Shepherding her flock to a different tune

While Elizabeth Shepherd, BMus’04, might be best-known for her work as a jazz musician, she certainly didn’t grow up in a household where Miles Davis and Dinah Washington elbowed every other genre out of ear shot. Thanks to her father, Glen Shepherd, BA’69, MA’76, a retired Salvation Army colonel and bandleader, Shepherd was exposed to a variety of music at an early age, from ringing brass band marches to disco to classical masterpieces like Haydn’s “The Creation.”

Still, it was jazz that took root inside her. A two-time Juno Award nominee, Shepherd remembers lacking confidence in her musical abilities when she applied to study music at McGill and sent in her audition tape. Certain that she “wasn’t good enough,” Shepherd was amazed to receive a phone call from Professor Tom Plaunt, the head of McGill’s piano program. “I remember thinking ‘Wow, I’m on the phone with the head of the piano department at McGill!’”

WhileShepherd wanted to explore jazz, she knew she didn’t yet have the chops to get into McGill’s jazz performance program. She enrolled in the faculty program, which focused on classical performances, but also gave students an opportunity to investigate other areas and departments in the Faculty. Immediately, Shepherd started attending jazz courses.

After a year in the faculty program and studying jazz on the side, she confided her secret dream of switching to the jazz program with her piano teacher Kenneth Woodman, BMus’67. “Well, I know nothing about jazz,” he replied, “but, I’ll certainly help you get ready for the audition.”

Needless to say, the audition went well.

Graduating in 2004, Shepherd already has three albums to her credit (four if you countBesides, a well-received collection of dancefloor remixes, b sides, and previously unreleased songs that came out in 2008). Her latest, Heavy Falls the Night, is probably her most ambitious. It is also winning her some of the best reviews of her young career. The Globe and Mail says Shepherd’s latest “is better than ever,” the North Shore Newspraises Heavy Falls the Night as a “superb collection” and Now gives it a four star rating.

It is the first album that Shepherd produced herself and she took the time to carefully nurture each track. “For this album, it was quite a different approach. I really wanted to write a song, go and record it using the musicians that immediately came to mind, and then sit on it. I really wanted to focus on [how] to get the message of each across.”

Not only is the recording approach different, so is the music itself. While Shepherd hasn’t exactly abandoned jazz, Heavy Falls the Night boasts a broader musical palette than her previous works. The CD includes a playful R&B romp (“Numbers”), a dance floor ready mix (“Seven Bucks”) and a soulful remake of Anne Murray's seventies soft-rock classic “Danny's Song.” The songs are no less ambitious lyrically – Shepherd tackles some tough subject matter, including homelessness and suicide.

Although Shepherd won’t point to a favourite, she says she likes listening to the title track. “There’s something about that song. I felt the mood of the album, it’s sort of heavy and dark, but not in an oppressive or depressive way. The title track implies that set and mood ... and feeling.”

Marion Butler, LMus’04

To hear some of the tracks from Heavy Falls The Night, visit Shepherd’s MySpace page.