Local indie artist Mystara has been busy making a name for herself in the capital this past weekend with the launch of her latest album, Soul Fire.
The four-song EP is Ottawa singer/songwriter Tara Heft’s second effort, following the release of her debut studio album, Devil’s Paintbrush, in October 2015.
Mystara, a mystical take on “Miss Tara”, blends numerous styles of blues, rock, jazz, and R&B in her music, with exotic and moody twists and turns. The EP’s tracks, however, reflect a rockier edge in Heft’s songwriting, and even though they were written around the same time as the others, she decided to keep them apart from her debut album:
“Those songs were recorded around the same time, but we kept them on their own because I thought the debut album was going to be too long. There are 9 tracks on the debut album, which I liked because 9 is my lucky number. Also, the four songs seemed to go really well together, whereas the others were more R&B flavoured, and not quite as in-your-face, so to speak.”
The many flavours of Heft’s songwriting and vocal style stem from a wide spectrum of life-long musical influences, as well as her earlier years of formal training and classical study. Her attraction to Motown artists like Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye, jazz songstresses such as Diana Krall and Holly Cole, and powerhouse divas like Sass Jordan, Annie Lennox, and Adele have that one thing that ties them all together – their strong, soulful, and passionate deliveries, which speaks through Heft’s spirited vocal melodies.
“My introduction to singing began when my mom would drag me off to church on Sunday mornings. Then I started taking voice lessons when I was about 14, which was more of a classical/operatic training. Later, I found performing classical was too serious: I wanted to have more fun, to see and feel the audience. I played in a couple of rock cover bands, then in university, I was in a Motown/Blues Brothers sort of band, which was really fun. I was studying classical music at the time, so it was a nice break from the more serious musical stuff.”
Those who attended Mystara’s EP release on Saturday night at Ottawa’s south-end live music venue, Moose McGuire’s, were treated to songs from both albums, starting with all four from Soul Fire.
“Can’t Take Away My Rock N Roll”, delivered some gutsy classic rock/blues energy with its message of musical empowerment as a driving force through a bad break-up. “Left Behind”, my favourite track, was wonderfully textured in its minor-chorded soft/strong elements. The song flowed through a gorgeous series of haunting guitar hooks laid down by Greg Kenny, a nice surprise of rumbling Hammond power by Everard de Souza during the bridge, and some cool rhythm changes throughout, that featured the drums and bass work of Paul Piccolo and David Johnston respectively.
Tara’s vocals traveled through the song from sultry tones to full-on rock muscle, with impressive range and diversity. “Rotten To The Core”, was another grooving bluesy-rock number, laden with strong, raspier vocals, more of Kenny’s well-versed guitar licks, and great keyboard fills by de Souza. “You Ain’t Got Nothing On Me”, a song written by local artist Steve Thomas, rocked with a fiery Bryan Adams quality, which sent the crowd onto the dance floor. Heft talks about her history with Steve Thomas, and how the song came about:
“About 10 years ago, through Larry Wayne Church, who I was taking guitar lessons from at the time, asked Steve if he’d be interested in having me sing some vocals on his upcoming CD release. That’s how I got to know and work with some of his band members. Steve Thomas wrote “You Ain’t Got Nothing On Me”, which fit the mood of the other songs on the EP. Steve really wanted to collaborate with me, so he wrote a song that he could hear me singing. We debated whether to put it on his album or mine, but we thought it made more sense to put it on mine.”
The remainder of the evening was devoted to material from Devil’s Paintbrush, along with a great selection of cover songs that kept the audience thoroughly entertained.
I couldn’t go without mentioning the night’s opening act, Pair Of Aces, the husband/wife duo of Lisanne and Damien McLaughlin, whose vocal dynamics and harmony work were exquisite. They delivered a set filled with challenging covers of songs by the Indigo Girls, Simon and Garfunkel, and Tragically Hip, to name a few, as well as some of their own fabulously well-written material. Lisanne also later provided vocal backup during Mystara’s part of the show.
The songs in Soul Fire share a common message of “what doesn‘t kill you makes you stronger”, which is also reflected in the cover’s artwork, with designing contributions from photographer, John Wenzel, and make-up artist, Annie Lefebvre. Even the EP launch itself was planned near Hallowe’en, as more of a “ghoulish gala”-type of event, which encouraged folks to dress in attire that embraced a darker alter ego of themselves.
“I thought the Halloween season would be appropriate to release the disc. On the front cover, it’s my face as a skull…those are my eyes. I debated what to call the EP. I got inspired by the artwork – a skull decomposing in the ground, but with the eyes that are still watching, as if the soul is still inside. And the back cover has me dressed like a phoenix rising from the ashes, so there’s the soul, and the fire. A lot of the songs are really about picking off the rubble and moving forward, forging a new life/path. It’s about things ending and new beginnings, which is not always easy. Really, it’s about being a warrior and carrying on.”