There is a certain level of cynicism today about music “competitions,” not necessarily the Kiwanis Music Festival or a Choral Music Jamboree but whenever a corporate body (even a Crown Corporate body) puts itself at the crossroads of music and stardom a certain percentage of the population pulls back. I admit to doing it myself from time to time. American Idol, The Voice, So You Think You Can Sing A Song, has left me numb.
That’s why I was so surprised when I sat down to talk to Jarrett Lee of The Long War, one of the most recent winners of the CBC Searchlight Competition. Lee and I really connected. Him, sitting on a beautiful sunny Vancouver afternoon, and me sitting inside my apartment at the corner of Bay and Laurier watching a man with a chainsaw attempt to “fix” the sidewalk, were able to delve into the transformative nature of music, its resistance to fame, and the beauty of coming back to a place you once called home.
Jarrett is a down to earth, humble guy – obviously brimming with hope and ambition for the future. His hopes however, rather than stemming for his own success, seem to centre around an excitement of discovering something new about his band’s music and in so doing, something about the people who listen to The Long War. He was excited to return to Ottawa, a city that shaped his life in unexpected ways.
“I definitely have a connection to Ottawa, I spent quite a few years there, I have quite a few friends there. I played my first gig in Ottawa, which is pretty unbelievable considering where we are at. Yeah, it has a special place in my heart. I find myself sometimes calling it home.”
For Jarrett, Ottawa is a city of memories. A city he seems to want to do right by. When asked about a moment that stood out for him, he replied “Well, as far as nostalgia goes, it’s any one of the late night gigs I played either in The Market or at an open mic on Elgin Street. That’s where I met my bandmate Chad. So I guess my favourite memory is meeting my bandmate Chad at my old open mic.”
Jarrett is a thoughtful and deliberate guy – not at all the cliché of a music contest winner. He really thinks about what his band has accomplished and where they are going. I asked him about what winning something like CBC Searchlight taught him about himself, his band, and his audience and he said that he had just been speaking to his sister about this the night before.
“I learned about myself, and found out I’m very determined and hardworking. I always thought I was fairly hardworking but when something like this happens it puts you in a position to see a great opportunity, you see that side of yourself come through; a bit more leadership, a bit more determination. You know?”
“You start to see that side of you, that artistic side. It’s not one to be quiet – it’s still quite prominent. I’ve learned one of the songs, Breathe In Breathe Out, helped some of our fans through tough times. The music has an impact and that’s really cool.”
At this point I realized I had no idea why this band who mixed genres was calling themselves The Long War. Jarrett laughed and told me, “The band name came from our drummer Neil. Neil is a fan of the band Elbow and they have a tune called The Long War Shuffle. But to be fair it signifies each band member’s individual journey.”
Jarrett says The Long War’s music is a kind of indie folk rock. He was drawn to that through the music of his childhood. He’s named after jazz pianist Keith Jarrett and grew up listening to Leonard Cohen and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. His father and sister are musicians so discovering and blending music just comes naturally.
“I mean, I saw Wilco play the NAC. It’s surreal. I can’t even believe I’m playing that room and that theatre. It’s quite well known and playing with Royal Wood – it’s unbelievable.”
Regarding Searchlight, I wondered if it felt like a natural progression from the band or if it was a shot of adrenaline. He said “CBC Searchlight opened a lot doors for us and gave us a larger platform. With that you discover some new ears and a new audience… We have a new fanbase – it’s definitely moving fast and we’re watching that fanbase grow.”
And finally, regarding this weekend and his part in Canada 150, Jarrett was humbled.
“Personally, it’s nostalgic going back to that city on that day. Anyone who has been to Ottawa for Canada Day knows it’s absolutely crazy. For me – I lived in Ottawa, and then I moved to Vancouver and kept playing music and now going back and playing for friends and family is pretty special. I mean, I saw Wilco play the NAC. It’s surreal. I can’t even believe I’m playing that room and that theatre. It’s quite well known and playing with Royal Wood – it’s unbelievable.”
Hear The Long War play this Sunday July 2 at the National Arts Centre. Tickets cost $15 online and at NAC Box Office locations. Hosted by Royal Wood, the concert will feature three other CBC Searchlight finalists Jaryd Stanley, The Wolfe, and WILL.