming through her deeply poetic and literate lyrics.
“Overall, the way songwriting works for me is it’s usually the words first. And I find that over the last few years I have become more disciplined and structured in writing the music and the melodies. When I started doing things to a deadline I practiced writing every day. And that’s been good because I know sometimes when I would get into this spiral where if I am not writing I would feel bad about it and feel guilty and then start feeling really negative about things and then I wouldn’t want to be creative at all. So I found that writing every day is actually a real morale booster – even if it’s only for five minutes, at least I know I did something,” she said.
“Although I do admit that I am a very slow methodical writer and not very prolific, I am not one of those people who just churns out songs every day. In terms of what I am writing about, lately I have actually been doing a lot more writing that deal with social issues and global issues. I still write personal songs and love songs and songs that I draw from my own personal experiences. I have actually been working to try to draw from my own personal experiences even more in an attempt at being more honest and more transparent. It’s a scary thing but I think it’s really cool the more you can turn yourself inside out for an audience.
“I do write more hard-hitting social and political songs these days. There are a number of songs I have about women’s rights and women’s issues. And I am writing a lot about the environment. Those are really the two main areas I am focusing on right now. With some of these topics, I think they are issues that have been too quiet for too long. So once I actually have a song written I also have the benefit and privilege of having a stage and an audience where I get to sing about it and bring an issue to light where it might not have been brought forward before.”
Caspi’s last album, Apartments for Lovers, was the first one she did without backing musicians, simply her voice and her guitar. It was also the first time she recorded instrumental tracks. For the forthcoming album, she said she plans on bringing in session players for all full-band sound, even though when she tours, it’s still just her alone onstage with her beloved six-stringed Cort.
“I am a solo artist, but with the kind of stuff I do I try to make it sound as full and as colourful as possible. And the kinds of songs that I tend to do are more story-based songs, so there is a lot of storytelling in between, which lends itself more to the solo acoustic format. And I know that these days people are looking for something different and quirky and whatnot. A lot of times I feel that solo singer/songwriter gets pushed to the side, but I really believe in the power of one person and one instrument to entertain and move an audience. I think it still is a valid and valued form of expression and I still think it can have a big impact on really engaging with an audience. And that’s what I hope I do each time I play,” she said.
For more information on Caspi, visit her website at http://www.shawnacaspi.com.
For more information on her show in Napanee on Dec. 1, visit http://www.starstop.ca/shawna-caspi
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org