Jeffery Straker’s Guiding Light

A stolen laptop and good old Punnichy fortitude lay the groundwork for North Star Falling

COVER by Rick Pollard

Jeffery Straker - photo by Darrol Hofmeister

Jeffery Straker is on a tour that will take him from Port Alberni, BC to Hunter River, PEI. But less than a year ago, it looked like his new album might never see the light of day.

In April 2014, the popular singer-songwriter’s laptop and backup drive were stolen from his Regina home. The drives contained lyrics and demo recordings from more than a year’s worth of work, some of it material that was to have been included on his new album. Three of the songs had been co-written with other artists and were saved elsewhere. But for the most part, Straker was forced to start over — which had a huge impact on the character of the album.

The loss also had a huge impact on Straker. In one interview, he compared losing that music to losing a guiding light.

“Urgency and necessity played into the writing in a way that forced me to be really focused and intense,” says Straker. “Coming out of that situation, I had this snapshot that sometimes the world isn’t a good place. But you just need to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and go on. And that’s what I did.”

The result was North Star Falling, a singer-songwriter album Straker believes has a more varied sound than some of his previous albums. “It still hangs together as a set of tunes,” he says. “But it’s my hope that the listener won’t quite know what to expect from song to song.”

He’s not kidding; one track “You Make Me Want to” contains no piano at all — a personal first.

“Each time I make a record, I try to have the piano-vocal at the core and then have something unique surround it,” says Straker. “When I made Vagabond [his last album], I made it with Danny Michel and it was a little more folk-organic. This time I wanted to steer the ship in a slightly different direction.”

That new direction led Straker to Dean Drouillard, a Juno-nominated producer, composer and songwriter based in Toronto.  The result of their collaboration was a record that hints at the ’70s but is rooted in a contemporary sensibility. There are elements of pop and folk, but North Star Falling doesn’t fall neatly into a particular genre.

And despite the circumstances of the album’s creation, a strong thread of optimism runs through it — not the treacly kind of optimism, but a resilience that acknowledges life’s sadness while choosing to move beyond it.

A good example is the track “Step Into The Fire”. The song came from Straker’s experience as an artist-in-residence at Camp Fyrefly, an annual camp for GLBT youth.

“There were all these young people that were queer and out,” says Straker. “For the first time in their life, they were the majority. It was so empowering for them to take that first step. And that song was about taking that experience home with them and applying it more in their everyday life.”

Pianos Over Punnichy

Straker’s profile has grown in recent years — his polish and experience, mixed with a natural, unaffected warmth, were evident in the interview for this article. He’s still, at his core, a polite boy from Punnichy, Saskatchewan.

Punnichy may not be most people’s idea of a likely incubator for musical talent, but Straker credits his small-town music teachers for his career. Punnichy couldn’t afford to offer a real arts program at the local school. But the school did have a principal who let students who wanted to take piano lessons leave class in the middle of the day.

Straker’s prairie origins inform his music to this day. One of his first albums, Songs from Highway 15, evoked his Saskatchewan childhood — the title of the album was taken from the road that runs past his parents’ farm.

It’s hard to imagine someone raised in downtown Vancouver writing lyrics like “laughing like coyotes” and “dancing in the fields, barley in the ballroom” from “Summer Love”, one of the tracks on North Star Falling.

“I was picturing grid roads and barley fields and the sun, and coyotes howling in the background,” laughs Straker.

Straker’s Gay Agenda

Today, after seven years as a full-time musician, six records and hundreds of shows, Straker’s gone global. He has performed in Peru, Ghana, Ireland, China, New York City, Panama, and Chile, where he won the Vina Del Mar song competition. That prize led to concert dates in other parts of Latin America, including a six-date tour of Mexico earlier this year with invitations to return next fall and next winter, and an upcoming booking in Santiago.

“It’s been neat to go to some place outside Canada and perform at all these sold-out shows,” he says, “particularly since I don’t speak Spanish!”

Straker is openly gay, a fact that led to a teachable moment here in Regina last year when he responded to a homophobic insult with his trademark civility. But he believes that his sense of being an outsider goes back further than that.

“It’s not just being gay and being out. That’s not even news anymore. In certain quarters where I tour it might be, but not generally.

“Actually,” he laughs, “I’m always surprised when people don’t know that I’m gay.”

Straker thinks he balances a queer sensibility with his desire to connect with a broader audience, but says it’s not easy. “I have a fairly big gay audience, but I’m also aware of the fact that most of the people coming to the shows aren’t gay. I want people to be able to insert themselves into the songs. Sometimes when I write a song with a pronoun, I take it out.  Other times, I leave it in. Either way, it seems to work out fine.

“Even within the LGBT community, there are all these niches,” says Straker. “Where do you fit within that? Which slot do you fall in? When you go to Church Street in Toronto, it’s the main street of gay culture. But when I walk down that, I don’t see myself reflected there at all.”

Straker thinks it goes back to growing up in small-town Saskatchewan.

“I was the guy who wanted to take piano lessons while my buddies were all playing hockey. It wasn’t an issue for people, but I just observed that it was something different.”

And he wonders, “What’s it going to be like in 10 years?”

A Guiding Light Home

Straker’s current tour will bring him home to Regina for two shows at the Artesian. He’s eager to re-connect with his Saskatchewan audience after the new album reached #9 on the iTunes singer-songwriter charts in its first week.

“That was a personal first for me. And I saw lots of Saskatchewan folks online talking about the recording. So a big thanks to them for helping with that.”

A track on North Star Falling uses the image of marching to the beat of a different drum while keeping your eye on the North Star to guide you. For centuries, travellers have used the North Star to guide them on their journeys. Jeffery Straker lost his guiding light when his music was stolen, but he found his way again by seeing the good in starting over.

“If the North Star fell, what would happen is you would have to figure out a different way to go on your journey. Or you would just have to take a different journey. So that’s what I did.”

Jeffery Straker launches North Star Falling in Regina at the Artesian on Thursday April 9 and Friday April 10. Doors at 7:00, show at 8. Tickets are $17.99 in advance and $22 at the door.

2015-04-02