Jeffery Straker has the characteristics of a true Gemini, the zodiac sign symbolized by twins. It’s as if Straker has two completely different sides: He divides his time between Saskatchewan and Toronto and he combines cabaret and pop sensibilities. But his twin nature goes beyond his June birth date. The charismatic performer can write songs and carry on a conversation like no other.
“The part of rural Saskatchewan I’m from has a storytelling tradition,” says Straker. “I heard amazing storytellers growing up and saw people listen to them in amazement. That storytelling has trickled through to my writing.”
Straker’s only complaint: The queer scene in Saskatchewan is way too small. As a creative person he finds the expansive skies and connection to home inspiring, but for all things to do with the proverbial rainbow he feels the call of the big city. As a full-time musician he’s been able to juggle holding postal codes in both areas.
“I spend half of my time here and the other half in Toronto,” he says. “In Saskatchewan I feel so bizarrely uninhibited, both personally and creatively, because there is space all around — so much of it, with these massive blue skies. And it makes sense that I feel connected to it. I grew up in it.
“Being able to be part of the gay community in Toronto is really great. It’s almost like being spoiled, as there is nothing like it in the rest of the country.”
On his latest album, Step Right Up, Straker strikes a pose. His theatrical sensibilities combined with his background in classical music create a stunning collection of cabaret-pop. Straker’s video for “Hypnotized,” an homage to vaudeville with flappers and burlesque dancers parading in the street, has charted in the top 10 on Much More Music in the past few weeks.
“It’s been really interesting to get to the top 10 actually. I wasn’t sure what, if anything, might be the result. It has led to more fans in places I’ve never been to in Canada, so the exposure has been great.
“And in terms of industry, it’s led me to be exposed to music business people who’ve now contacted me about working together. I didn’t actually know who watched the channel or how many, if anyone did. But apparently they do.”
Last year he opened for Mel C at Toronto Pride, an experience he describes as one of the most surreal performances yet. But he’s heading into uncharted territory this year: Following a busy summer with shows across the country (including Toronto at Slack’s on Thu, Jul 12), Straker’s off on a tour to China.
As an out and proud songwriter, Straker says he never feels that his sexuality is an issue in the entertainment industry. “There is the obvious stereotypical connection between the cabaret influence in my music and me being gay,” he says. “I doubt you’d find many hard-core country singers who are straight infusing their music with cabaret nuances. And lord only knows at what point in history the gay gene got spliced with the Broadway one, but it happened and bits of that are in my music.”
With musical characteristics akin to Hawksley Workman, Sarah Slean and Elton John, Straker believes in the power of song. He wants to craft timeless tunes that capture a moment in time, the flickers and flutters of the heart and universal appeal of human experience.
While he draws lyrical inspiration from a perplexing variety of sources, with three albums under his belt — Petrified (from 2003), Songs from Highway 15 (2006) and Step Right Up (2008) — he’s not worried that he’ll run dry.
“My muse is really eclectic in her tastes. And she’s been visiting me lots lately,” he says. “I do gravitate toward writing about the underdog a bit in some of my songs. I’m not quite sure why, but find it really interesting. I like making them the hero in songs.
“Other songs come from personal experience. Some come from heartbreak. But on the latest album it’s all about people that I know or experience personally.”