Shawna Caspi Brings Forest Fire for Ottawa Homecoming

Photos by Roni Hoffman

Shawna Caspi may currently be strumming out of Toronto but the musician still hasn’t forgotten her Ottawa roots. They were planted pretty deep in some of the city’s most musical fertile ground. She bought her first acoustic guitar at the Ottawa Folklore Centre, volunteered at CKCU and worked at the believed Rasputin’s where she also played her first gig.

University pulled her into the 416 but Caspi still carries many fond memories of her time in the 613. Until 2014, she hadn’t seen much else having never done much traveling or even camping, only pitching her first tent when invited to play Blues Skies. She’s made up for the lack of worldly wanderings in recent years, however, touring throughout Canada and the United States.

Her most recent album, Forest Fire, will see Caspi returning back to Ottawa for a performance at allsaints on November 24. For somebody who has seen a river rush of rapid changes recently, penning songs about burning things down to build yourself back up again seemed like a natural progression for her fourth recording.

“It’s an album about cycles, about playing the long game. That’s why it’s called Forest Fire – something that seems huge and devastating when it happens, but in the relative vastness of space and time, it’s just one small moment on a much grander scale, a necessary catastrophe that leads to new growth.”

Ottawa Life spoke with Caspi about her new release, Toronto life and some of her O-town memories.

Ottawa Life: So, what pulled you out of Ottawa?

Shawna Caspi: I grew up in Ottawa and when I graduated from high school, I moved to Toronto to study music at York University. After university, I stayed in Toronto and haven’t managed to leave yet!

How did you find the transition into Toronto?

The first thing I did when I got to Toronto was go see live music. I was told that Hugh’s Room was the “Rasputin’s of Toronto” so I went there first. Going to see live music felt familiar and there was no lack of opportunities to do that in Toronto. I found the transition to be pretty smooth – I loved what I was studying in university and the people that surrounded me. I also lived in a student residence in my first year of university, which really helped – I got to know the city and the people before I really moved out on my own.

What are some of you reflections on the Ottawa music scene while you were still here?

I found the Ottawa music scene to be really supportive. I was pretty immersed in it, so it felt like a family, especially in the folk scene. It felt like the different parts of the scene were connected – the Ottawa Folklore Centre, CKCU, the Ottawa Folk Festival, Rasputin’s. They held each other up and created spaces for Ottawa musicians to connect with each other. I was still a teenager when I was in that scene, and there were a lot of more established artists and arts workers who welcomed me and mentored me.

Ah, Rasputin’s…how I miss it. I used to live around the corner and would go every Sunday for the jams. Was so sad to hear about what happened when I returned from living in BC for awhile. What are some of you fondest memories working there?

I miss Rasputin’s so much. Waitressing there was one of my all-time favourite jobs. I think the last time I played there was the Ottawa CD release show for my very first CD back in 2008. There were so many fond memories of working there in high school. The people were always friendly and I got to hear tons of amazing music, and I met a lot of other local musicians. By far, the best night there was Dean and Ruth’s (the owners) wedding celebration. They got married in a small ceremony earlier in the day, then they opened the doors to Rasputin’s from the afternoon late into the night for anyone to come celebrate. Ottawa’s finest musicians got up on stage one after the other for a constant stream of musical entertainment, while friends brought food and cooked in the back kitchen, and I served pie and coffee and tea, and Dean and Ruth got to sit back and enjoy it all.

What are some of the main differences you are finding now working the Toronto scene?

The Toronto scene is a lot bigger, but it’s still very supportive – not cut-throat or brutally competitive as I expected. The sheer number of live music venues in Toronto allows for a wider choice of places to play in, so it’s easier to find a venue that’s a good fit in terms of size or atmosphere. But I also find it harder to get people to come out to shows in Toronto, maybe because there’s so much going on all the time.

So, you’re guitar has a pretty fantastic local connection! Can you tell me about that?

I’ve been playing the same Cort guitar for over 17 years and I bought it at the Ottawa Folklore Centre! It was the first purchase on my very first debit card. I had been playing a cheap classical guitar, but I wanted a proper acoustic guitar with a built in pickup for the live gigs I was starting to play around town, so I went in to try some of their guitars. I had no specific brand in mind – I just picked one that sounded good and was in my price range. Turns out I picked a beautiful guitar that sounds more expensive than it is. The OFC staff person who sold me the guitar was the wonderful singer-songwriter Ian Reid (now living near Guelph). We met again years later at a music conference and have been friends ever since. I really miss the OFC too.

What do you miss most about Ottawa?

Skating on the canal. It’s my favourite thing to do in Ottawa.

What are some of the places you most enjoyed playing here in Ottawa?

As a singer-songwriter, Rasputin’s was my favourite. The NAC Fourth Stage was a close second. After I moved to Toronto and would come back to play gigs in Ottawa, I really enjoyed playing at Raw Sugar – sad to see that venue go too! The Forest Fire CD release show is at a fairly new venue, allsaints Event Space, which I haven’t played at yet, but I’m really looking forward to it. When I sang in the Ottawa Central Choir as a kid, we performed at some stunning theatres in the city, including the main hall at the NAC – it’s amazing how many school nights I spent running around those backstage hallways.

What do you feel this city most taught you before you set out into other pastures, so to speak?

I think between studying music in high school, singing in choirs, and working in the folk music scene in Ottawa, what I learned most was how to be disciplined as a musician and the importance of hard work. As a performer, I built a lot of my confidence getting my start in Ottawa, because the reception I got was so warm and supportive. I was encouraged by the music scene, which was a boost as I headed out into the world.

What went into shaping the tunes for the new album Forest Fire?

In contrast to my previous record, which was a solo guitar/voice album, I wanted Forest Fire to have a full band sound, and I knew I’d have to find a good producer to get the sound I wanted. The production and arrangements were all thanks to the brilliant Don Kerr – he produced and recorded the album, and performed on some of the tracks. The other musicians on the recording all brought their immense talents and thoughtful creativity to the project, resulting in just the right amount of colour and atmosphere, without overpowering anything. Don really understood my music and what I was trying the achieve, and I think the result is a rich, full sound that still retains its authenticity, that still sounds like me.

I read that this is a collection of songs about burning things down and building them up? What did you feel you need to burn and why?

A lot of the songs on the album came out of dark places. Whether it was loneliness, or anger, or anxiety, or frustration, I felt like I had to hit rock bottom before I could crawl back up again, or let go of something that was haunting me before I could be free to start again.

How have you shaped your sound and voice in recent years that you find may factor into this recording?

As a singer, it took me a long time to get away from all of my classical training. It’s something I’m still working on all the time – trying to be more open and honest, and trying to access my true voice as a folksinger. I think Forest Fire is the most gentle, relaxed recording I’ve ever made.

You were also a painter but gave it up for awhile, right? After seven years you picked up the brushes again. What went into you wanting to return to that aspect of your creativity?

I started touring with more intensity and found myself taking all these photos of gorgeous places I had never seen before. I wanted to share them somehow, so I wondered if I still knew how to paint (I learned how to paint in university). I found I quite enjoyed painting landscapes, particularly on small canvases. To my surprise, people were really interested in the paintings and started buying them at my merch table, so I kept making more. Now I love it because it’s another creative outlet I can go to outside of music. I mostly paint realistic landscapes, but the works I created for the Forest Fire album art were my first attempts at abstract painting.

How have you found returning to that side of your artistic self?

It’s both a welcome break from music, and a complement to making music. There are a lot of similarities between composing and painting – that terrifying blank page or canvas before everything starts, the calming feeling once there’s something on it to work with, how the relationships between notes mirror the relationships between colour and light, how the length of a breath or the amount of attack on a string mirror the thickness of paint or the pressure of a brush stroke.

You also had an interesting experience playing tunes for nearly four days on a train. Can you tell me about what that was like?

Yes! I’ve been a VIA Rail On Board Entertainer on several occasions on the Canadian (Toronto/Vancouver) and Ocean (Montreal/Halifax) trains. Those trips have varied from one quick overnight ride, to five or more days on a train across the country. It’s a pretty cool program that hires musicians to play acoustic sets for passengers in the activity and dome cars on the train as well as in some of the train stations. In exchange for these performances, the musicians get to travel for free in a sleeper cabin! It’s an excellent way to see the country and a lot of fun. I’ve met a lot of interesting people on the train…you never know what’s going to happen. One night a guy brought out a fiddle and the car filled up with people as we jammed singing french folk songs at the top of our lungs!

You’ve said that you like to “bring out small moments that might have been overlooked, whether that’s in relationships or social issues” when it comes to your music. Can you elaborate on how you mine for those pieces of life that others may miss?

I try to listen and observe as much as possible, allow space for those little sparks or snapshots to show themselves, for quieter voices to be heard. As an adult, I feel a lot of pressure to engage, to speak up and get my word in as part of a conversation, to network and connect with as many people as possible…but I was a shy kid, and I think there’s a lot to learn from being quiet, patient, and perceptive out in the world, as well as being honest and reflective with myself.