Interview: Jess Moskaluke

500x500.jpgOne of the great things about the recent Country2Country festivals in Sydney and Brisbane was the opportunity to see artists who haven’t yet toured Australia, and that includes Canadian Jess Moskaluke, who wowed the audience from the very minute she started. Moskaluke is an outstanding performer who’s had what would once have been considered an unconventional path to a music career (were it not shared by her countrymen Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber). I had the chance to speak to Moskaluke when she was in Sydney.

What is the best thing about your job?

The best thing about my job is that I get to travel to beautiful places like Australia. No doubt. And also the people. I get to meet a lot of incredible people, whether they’re artists or fans or bloggers or whoever. I’m really fortunate to go a lot of places and meet a lot of people that I wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to.

And what’s been the most difficult thing about it – if there has been anything difficult?

I would actually say that part of it is the same thing, although it’s one of the best parts about my job. The travel is also one of the most difficult parts. I often leave my husband and my dogs at home and, and my friends and family behind, and I don’t have a lot of time. I also don’t have a lot of routine in my life due to that. So it’s certainly rewarding and I do enjoy it, but it certainly is a challenge.

I lived in Canada for a year, a while ago, in Vancouver, and I volunteered at CiTR radio station and worked on their magazine. So I had a lot to do with Canadian music. Australia is a big country geographically, but Canada is bigger. So I used to think about the logistics of bands from the Maritimes, trying to come to the west coast. People in the Prairies, where you grew up, trying to get around. So even if you’re touring just within Canada, that must be logistically difficult.

Yes, absolutely. And with the Maritimes, it’s just as hard for us to get over there. I’m very fortunate that I have fantastic support over in the Maritimes, but it’s really tricky to get over there, so we don’t get there as much as we would like to. It’s a massive country. So every time we do a radio tour just to get across the country to get to all the proper radio stations and things like that, it takes us weeks, and you can maybe only can hit a couple of cities a day.

 

Being around a lot of Canadian music at the time, and Canadian culture in general, I became aware that with American culture literally at the border, Canadians can wrestle with that. And they are really great at preserving the national culture. How much did it mean to you having Shania Twain as an artist to look up to as opposed to only American country artists?

I think that Shania for so many different reasons was a fantastic influence on me in my life and my career. Not only because she was such a successful Canadian musician, but she was a successful Canadian female. And even beyond that, what I’m now realising is that she was pop country, not just country. No matter how many people told her that she should just be country or she should just be pop, she always said no, I want to do both. So that was a lesson that I learned really early on. When I first started coming out with country music in Canada, I was told that I was a little bit too pop and so we would dial things back a little bit and put a banjo on them or do what we had to do. But I never felt like that was a hundred per cent what I wanted to do or who I was as an artist. So I feel that artists like Shania really paved the way for young women like myself to have a pop country sound and for that to be not only acceptable but now quite popular. I’m very grateful for that path that she’s allowed me to walk.

It’s interesting that even given her success, when you were coming through there were still people trying to say ‘be a little bit more country’. She must have been looked at as a unicorn, in a way, and so everyone else had to fall in line.

Yes. And I think as creators and as musicians, we obviously are creative brains and we want to push those boundaries a little bit. Once we’ve done something we don’t want to do the same thing over and over and over again. So for society, for lack of a better term, to put us in a box and say, ‘Okay, you’re just country and this is what you have to do and these are the instruments you get to use and these are the topics you get to sing about’, is quite crazy to me because of the nature of who we are as artists. We want to write about what makes us feel something and we want to write about what our fans would feel. And so it’s kind of crazy to, like I said, put somebody in a box and give them that path and not let them stray from it. I think that’s a great thing about country music specifically these days is that there’s country rock, there’s pop country. We even have some hip hop stuff going on – I don’t know if you guys have that here in Australia, but in Canada we have a little of that. So it’s really cool. In my opinion, there’s never been a better time for country.

I completely agree. And I think the standard across country music is really high. But thinking of you looking up to Shania and her career, I have no doubt there are now some young people in Canada looking up to you. Does that feel strange or does it feel like, yes, that’s the continuum?

No, that really does feel strange. And I feel a little bit of pressure, I’m not going to lie, because of that. I want to make sure that someday when I have kids of my own that I’m doing things that would hopefully make them proud and not feel strange or anything like that. I never asked to be a role model, so I still want to do things that are true to myself and I want to share the message that I need to share at that point in my life for my fans. But it’s really crazy to think that somewhere out there, there might be a little girl singing into her hairbrush and pretending she’s Jess Moskaluke the way that I pretended I was Shania Twain.

And that’s part of what I’ve always thought about country music, that the artists really understand that relationship with the audience. Perhaps more than many other genres you understand that you are telling stories to someone and that there is that connection. So I think it gives an extra dimension to the music.

I think so. And now more than ever, because of social media too. When I’m posting something on my social media, be it Twitter or Instagram or Facebook, you’re talking to me, you’re not talking to my management or my agent or my publicist or anything like that. You’re speaking with me. So I think that it’s a better time for fans of country music because they get that exposure, but also for the artist because we get to genuinely connect one to one with our fans. And that’s really rewarding.

You grew up in the Prairies. Is country music a big part of the culture there?

Totally. I grew up in a small town called Langenburg [Saskatchewan] and at the time I was growing up, the only radio station that came in was a country station. That’s all I knew. That’s all that was cool for a little bit. And so it’s all I had ever thought about. I really never even considered pop music or anything like that. It’s just what came out of me.

And at what age did you start singing?

I think I was probably about fourteen when I started taking up choir. Vocal lessons – I don’t I did that until a couple of years later.

And once that started, did you immediately start to think, I want to be a performer, or was it just an evolution of, I like singing. I’m great at it. Maybe this could turn into a profession?

I think it was the second thing. Definitely it was what I loved the most out of anything. I was playing volleyball a little bit or figure skating or doing other extracurricular activities. But always singing for me was one of them. Doing competitions and small, tiny little performances locally here and there. And I preferred that. So I took more and more of it on until I kind of had to choose. My mom said, ‘Maybe volleyball … if you don’t like it as much, let’s drop that, and let’s sing because you enjoy that and we have more time for that.’ So that was the theme for my career and everything. I did something that I was passionate about and that I loved to do, and I just did it as much as I possibly could. And eventually that is now pretty much all I have time for.

It’s interesting that you played a competitive sport. A competitive part of your personality can be great applied to other things. I don’t know whether you’re competitive in your music, but it may be something that you can’t leave behind.

I think a little bit. I certainly want the best thing. But music is so subjective, whereas something like volleyball is you either win or you lose or you tie. And music is not that way. If it’s an award thing, that’s fine. That’s not why we do it, so it doesn’t matter. But when you’re playing a volleyball game, you play volleyball to win the game. So music is different that way and there are lots of little wins along the way. Having a great show, that’s a win. Being able to come over here and play Australia for the first time and reach some fans and make new fans, that’s a win. So I think that it’s not quite as competitive as maybe the sporting world.

But speaking of awards, you have received six Canadian Country Music Awards last year alone, including Album of the Year and Single of the Year, and you won the 2017 Juno Award. Are those sorts of accolades daunting when it comes to deciding what you’re going to record next?

Yes and no. It’s always something that you strive for and it would be a huge bonus, but if you don’t get them, that’s okay too. I definitely don’t do anything for the awards. I do it for the love of music and if those things come along, it’s always kind of like a little pat on the back from your peers saying, ‘Hey, this was great. That was a great piece of music that you created.’ So it’s a bonus.

Now, I’m presuming you had to leave Saskatchewan in order to pursue your career. If so, was that a difficult decision?

Well, actually no, because I didn’t leave Saskatchewan. My husband and I live on a small farm in Rocanville, Saskatchewan. It’s not released yet, but I wrote a song about that because so many people are so confused as to why I didn’t leave. But in this day and age, social media can and is done from anywhere, from on your phone, anywhere in the world. I’m keeping up with my socials while I’m here in Sydney and keeping up on Canadian time. And I write from Nashville, but I have shows all over the world. So I have in this career the very fortunate opportunity to choose anywhere to live. And so I want to be close to my family and friends because I spend 90 per cent of my time on the road. So that 10 per cent that I get to be home, I want to be close to people I love.

I think I just presumed that Canadians have to head to Toronto, for the air travel is nothing else.

We don’t really have like a country music centre in Canada, the way they do in America, which is obviously Nashville, Tennessee. That’s also our country music centre. And maybe I’d be incorrect, but I would assume that that’s also the same for even Australia. [Australian songwriter] Phil Barton is a good friend of mine who I write tons of music with. Morgan Evans, I know he spends a good chunk of his time in Nashville, and even O’Shea. So you just travel, no matter what. You’re always on the go.

Talking about your songwriting: was that something that started for you around the time you began to do a lot of singing, or once you knew you were going to sing a lot and be a performer, did you then start writing songs?

For a lot of people songwriting is a talent and they just have to do it and it comes really naturally to them, but it was definitely something that I had to work really hard at and I learned, because it didn’t come naturally to me. It always felt it was a challenge, but I never felt like I was quite doing it right. So I did go to Nashville probably when I was like eighteen or nineteen and that’s when I started writing music for the first time. And I was fortunate because I learned from some of the best, like Phil Barton. I’ve been writing with him for ten years. And I’ve had a lot of really great people in my life who helped me put some of my life experiences into a story and then into a song. So it was not something that I started right off the bat.

When you’re singing, there’s a lot of emotion there and a lot of authenticity. So I guess it is a different thing in that you can put that part of you into the singing, but putting it into a song when you’re writing in some ways I guess can be more confronting.

Yes – and I don’t write all of my songs. I write most of them, I would say, but not all of them, but just like you listening to a song – I’m sure you’ve probably listened to a song before where you think, That is exactly what I’m going through right now. Or, That is so me. But you didn’t write it. And that happens to me a lot with other songwriters who might say, ‘I think this song would be really great for this time in your life or who your fans are’ or whatever the situation may be. So no matter what the song is, whether I wrote it or whether someone submitted it to me, I just make sure that I connect with it. If I don’t feel it, then my fans are going to know that it’s not real. And that’s not who I am. So I guess that’s where the emotion comes from – that I genuinely connect with every single song that I’ve ever released or recorded.

Your new EP Throwback includes one of my favourite Keith Urban songs, ‘Days Go By’, as well as Destiny’s Child and Maroon 5 covers. It sounds like you had a lot of fun recording those tracks. How did you get the idea to do the EP?

Well, the idea came from two separate lanes at the same time. I got my start in the music industry by releasing both cover songs and original songs to YouTube. Long story short, they kind of blew up. It got a little crazy. I had no idea that we were going to be that successful in that market. So that was my career for a little bit, the YouTube girl thing. Then eventually I started writing and releasing my own music more frequently into radio and other outlets. So we had to step away from YouTube because we were releasing videos every seven to fourteen days. Very heavy workload. I was doing that in Denver and in Los Angeles and in Nashville and Calgary – all over. So we had to step back on that so I could take time to write and record. I have a lot of fans on YouTube who don’t necessarily kind of transfer over to the Canadian market, because they might be from Germany or France or wherever. So we knew that we were in between album cycles, and we were getting ready to record and release new music and write, but we weren’t quite ready to release all of it just yet. And we wanted something new. So I thought, Well, why don’t we do a throwback EP? It’ll be a throwback to my YouTube days. It’ll be three covers that remind me of my high school days or whatever it is. Songs that are not as current right now. So we did that as a salute to like what got me started in this industry.

When you were doing those YouTube videos, that’s you controlling controlling your output. And then you shift into a different cycle with album releases. Do you … Maybe it’s not fair to ask if you feel not in control cause necessarily other people are involved.

No, it is fair to ask. In my case – I’m sure that this is not everybody’s case – but I’m as in control as I want to be. I never say, ‘Hey, I’m going to release an album in two months’, or anything like that. I want to know when the best time is to release an album, of course. But if for some reason that’s a very inconvenient time for me or if I don’t feel like I have the songs or if I don’t feel like I can deliver, well, then we won’t do it. It’s very much a team effort in which I kind of have the final say. I have a fantastic label and team that works with me and we make all those decisions together.

You are in Australia to play Country2Country is this an entree to you for Australian audiences so that you may come back in the future?

Yes. I’m definitely planning on coming back. I don’t know exactly when quite yet. It’ll be really interesting to see how the shows go and getting a feel for the market, and meeting some other new Australian artists and people in the industry. So we will be coming back and I cannot wait already.