Jeffery Michael Straker is huge in Saskatchewan. And no, that’s not a punch line. His 2010 album Step Right Up outsold Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber in his home province, and the tour for his 2011 follow-up, Under the Soles of My Shoes, included a guest appearance from an impressive backing band. “I did a show with the full Regina Symphony Orchestra,” Straker explains, “and we sold out their whole concert theatre, which fits 2,200 people.”
Like we said: huge in Saskatchewan.
“Something like that is something that can happen on the Prairies when it isn’t yet happening elsewhere. And I really hope that I can make it happen elsewhere.”
Time will tell, but 2012 just might be a turning point for Straker. His brand-new release, Vagabond, has been garnering some exciting press, including a four-out-of-four-star review in the Toronto Star, which called it “one of the most faultlessly conceived and meticulously executed albums in any genre to come out in Canada in a long time.” Saskatchewan may not be able to keep her favourite son a secret much longer.
Straker’s music is a pop-folk hybrid with a dash of cabaret showmanship — sort of like the unexpected yet surprisingly down-to-earth lovechild of Neil Young and Elton John. And while he may be working in a similar milieu to singer/songwriters Rufus Wainwright, Gentleman Reg and Owen Pallett, his work is a bit more accessible. It’s also a bit less ostentatiously queer, a fact that may have helped him connect with more conservative Prairie audiences. But Straker insists his sexuality tends to be a non-issue even in places you might not expect it to be.
“I just did a show last weekend in Alberta, north of Edmonton, and I talked to someone at the break and the conversation meandered into politics, and I said, ‘What’s the voting persuasion up here? Is this Alison Redford country?’ And this lady said, ‘No, at the last election, people pretty much walked away from her and really embraced this new party called the Wildrose Party.’” Straker pauses here to throw in a nervous laugh, though he quickly adds, “At the same time, I mean, it was pretty clear that she knew I was gay and out, and it didn’t come into the question.”
Artists are often able to acquire an amount of diplomatic immunity, crossing borders and entering territories others might be excluded from, and it’s interesting to see the different communities Straker’s music has been able to reach.
“My music is far from country,” Straker observes, “and people often stereotype the Prairies as a place where there’s only country music. And the Prairies is a place where country has a big following, of course, but they also have tons of appreciation for all sorts of music and arts, just like anywhere in Canada.”
Maybe it’s his music’s very Canadian-ness that has allowed Straker to develop such a strong foothold in the middle of the country. Vagabond’s first track, the single “Birchbark Canoe,” was recorded (along with the rest of the album) at the CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto and features harmonica accompaniment by Fred Penner. Which is probably the most Canadian sentence you’ll read all day.
“It is pretty Canadian,” Straker admits with good humour. “I think the only thing else I could have done would be to get Justin Trudeau to play the tambourine.”
For those who grew up watching Fred Penner’s Place every weekday morning, getting the famed children’s entertainer (and member of the Order of Canada) is almost as much of a coup. And where exactly did the two meet? In Saskatchewan, naturally.
While sharing a stage at the Regina Folk Festival, Straker introduced a brand-new song called “Birchbark Canoe” to the crowd — a number that he intended to perform solo. But Penner had other ideas.
“I get in about two bars, and he takes out his harmonica and he starts to play along. And it was super-duper beautiful, just really nice. So musical and so tasteful.”
Despite the fact that it was early on a Sunday morning, the festival crowd leapt to their feet and gave the song a standing ovation, and Straker knew he had stumbled upon something worth hanging on to.
While he may not be outselling Gaga or the Biebs outside the Prairies yet, who knows what the future may bring? For now, Straker is content to be a bit of a vagabond himself, touring the country from one end to the other, building an audience base on a grassroots level, and finding new borders to cross.
“One of the things I never expected was having my eyes opened so many times about different parts of the country. We’re a huge country. It’s really neat! And I never would have got to have experienced that had I not done this with my life.”