A big night at the Grammys

by Daniel McCabe, BA'89

Jennifer Gasoi, BA’96, won the Grammy Award for Best Children’s Album.
 She was one of four McGill graduates to receive Grammys this year.

There are certain things that you expect to see at the Grammys each year. Jay-Z smuggling in some booze. Eclectic fashion choices (Nice hat, Pharrell). A newcomer dazzling the old guard (Welcome to the big leagues, Lorde). Big splashy performances by big splashy performers.

The Grammys aren’t just about the superstars, though. The awards also recognize exceptional work done by a wide range of less famous musicians who are far more likely to hail a cab than to hire a limo for their everyday excursions. The Grammy spotlight can be a little surreal for those not accustomed to it.

"Walking along the red carpet, I realized Billy Crystal was right behind me and Willie Nelson was just ahead of me," recounts Jennifer Gasoi, BA’96, who won the Grammy for Best Children’s Album for Throw a Penny in the Wishing Well. "On my way to the Grammy party at the Canadian Consulate, all these journalists were calling out my name and I was thinking, 'How do you know who I am?'"

There is little doubt that far more people know who Gasoi is now that she has made Grammy history by becoming the first Canadian to win in her category -- an impressive feat given that she comes from the same country as Raffi, Fred Penner and Sharon, Lois and Bram. "I couldn't believe it at first," says Gasoi. "I have such huge respect for those performers."

She has plenty of respect for her audience too. "The lyrics [for children's songs] might be a little less sophisticated, but that doesn't mean you're talking down to them. Kids can tell if you're being genuine. They feel it when something is true." A song about life as a bubble might offer plenty of peppy fun, but it also offers a subtle message about how "nothing lasts forever and you need to treasure life."

As she accepted the prize (from Cyndi Lauper), Gasoi said her album was about “having the courage to step out of the box and take risks and live the life that you’re really meant to live.” A two-time Juno nominee, Gasoi's album incorporates a variety of musical styles, including doo-wop, bluegrass, calypso and klezmer.

Before veering into children's music, Gasoi was principally a jazz performer. "In my last year at McGill, I took a vocal class with [jazz singer] Ranee Lee." Gasoi still performs the occasional jazz gig for older audiences, but she'll invariably slip in one or two of her children's songs. "It always goes over great. Everybody has a kid inside them."

Estelí Gomez, MMus’11, is a member of Roomful of Teeth, an eight voice ensemble that won the Grammy for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance for their self-titled album. According to their website, Roomful of Teeth is devoted to “mining the expressive potential of the human voice,” which they do by exploring a wide range of singing techniques – everything from yodeling to Inuit throat singing to Korean P’ansori. The New York Times called their album “sensually stunning,” while NPR declared it was “fiercely beautiful and bravely, utterly exposed.”

"There is so much more out there than Western classical singing. I've always believed that," says Gomez. "The joy of doing this is the variety. We all get to wear a ton of different hats." The members of the group generally get together once a year for a series of intensive workshops that involve detailed input from different music experts, each steeped in a uniquely distinct singing style.

Estelí Gomez (left) and her Roomful of Teeth partners performed
 during the pre-telecast portion of the Grammys

"We all start from square one and it's always interesting to see which of us gravitates to what," says Gomez. "I discovered I had a knack for yodeling, which came as a surprise. I'm a high soprano -- I don't get to use my low register very often. All of a sudden, I had all these composers writing yodeling music for me."

Classically trained singers aren't always encouraged to be quite so adventurous in their musical pursuits. "Our voices are our entire livelihood," acknowledges Gomez. "Some might say that this sort of thing is dangerous." While attending the Schulich School of Music, Gomez says that voice expert and assistant professor Sanford Sylvan became "my main teacher, my guru. He has been 100 per cent supportive [of Roomful of Teeth] right from the start." Gomez performed in several Opera McGill productions, including the title role in Handel’s Agrippina in 2009.

Brian Losch, MMus’10, shared the Grammy for Best Engineered Album, Classical, for his work on Winter Morning Walks, a collaboration between soprano Dawn Upshaw and Maria Schneider, normally a jazz composer. Half the music on the CD was recorded in New York, the other half in Minneapolis. Having never been to the University of Minnesota concert hall where the Minneapolis portion was scheduled to be recorded, Losch packed up an array of recording equipment and drove from one city to the other -- just to be sure that he'd have what he needed to do his job. "An engineer is a logistics person," he reasons, "and the most important thing is to make sure that the recording happens in the first place."

Losch believes he might be genetically programmed for his line of work. "My mother is a music teacher and my father is a structural engineer. So I guess it makes sense."

Working on Winter Morning Walks offered Losch the opportunity to work with one of his heroes, Schneider, a multiple Grammy winner. "I was struck by how down-to-earth she was. She made sure we had the best catering. She made sure that everyone felt at home. At the same time, she was involved in every detail [of the music]." The album, which features music based on the poems of Ted Kooser and Carlos Drummond de Andrade, won three Grammys in all.

Losch, a graduate of McGill's sound recording program, had previously worked as an assistant engineer on the Grammy-winning The Goat Rodeo Sessions, collaborating with Schulich instructors Richard King, MMus’91 and Steven Epstein. "There is an openness [in the program] to trying different things, but, in the end, it has to sound good. That's the only real criteria. You had to be able to prove that you accomplished what you set out to do -- even if [your goal] was a little strange."

He says that he and some of the other students in the program used to pool their studio time, so that each could work on fine-tuning their skills for longer periods. "We used to call it 'Grammy Saturdays.'" Losch's next project involves working with New Jersey's American Boychoir on a film project that also involves Dustin Hoffman.

McGill graduates won a remarkable four Grammys in all this year. Chilly Gonzales (aka Jason Beck, BMus’94), was listed as one of the featured artists on the CD that took home one of the biggest prizes of the night – Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, the winner of Best Album. “Playing piano for Daft Punk already felt like winning something bigger than any prize, but this ties a nice bow on it,” Gonzales tweeted the morning after the Grammys. The musician, known for his sophisticated craftsmanship and his occasionally mischievous manner, has also collaborated with Drake and Feist. He contributed to two songs on Random Access Memories, “Within” and “Give Life Back to Music.”

Three other McGill graduates were also in the running for Grammys this year. Composer and bandleader Darcy James Argue, BMus’97, was a Grammy nominee for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album for Brooklyn Babylon by his group, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society. The ensemble also includes trombonist Mike Fahie, BMus'98. New Republic named Brooklyn Babylon the best album of 2013 and the CD made several other music critics’ best of 2013 lists, including those of Slate, the Boston Globe and the Kansas City Star.

Zac DeCamp, BSc'03, was nominated for Best Recording Package along with his Geneseo bandmate Mike Brown and their art directors for the album Automatic Music Can Be Fun. DeCamp was in very impressive company -- the other nominees included Jay-Z, David Bowie and Metallica. In a recent interview with the Globe and Mail, DeCamp said, “Only six people total had their creative input on this album. I think it’s amazing that such a small team can make an album and get mentioned in the same breath as some of the biggest names in the industry.”