In my top five ways to experience joy in the world, being in the vocal booth of a recording studio easily makes the count. Being a late bloomer in my discovery of this has only added to the magic, since I was already 39 when the stars decided to align and show me just how much fun can be had while shut in a soundproof room with a powerful microphone.
I’d been a closeted singer since forever, every once in a while peeping out from behind the doors, mustering up the courage to audition for one band or another. I’d routinely land lead singer spots for this band or that, but listening to my gut, swerved from accepting any of them – my hesitation fairly inexplicable to me at the time. Mostly, they just didn’t feel right.
Yet, at my very first audition way back in high school, when I thought I’d sealed the deal for the role of Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar, it was only to find that it went instead to the pretty blond cheerleader girlfriend of the cute lead guitar player in the accompanying band. Simply a first sour taste of nepotism it was, but I very discreetly labeled and filed it away as something else – that I’d not been good enough.
I tested the audition waters for quite a few years, but nothing felt quite right. It was, odd as it sounds, the act of saving myself for an opportunity that would feed me properly, despite the silent dog whistle of my not enough-ness playing in a loop on its very own track, panned into the background of my life.
As it happened, on my 38th birthday, I got the very thoughtful gift of some singing lessons from my sweetheart. Peter thought that they’d put a fire under me to do something with this stalled passion of mine. My vocal coach was to be Toronto jazz singer, Louise Lambert, whose work I knew well.
The synchronicity of events that followed, like reverse origami, began unfolding – bliss that I couldn’t in my wildest dreams have thought existed.
My first lesson was in fact another audition. After wrapping up Bonnie Raitt’s, I Can’t Make You Love Me, Louise asked me what I’d been waiting so long for when my music career was waiting. That moment makes the list of things that change everything.
Her comment was like a permission slip from a hall monitor to move freely through a building I’d never really even seen before.
At a lesson several months in, Louise handed me an instrumental CD that she thought I’d really appreciate. One of her other students, Soozi Schlanger, a talented visual artist and bandleader of the Cajun group, Swamperella, had brought it to give Louise a listen. It was Soozi’s partner, fiddle player, Oliver Schroer’s CD called, JigZup. I had never heard of Oliver Schroer, but I took the CD on Louise’s recommendation, not really thinking much more about it.
Back at home I began listening, adjusting my headphones and soon, the tilt of an increasingly gaping jaw.
The complexity of each tune, the haunting melodies, musical dynamics, unique instrumentation, not to mention masterful playing, were beyond inspiring to me. I learned with a bit more inquiry, that Oliver Schroer was a hugely respected musician, unquestionably a Canadian fiddle icon, whose talent had evaded not only me up until then, but many Canadians.
With my introduction to Schroer’s music, it seemed like a cape had been laid chivalrously over some murky waters of my own musical uncertainty. I read the JigZup liner notes over and over to acquaint myself with the intent behind the music and I replayed the tunes, incredulous at what I was listening to, each and every time.
Their complexity sparked a tumble of words, and I grabbed a pad of paper and a pencil, hoping to catch what I could on the page and mold them into phrases that hinted at becoming ideas. I compensated for my utter lack of composing skill, by scribbling wavy lines to correspond with where the vocal lines would sit in the vortex of Schroer’s multi-layered work and its equally challenging time signatures. I counted the cadence within those squiggly lines against the syllables of the words that came to me, until the two met seamlessly as one.
It was cave woman in approach, granted, but like pounding a rock against a heap of grain, it was working. I was kind of getting flour. Miraculously, it was even starting to seem like I could make a cake with it.
Within a week or so, I’d completed lyrics to two of Schroer’s songs and worked on my own vocals enough to deliver the result to Louise with the least chance of embarrassment possible. I did have trepidations. “What if what I’ve done actually sucks?” came to mind as a possibility. But also there was, “I’m pretty sure this is good. It feels good to me”, and that propped me up a bit.
The day that I planned the reveal, I was booked to take a harmony class with some fellow singers, one who happened to be Soozi Schlanger. I arrived early, asking Louise to give what I’d done a listen. She then excitedly grabbed Soozi as she was arriving and demanded, “sing the songs again!” Soozi shrieked, saying that she knew that “Oli”, was going to “freak when he hears this! You have to come and perform them at his 40th birthday party! It’s next week.”
My heart appeared to have lodged itself in my throat, if the sub woofer pulsating in my neck was any indicator. I hadn’t sung with a band for ions, and even that was by comparison, nano-blips of stage experience at best. Some of the most notable musicians in Canada would be at Oli’s birthday party, so I was told. I was exuberant, in a scared shitless kind of way, and I knew I had to hatch a plan where I could do what Soozi had asked, and attempt to avoid looking like a complete ass, at all cost.
The synchronicity bliss-o-meter started to peak…
Peter’s long-time friend, Bill happened to mention in passing that his brother, Drew, was renovating a spiffy recording studio in downtown Toronto. This news came in just as I was in hyper-contemplation of how to handle the birthday bash conundrum. I got the name of the studio – Louder Music, and mustered up the courage to phone and ask about booking a recording session.
I was thinking that if I recorded my lyrics over a couple of Oli’s tunes using his instrumental recording as the backing track, I could maybe let Schroer hear what I’d done in the best possible light. I could maintain my cool and hand him the CD, listenable at his leisure. Then I could make good my escape out the door right after delivery, which seemed like a win-win proposition – the possible probabilities of cowardice and bravado both considered – the former winning.
This recording studio stuff was a completely foreign world for me, and clumsy and unfledged in even the right lingo to use to convey what I was looking to do, I phoned to book a two-hour session from the studio handler. Polite, but obviously under-whelmed with the whole notion, it distinctly felt as if she might have been doing her nails on the other end of the line while she took down my information, giving me the appointment time, and I do believe, a yawn.
I begged Peter to come with me to handhold and act as wrangler of my nerves – a job he did with his usual aplomb and a slight air of stage dad. We walked into the sun-filled 20th floor studio and a prompt greeting by the studio manager, who by happenstance was a friend of Drew’s – a fact that made for a friendly icebreaker.
Settling us in, he took me to be introduced to the pair of sound engineers who had, in their mind, drawn me as the ho-hum-but-she-pays-the-bills client in the afternoon lottery of the luckless. I shook the hand of head sound engineer, Carey Gurden, who in his obligatorily professional way introduced me to the assistant sound engineer, Cam MacInnes. They began the business of setting me up for a sound check in the floor to ceiling glass vocal booth.
With an unimpeded view of the city south of Adelaide St. and Lake Ontario beyond (a sea of new condos obliterates that view now), I felt like I had died and gone to heaven – the setting was spectacular; surreal. As for Carey and Cam, they were still bracing themselves over their lot at having to record an uninspiring version of a Scarborough housewife’s karaoke afternoon out.
They took the copy of Oli’s CD, dumping the two songs I wanted to record that day onto a track, awaiting my intended vocals. I was handed a set of headphones and was positioned in front of a Neumann 87 microphone at a height perfectly aligned to mine, and a large, circular pop shield was affixed over the tube of the mic.
This was serious gear – like being in the driver’s seat of a Ferrari, when a Honda was more my comfort zone. Carey slid shut the glass door of the booth, and back at the console, spoke to me through the headphones. “Sing a few notes for me, will you, Lizzie? I need to get your levels.” So I started in, drowning out the sound a million butterfly wings make as they flutter in a stomach.
Carey glanced at Cam, wide-eyed. He walked back across the studio floor to the vocal booth, slid the door open, took the headphones off my head, said, “holy shit”, put my headphones back on my head; then proceeded to close the door and head back to the console. “We’ll continue when I change my underwear,” he then said to me directly through the headphones.
I was stunned. Laughing. Not to overwork the word, blissful.
That karaoke afternoon had magically morphed into something else for us all – the kind of sensation you have when you discover that you’ve just won the synchronicity lottery.
To make a very long story short in these coincidental unfoldings:
• Oli loved the recording, especially since he’d once done a similar overdub, featuring his fiddle playing over a Norwegian singer’s work. He asked me to be a guest singer with his band, the Stewed Tomatoes. We became good friends and he continued to inspire me until his passing in 2008.
• In search of a longer-term project, I answered another ad and met Craig Downie, of Enter The Haggis fame. He became a champion of mine and plotted to introduce me to his friend, instrumentalist, Brandon Scott Besharah – on the very day, it must be noted, that I’d met with a reputed energy healer who my friends were raving about at the time – an elderly Englishman who was visiting Canada. He appeared to be wafting his gnarly hands around my back, seemingly moving energy around my spine. After five minutes and the comment, “well, that will change everything”, delivered in a thick Cockney accent, I went to pay, frankly thinking I’d been duped. That was until my spine seemed to catch fire from within, starting at the base, the heat creeping up my back like an intensely deep blush that lasted several minutes. Clearly all of his wafting had ignited something.
• I handed Brandon a copy of my Oliver Schroer demo at Allen’s, the venue where Craig had arranged for us to meet, and where Brandon was playing that night. Apparently I failed initially to impress him in person, but he did put the CD on for a listen – about a month later. He called me at 9 A.M. that same morning to ask if I would “tour with him for the rest of my life”.
• We came up with the band name, Besharah, as using Brandon’s last name was meant to be a riff on the Jewish word, Beshert, or coincidental occurrence, fated to be.
• Carey Gurden became Besharah’s amazing bass player and ringer for the playing style of the late, Jaco Pastorius. The talented Cam MacInnes, also joined us. (They’d both failed to mention how good their musicianship was when we first met at Louder Music). They also suggested that another of their musician friends join us – the great drummer, Dave Norris.
• Stewed Tomatoes percussionist, multi-instrumentalist and TED Talker, Ben Grossman, joined us on recordings and at times in live shows, as did the highly creative percussionist, Debashis Sinha, along with many other talented guest players.
• We made three critically acclaimed albums together as Besharah. Were Juno nominated. Wrote a song called, The Amazing, for The Amazing Kreskin, that he opened his Las Vegas shows with; the same song that he introduced to the airwaves on the Howard Stern Show, oddly enough. Kreskin opened the show for our Cereal Suits debut concert at the CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio. We had radio airplay in over 50 countries. And we had a lot of fun.
What’s really amazing is right timing meeting right headspace that then meets right opportunity. That’s the very definition of synchronicity – when out of the most unlikely of circumstances, magic happens.
May the synchronicity engines be well tuned in your life too!
The last Besharah recording at The Chalet Recording Studios, Oliver Schroer’s, Horseshoes and Rainbows track, with vocals. Coincidentally, Horseshoes and Rainbows was one of the songs recorded that first day at Louder Music.
p.s. Another wonderfully synchronized musical project is currently in the works…