Disclosure: I have known Stefan Jurewicz for a number of years and recently collaborated with him on The Desert Island Big Band’s music video for the song “Downer.”
If you’ve ever dipped your toes into the Ottawa music scene, you’ve probably encountered Stefan Jurewicz. These days, he is best known under the moniker The Desert Island Big Band. Jurewicz has been involved in several local musical projects, including raucous punk-rock & roll band Onionface, fuzzy garage-rock duo All Day Breakfast, and psychedelic indie-rock band Siberian Breaks. Although his projects are stylistically diverse, Jurewicz’s musical identity emerges from each one through a poignant lyrical style that never shies away from gut-punching emotion. This lyricism translates into bold yet introspective prose in Jurewicz’s debut novel, Lemon, published in early 2022.
Inspired by three of his songs, “Here, Then Gone”, “M”, and “Playboys & Dishes”—also known as The Lemon Trilogy—Lemon explores the complexity of human connection through the story of a chance encounter between Xxxxxxx, an existentially bored grocery store cashier and aspiring poet, and M, a quick-witted punk hoping to find an escape from her past at the bottom of a bottle of Jim Beam.
“The songs were written at entirely different times. They weren’t meant to be connected at all,” says Jurewicz. “But as a byproduct of the pandemic, I sat with them for a little bit too long. The longer I sat with them, the more I started noticing a pattern, thematically, between them. So, I decided to use them to do something higher concept.” Jurewicz put pen to paper, intent on exploring the narrative he saw woven between the songs.
What he expected to be a short story flourished into a darkly humorous novel exploring identity, longing, and grief, with the recognition that the grittiest parts of existence are often the best. “A lot of my music tends to centre around this sort of boredom with everyday life and the mundanity of everything, but these songs were a little different,” says Jurewicz. “They were examples of ways to get out of that feeling. ‘Here, Then Gone’ talks about physically travelling and going places, ‘M’ was about escapism through apathy, and ‘Playboys & Dishes’ was about substance use, depression, and mental health in general.”.
The three songs take centre stage in the novel. Their lyrics appear throughout the book, greeting the reader like sentient characters. They act as a gentle reminder that the unchanging words can take on a new meaning when viewed in a different light. Words that once felt mundane, even meaningless, can become an obsessive thought or a painful reminder of a distant past in the blink of an eye. One phrase, in particular, takes on a life of its own in Lemon. In a hungover daze, M nonchalantly paraphrases a line from “Here, Then Gone”: “Who you are isn’t how you feel, though. It’s all about who you know. The people around you decide what kind of person you are.” At that moment, the words express little more than a vague, ill-conceived thought, but they become a point of rumination and a source of motivation for Xxxxxxx in his quest to become a poet.
“It kind of broke the spell on him a little bit,” says Jurewicz. “He had this idea that even if he didn’t share what he wrote, eventually people would just figure it out and get it. Then he has this realization that you don’t get to decide entirely who you are, because as soon as you’re out of the picture, other people talk about you to each other. They have their own version of who you are.”
For Jurewicz, Xxxxxxx’s journey reflects his own experience. As an artist, he derives very distinct forms of satisfaction from the creative process itself and from the act of sharing his work with the world. “When I finished the book, all the drive that I had for publishing it and showing it to people disappeared immediately, because I had satisfied that first part of my brain that was like ‘Okay, you did the thing.’ Then the second part jumped in and went ‘Now, what’s next?’”
Though Jurewicz enjoys sharing Lemon with readers, he looks back fondly on the creative process, which allowed him to find balance when his usual sources of equilibrium and meaning were out of reach. “I think I needed it more than I realized,” says Jurewicz. “When the pandemic started, the entire music industry just went down. I had no work. I couldn’t record anybody, we couldn’t get together to practice, or write, or do anything. Writing this book really gave me a sense of normalcy. Every day, I had my whole routine of going to the studio and writing for hours on end until I’d come out.”
Asked whether he misses these daily encounters with his characters, Jurewicz chuckles: “I miss M. I do not miss Xxxxxxx at all. He’s a whiny piece of shit.”
Lemon is available for purchase in paperback, hardback or PDF format here. Before delving into the novel, you can also listen to The Lemon Trilogy and the rest of Stefan Jurewicz’s work as The Desert Island Big Band here.