The songs on Suzanne Jarvie’s debut album sound like they come from an experienced songwriter. They don’t settle for trite sentiment or easy topics; a couple drift into the realm of the metaphysical. As it happens, they all were written by a relative newcomer to songwriting. Even with a lifelong love of music and performing, it took not one, but two life-threatening situations involving her children before Jarvie discovered a songwriting gift that she never knew she had.
Jarvie’s album, Spiral Road, was released late last year to rave reviews. Her engaging vocals (somewhat reminiscent of Lucinda Williams) and thought-provoking songs found a receptive audience not only in North America but overseas as well. So where had she been? Was she banging away on the folk circuit before getting her big break? Actually, prior to this record, she could most often be found in a Toronto courtroom.
Jarvie has had a lifelong love of music, with the singing ability to match. A combination of stage fright and a need for stability in her life led her to put it aside for more than a dozen years. In the interim, she became a criminal defense attorney in Canada, married and had four children.
“Between working and having kids and paying the bills, I put [music] on the backburner without even realizing it. It was sort of like a dream that was never very practical,” Jarvie says. “Even though I still had this huge urge inside me always to play and sing, it got to the point when I was an adult that I didn’t have any room for it.
“You kind of rationalize things that you let go of, saying that it just didn’t work out or say, ‘That’s okay, you can’t have everything, I’ll just be happy with these wonderful things that I have,’” she adds.
Her life was jolted when her son was diagnosed with a heart condition when he was five and had to go through two open-heart surgeries. A few years later, her oldest son fell down a spiral staircase and suffered a traumatic brain injury, falling into a coma that lasted for eight days.
“I think at that moment I went through some fundamental shift in my whole psychological and emotional being,” she remembers. “It was a combination of shock, and also for the first time, everything was beyond my control. There was no way to fix it, nothing to be done.”
It should be noted that Jarvie’s sons have received outstanding medical care and are doing well today. Her oldest son has almost recovered physically and is dealing with the neurological aspects of his injuries.
In the thick of the ordeal, though, Jarvie says that she spent weeks driving back and forth to the hospital, first dealing with the grief of almost losing her son and then the joy of seeing him wake up and reach milestone after milestone. One day, Jarvie found herself home alone with her Martin guitar. She began picking out a melody, and to her surprise, song lyrics started coming out.
Prior to the accident, Jarvie had been dipping her toes back into music by singing with some musician neighbors. For all her singing prowess, though, songwriting still eluded her.
“All my life, I’m such a music lover and spent so much time either wishing I could write or writing a lot of bad songs,” she said. “There were a lot of rhymes that ended up in the trash. Then it was like the door opened.”
The songs that ended up pouring out of her during that time can be found on Spiral Road. Some of them deal directly with her experiences and emotions as her children went through their ordeals. “2458,” for instance, is taken from the time spent at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. The numbers in the title represent the floors where she and her family spent most of their time. (The second floor is ICU, the fourth is cardiac, the fifth is trauma and the eighth is plastic surgery, where her son’s skull was reconstructed.) The stream-of-conscious lyrics (“Plane games, picture frames, please write in your child’s full name”) illustrate the state of shock that Jarvie was in, as scattered, disjointed sights and sounds become all that she could process.
A few songs, most notably the title track and “Angel of Light,” are more spiritual in nature. Jarvie originally contacted a Navajo healer in the Four Corners area when her son came down with his heart ailment. When her oldest son had his accident, she sent some of his belongings to the man, so he could perform a day-long healing ceremony.
“I was really moved at a spiritual level by Navajo rituals,” Jarvie says. “I was already having this romance with that, especially for one who didn’t have a spiritual or religious compass in my upbringing. There was something about the Navajo rituals and culture that really spoke to me.”
With the support of her husband and her musician friends, Jarvie gained the confidence to get the songs recorded. Jarvie met producer Hugh Christopher Brown through a mutual friend, drummer Gregor Beresford. Brown had a successful rock band called the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir in Toronto.
The resulting album is a personal and lovely, complicated slice of Americana/folk music. The Holmes Brothers appear on a couple tracks to add a further spiritual feel to songs like the opening “Before & After.” Jarvie even incorporates a bit of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” into her song, “Shrieking Shack.” (Yes, J.K. Rowling is thanked in the liner notes.)
Jarvie has some plans to tour behind the album in 2015 and wants to visit overseas, where her album is soon to be picked up by a European distributor, as well as the United States. A follow-up album may also be in the works, as Jarvie has kept busy writing songs — a fortunate development for music fans. Good lawyers are hard to come by, but good music even more so.
As always, I love your journalist style articles, Sam! What an inspiring story. I’m now intrigued enough to check out her work!
While I see the Lucinda Williams comparison, I have to say that Jarvie’s voice is much more agreeable to my ears.