Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Red hot jazz

'Tragedy tempers people like steel'

LIFE IN SONG. Torch singer Serafin LaRiviere launches his new CD of reworked standards and new compositions.

Right from the get-go I loved Serafin LaRiviere’s new album. There’s something about warm melodic jazz that just gets my foot a-tapping — the musicians sound like they’re having so much fun. LaRiviere’s rich, sultry four-octave vocals are beautifully backed by an 11-piece orchestra and they take you on a heartwarming and at times heart-rending journey through some oldies, along with four original tracks.

Born into an abusive home LaRiviere (who has been a frequent contributor to Xtra under his first name) spent most of his formative years growing up with his grandmother and aunt. “I sang really early on. I sang before I spoke,” says LaRiviere. My grandmother in particular was very musical; she was a hummer and a singer.”

Official vocal training began at a Catholic school after moving from BC to Ontario. “It was the only bus we had where I lived. I was able to opt out of religion lessons and go and practice with a lovely nun by the name of Sister June Prentice in the furnace room. I’d stand in this room with all these boxes filled with the only musical instruments the school had: recorders for the grade sixers and ukuleles for the grade eights.”

Tossed out of high school after being discovered with his first boyfriend, singing went on hiatus. “I lived in my car and didn’t sing at all except to the radio… and the odd Anne Murray Christmas song with 100 Huntley Street,” he admits with a laugh. That had more to do with being madly in love with a boy from a born-again Pentecostal youth group than suddenly discovering any religious leanings.

After moving into a renovated chicken coop on a farm, he picked up music where he left off. “I started singing again because I was lonely,” remembers LaRiviere. “I have a strong voice, so I would go out in the field and have this Maria Von Trapp moment and I would sing everything.”

When asked about musical inspiration, LaRiviere gravitates toward the tragic misfits. “Gene Pitney had this amazing, really high voice, really powerful. And he would sing balls to the wall; everything was right there when he would sing. This guy is dying in his songs. Same with Johnny Ray. Nina Simone — all her songs are angry, even her mournful songs. Billie Holiday, you could hear that she was killing herself every time. I love that. Our lives are rooted in tragedy. But tragedy tempers people like steel.

“That is the ethic behind the album.”

Nothing Goes Quietly was created with longtime friend Waylen Miki, who won a Dora for his musical SARSicle. “Waylen scored the whole album from the piano to the trumpets — he’s a musical genius,” says LaRiviere.

But a lot of people don’t consider LaRiviere a jazz singer. “I’ve heard what people say about me, about how I’m a flaming queen and my voice is inappropriate for jazz, how it’s insulting to the material. People say I should be singing Judy Garland and show tunes. But that’s not what I do.

“Some guy said that I was trying to play the androgyny card vocally and it was disrespectful to the source material. That was pretty heartbreaking,” says LaRiviere. “I’m not playing a card. My voice is what it is. I sing within a four-octave range, which is fun because I get to play both [gender] roles.”

Surprisingly though, it’s the gay audience he finds the hardest to please. “We’re a ferocious audience because we’ve seen it all and we’ve lived through it all. You can’t get up there and play a tortured singer without the full knowledge that every single gay person hasn’t had at least the same amount of disruption in their own life, if not more. You have to actually play the talent card.”