With a fixation on trip-hop and pirates, this local talent is as eccentric as she is potent
A family home video shot in the ‘90s plays. It’s grainy and occasionally out of focus. There’s a baby girl, almost a year old, sitting in a playpen. The baby’s mother, an opera singer, is practicing vocal warm-ups nearby. As she sings, her daughter mimics the sounds she hears, effectively singing with her mother.
From this very moment, music became the most important thing for curly-haired, trip-hop-loving Jess Abran, the baby girl depicted in the video. Pirates and all things nautical came at a close second.
Originally from the Laurentians in Quebec, Abran grew up on a farm. If she wasn’t practicing the guitar or saturating her life with the music her parents listened to, she was sailing or fishing with her father at the lakes close to her home. Sailing was a big-time passion of hers growing up.
When she moved to Montreal, Abran brought a lot of her country-nautical roots with her. In her room, one can find a huge Jolly Roger flag, a traditional pirate hat and decorative anchors. She refers to herself as an urban pirate.
Despite having a self-proclaimed pirate persona, she says she’s a ‘90s kid at heart, inspired by a lot of the music of that decade, most importantly trip-hop, a genre fusing hip-hop, downtempo and electronica. She refuses to be pigeonholed into a specific, confining genre. Her tunes are a bit folky, a bit trippy, and maybe even a bit jazzy. There are common threads, though: tons of reverb, lots of pedals, heavy delay, funky drums and thick bass. She is a musical storyteller, but she’s never really telling her own stories through songwriting.
“With my music I never had a specific story to tell,” Abran says. “Most of my songs are make-believe.”
If her songs aren’t about video games—like one of her newest singles, “Fallout,” based on the hit series of the same name—or a made-up narrative, they’re about being a pirate or sailing the seven seas. In nearly every song, a reference to water, boats or sailing can be heard. She is also fond of writing about the dark side of life.
“A lot of my songs have minor chords. You’ll never see me play a C or a D or a G. I’m inspired by a lot of the dark shit in life,” she says. “People’s faces [and] people’s eyes tend to tell me a story, and then because I’m such a lunatic I’ll go home and be like ‘man, that chick on the metro today looked so sad, I’m going to make up a story about her life tonight.’”
Abran’s current influences are quite worldly—Sigur Rós, Damien Rice and alt-J are among her biggest inspirations. Anything that’s different, and maybe even a bit weird influences her, she says.
As a young artist, Abran struggled with confidence regarding her vocals, and she would often feel shy and socially awkward. “My voice would sort of intimidate me in a way. I was known for having a really small voice,” she says. “I was no Christina Aguilera or Lady Gaga. I was more of that quiet and soft-spoken girl … but I was really good at guitar.” Developing and honing her voice has helped her deal with social anxiety, which she has continuously struggled with.
Singing is a form of therapy, she says. “It took me a long, long time to grow into myself and be confident, and I’m still lacking a lot of that to this day.”
On Jan. 29, Abran is digitally re-launching her 2012 EP Naive worldwide. She is rebranding it as an album of seven songs, which include some from her original launch and some new. Each song has been re-mastered, re-mixed or completely refurbished, so while some songs will be familiar, the new versions will sound different in some way.
Her goal with the re-launch is to give the songs a more legitimate send-off, via iTunes, so that she can start working on new material. She already has a few collaborations in the pipeline for this year alone.
“[The album] is not going to tell a story like most CDs do, or most albums do, or most works of art do,” she says. There is no chronology or consistency throughout the album; her voice will sound different from track to track, depending on how old or new the song is. Since different producers worked on different songs, the mixing and mastering won’t be fluid throughout either.
“Some people might be thrown off by that. Like ‘what the fuck, she sounds like a kid in this song, and this song is a song she just released,’” she said with a laugh.
There is a historical element to the collection of songs, as they will showcase Abran’s musical progression and development from her humble beginnings to now. “It’s a historical artifact of my whole life at this point,” she said.
“Most people will probably recognize these as love songs, but these songs will probably ring true to many people in many different ways,” she says. The songs are emotional and dark, and she says she wants them to hit right at the heartstrings.
“I don’t want anyone to forget that I’m the awkward chick next door who’s obsessed with nautical things,” she says. “This is definitely who I am, and even if [music] doesn’t become a success, it’s what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life.”