The Old School House Arts Centre (TOSH) in Qualicum Beach will soon be transformed into a jazz club to host two award-winning Canadian musicians.
ES:MO, made up of Elizabeth Shepherd, piano and vocals, and guitarist Michael Occhipinti, will perform at TOSH’s (122 Fern Road West) large gallery at 7 p.m. on June 30.
The duo are touring the country promoting the new album, the Weight of Hope, which has been nominated for a Juno Award. Shepherd said the album is made up of both covers and original songs.
“We wanted it to be something that, as indicated by the title, would bring some hope and joy after a dark time,” she said. “Not just COVID, but everything that’s been going on in the world felt really heavy and I think music has been a really, as always, sort of a saving grace for us.”
Before forming the duo, Shepherd and Occhipinti, who previously toured with their own five- or seven-piece bands, would sometimes finish off the last few dates of a tour with just the two of them, allowing their bands to get off the road for a break. A few years ago, they had the idea to go on a full tour together, but unfortunately the COVID-19 pandemic meant most touring was put on hold.
Shepherd was stuck at home while Quebec was under strict lockdown measures, so they tried a few virtual shows over Zoom, which was a challenge since Shepherd lives in a rural area without high-speed internet access.
The first livestream had a lot of sound and picture quality issues, which made an already stressful time period even more difficult.
“I started getting all teary,” she said. “Like ‘aw man this sucks, we have no future, we can’t even do online shows.’ And then I get this message from my mom saying, ‘you’re back online and we’re hearing all of this.’”
The Weight of Hope includes a few Bruce Cockburn covers, such as ‘Lord of the Starfields’. Shepherd said she really enjoys performing this song and appreciates Cockburn’s approach to discussing spirituality in the song’s lyrics. Rather than get bogged down in lingo and jargon specific to a faith, he is able to talk about the topic in poetic terms, Shepherd said.
Music has always been a spiritual path for Shepherd.
“Jazz is a way of letting go and getting out of your own way to allow something greater to move through you, whatever you attribute that source to,” she said.
Before going on stage, Shepherd will prepare by hydrating with water and tea and then take some quiet time to look inward and re-centre.
“I had crippling stagefright as a kid,” she said. “And I somehow, in spite of that, managed to carve out a career as a performer, which is entirely unintuitive.”
Being part of a duo, and not the front person, helps alleviate some of the nerves. Both she and Occhipinti will often call their families before going on stage.
Shepherd got her start in the music industry when she was waiting tables at a piano bar in Toronto and the pianist fell ill.
“They saw on my resume that I’d studied at McGill and were like ‘can you play?’” Shepherd played there four nights a week, four hours at a time. “It was a trial by fire.”
She said it was terrifying at first, but the experience ended up being an ideal way to get comfortable playing in front of an audience because she played in the background and was not the centre of attention.
Since that time Shepherd has released seven albums, been nominated for six Juno awards and toured North America, Europe, Japan and Mexico.
Occhipinti recently won a Juno award for jazz group of the year as a member of ‘Avataar’.