by J.R. Rardon
After years of practice and writing, months of final preparations and little more than a week in a recording studio, singer-songwriter Richelle Andre of Port Hardy will unveil her new album in a single evening of performance Saturday at 7 p.m. at Gate House Theatre in Port McNeill.
Andre, who sings and plays acoustic guitar and piano, wrote each of the songs on Claimer, the CD released Oct. 17 at the start of a brief promotional tour that began in her home province of Saskatchewan and included a stop last weekend at the Comox Valley Farmer’s Market.
She will be joined Saturday by guitarist James Lambert and bassist Darryl Milne in a show that includes an opening set by singer-songwriter Erin Junkala. Though Andre has done most of her performing on the North Island as a solo act, Saturday’s support will be fitting, as Claimer was enhanced by contributions from a host of professional musicians during recording in September at Okey Doke Studio in San Francisco.
“It was pretty awesome,” Andre said of the recording process. “I was very nervous because I didn’t know what to expect, but I was extremely pleased with the result.”
The Claimer CD features producer Phillip Milner on guitars, backing vocals, bass and percussion; Jenny Kerr on banjo and harmonica; Dave Zirbel on pedal steel guitar and bassist James Whiton, who recorded with Tom Waits on his most recent album.
“I couldn’t believe my dumb luck,” said Andre, “being surround by such great musicians. Of course, they’re real musicians. They get up at noon. I was up at 8 (a.m.) every day, and I’d go to the coffee shop and work on arrangements or something, then come back and work with them until 7:30 every night.”
The album is a remarkable debut effort, highly polished both vocally and instrumentally. While she might be described as a folk artist, Andre’s songwriting and playing defies pigeonholing.
The country-tinged Wild West, Phantom Love, Odd Romance and the bluesy Give Me Space, each of which feature Kerr’s banjo work, could certainly be classified as folk songs. But Andre, who was influenced in her youth by artists including Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, is comfortable working in non-traditional tunings and tempos — the title track is played in 5/4, Give Me Space is essentially a blues waltz and the lush, haunting Hotel Jesus is a 6/8 tour de force which perfectly balances her signature percussive acoustic guitar with Zirbel’s wailing pedal steel.
“I don’t really know where that comes from,” Andre said. “I think part of it is because I have some training in piano, you tend to get into a little more esoteric sound. I think it lends itself a little more to not just your standard, three-chord folk song.”
Her lyrics are just as esoteric; no starry-eyed schoolgirl gushing or bitter backlash here. Andre’s songs range across the human panoply of yearning, appreciation and love, to loss and betrayal. The common thread throughout is nature, which she introduces to illustrate the numbers both literally and metaphorically.
Andre’s vocal style is strong, though she is able to portray vulnerability or, dare we say, a sort of eerie darkness when called for — as it is on Claimer, Hotel Jesus and, to a lesser degree, the string-drenched finale, Violet Sea.
Even when the chording, tempo and lyrics depart from traditional pop norms, Claimer remains engaging and accessible. If you come across a song that doesn’t invite toe-tapping, it will certainly have you swaying in its embrace. This is a mature and moving album by a mature artist who knew what she wanted and managed to go out and capture it.