Punnichy's Straker earns folk music recognition

Jeffrey Straker, who was raised on a grain farm four miles east of Punnichy, SK. has been performing music for years.

Those efforts earned Straker some extra recognition recently when he was announced as the Saskatchewan Music Award winner for Roots/Folk Artists of the Year.

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Straker, who local music fans might recall as he was in the area celebrating fifty years of the Organization of Saskatchewan Arts Councils in 2019 doing shows in both Yorkton and Langenburg bringing along some friends to the party - Jack Semple and Annette Campagne, said the recent SMA award was appreciated.

It "was a nice surprise," he said, adding "the nominees in the category were all so good, all making such great music; I really wasn't 'expecting' the award in full honesty.

"The only thing crummy about winning the award during a pandemic is that the award ceremony is on-line.

"So when the show is done you can't put the trophy on the bar and drink beers and celebrate with friends.

"Rather, you wait for the hardware to arrive in the mail at some later date, after you turn off the live-stream and go to bed alone in your house. Talk about anti-climactic."

But the award is still good for a career.

"Perhaps what an award can do is twofold: as the Saskatchewan Music Awards get talked about in general, and people see who the award winners are then maybe some new people will find my music," offered Straker.

"Also people who already know and follow my music have been so nice to be congratulatory on my social media pages. There's a neat dynamic with people who follow a musician who is far from being a 'household name'. There's a bit of pride in saying 'I spotted this guy first!'.

"So for people who have been following my songs for several years now, an award helps them say 'told you so'. It's a little tongue-in-cheek I think but I see some fans sharing the pride in the award which is really nice.

"I am very, very grateful for my listeners."

So how did Straker get a start in music?

"Mom put me into piano lessons when I was six," he said. "She put my older brother and younger sister into lessons too, but I was the only one who liked to practice. Without practising you get nowhere!

"I genuinely really, really liked it and I also really wanted to impress my piano teacher, Mrs Young.

"Vicky taught hundreds if not thousands of students over the years. At a certain point she sent me down the highway to Mrs. McTavish in Raymore, SK. who was also a wonderful teacher.

"Then after that I studied with Frank Crumly who was head of the piano department at the Conservatory of Music at the University of Regina. Frank taught me during Grade 10, 11 and 12 of school when we'd make a weekly drive into Regina for lessons."

And of course radio played its role too.

"All the while I was enjoying listening to pop and folk music that was quite far from the classical realm that I was studying," offered Straker.

"I also liked jamming along with the old-time tunes that would get played when all the neighbours brought their musical instruments over. Those epic jam sessions would sometimes go to 3 or 4 in the morning."

Over the years Straker's music of course evolved.

"My piano style has certainly evolved with time," he said. "I think initially when I started writing songs it was more pop-meets-classical which had a bit of a cabaret feel to it.

"But with time it's become more roots/folk sounding; perhaps less embellished leaving more space for the lyrics to tell their story.

"I don't know what it is about my piano playing but people always ask after shows if I was classically trained. I don't quite know what it is that they hear that makes them ask that? I like the question though and take it as a compliment."

Following up on the award, Straker has a CD about to drop.

"My latest recording will release May 7," he said, adding "it's a 10 song full-length album.

"Eight of the songs I wrote by myself, and two were co-written with an artist in Toronto who I enjoy co-writing with: Royal Wood.

"The sound of the album leans in a roots/folk direction.

"Piano is obviously present but it's surrounded by instruments like double bass, acoustic guitar, banjo and fiddle. Most roots/folk artists play guitar - it's just sort of 'how it is'; so being a piano-player in this genre sets my sound apart a little bit."

The new recording will be varied.

"Lyrically the songs run the gamut from love and heartbreak to pondering about being from small town Saskatchewan," said Straker.

"There are a few songs on the album very much inspired by my mom who passed away quite suddenly in February 2019. Writing the songs was part of my therapy of trying to understand that."

Generally, Straker said he likes being a storyteller in his music since that has been one of his major influences.

"I love the lyrics in the storytelling style of the 60s/70s folkies: Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Harry Chapin, Neil Young and the like," he said.

"I'm also very influenced by two guys who 'sang and played piano': Billy Joel and Elton John.

"Billy's songs to me were 'story songs' (ie: Allentown), while Elton's were more metaphorical (ie: Burn Down the Mission).

"Their styles are very different but I really enjoy the unique approach of both.

"Carole King also influenced me along the way. Her chord progressions are often from some other far off galaxy! She's really brilliant."

So amid all the music what has been Straker's personal career highlights.

"That's a tricky question because I think most people expect the answer to refer to an award or something of that nature," he said.

"For me I don't make music to try to win awards -- never have, never will.

"Rather, I make music with the hope of connecting to people through songs.

"So a very magical night in that regard was a 2013 performance with the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra. It was a full two-set concert of my songs backed by the orchestra and TCU Place was sold out.

"I don't know what was in the air that night but the whole thing was electric.

"I kind of wondered if the audience had just drank a lot at the intermission," he added with a laugh.

"The band I had with me, the orchestra, the audience - everything was on fire!

"The response from the audience that night was just wonderful. Those moments when the connection is palpable, you just can't forget it. I can actually close my eyes and still feel it.

"Another career highlight...performing on 'Profile' on TV in Yorkton, SK when I was 10."

So in a COVID-19-dominated world what is next?

"I'm excited to be finding creative ways to release and perform this upcoming new album that will release in May," said Straker. "I'm going to do a series of live-streamed album release concerts that will cross the country in a virtual sense.

"There's a partnership with the National Arts Centre in Ottawa as part of this, and local presenters helping to get word out in various parts of the country.

"My hard-working agent is brewing this up and it's really quite clever of him.

"Through the summer months, I'll be continuing my 'Pandemic Piano Backyard Tour' that I started last summer. Last summer I performed small shows in 36 backyards across Saskatchewan and Alberta, since backyards are COVID-friendly and allow easy distancing.

"This summer (COVID restrictions pending) I hope to do over 50 of these shows."

© Copyright Yorkton This Week

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