It seems inconceivable that such a powerful singer-songwriter as Suzanne Jarvie has remained unknown in the music world until this moment in time. Born in the 60’s in Hong Kong and raised in Toronto, Canada, Suzanne’s musical ability was first noticed by her mother when she was singing complete nursery rhymes at 18 months old in perfect pitch.
One possible reason Jarvie kept her musical voice silent for so long was being stricken with terrible stage fright as a young child when she was asked to sing “Silent Night” at a Christmas concert. In high school, at age 16, she fell hard for a cool boy in her class who idolized Keith Richards. She decided to take guitar lessons as a way to impress him. The love was unrequited and the plan failed but… Suzanne kept playing and singing, and eventually in her 20’s was exposed to and drew inspiration from the likes of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris.
Partly because Suzanne craved stability in the wake of her parents’ painful divorce, at age 14, and partly because of her ongoing stage fright and creative reticence, she put music on the back burner, went to university, became a criminal defense attorney, wife and mother of four children. The first real blow of Suzanne’s adult life came when her youngest son was diagnosed with a serious heart condition, he endured two open heart surgeries at age 7 and 11. Then, in 2011, on an ordinary day, her oldest son had a tragic accident at the age of 14, falling down a spiral staircase, and went into a coma. “It blew everything apart, including me,” Suzanne recalls. “Everyone was demented with grief. Despite the doctors saying he wouldn’t survive, the miracle of his slow recovery and healing occurred and changed the course of my life… One afternoon I heard a melody in my head... almost like I was hearing a tune played from somewhere else and I just started writing. I picked up my guitar and played an opening line, and words just started appearing, through the subconscious, through emotions and through a melodic filter. The song "Before And After" became the first and reprised track on the album. When I finished writing it, after about twenty minutes, I had the strangest feeling. Perhaps my first experience of inspiration. A door was definitely opened, and staying open, almost as though the first song had blown it down. Then, over the next few months… I had a feverish fit of writing and all these songs came gushing out.”
As Suzanne and her family continue to recover from these health challenges, she found the courage to record her stunning debut album about this raw, deeply personal and painful journey, 'Spiral Road', produced by the Canadian multi-instrumentalist and music producer, Hugh Christopher Brown (Bourbon Tabernacle Choir). He says: "Gregor Beresford had told me about his friend Suzanne who was a lawyer, a mother of four, and secretly, one of the best singer-songwriters he ever heard. When I then came to hear Suzanne with my own ears, I was rapt from her first line. Her voice and writing weave to hold you in her presence. She is blessed with a grace that eases acceptance of mystery."
1. "Before And After": A stunning opener, setting the tone for the album. It features background vocals by the legendary Holmes Brothers and some crisp banjo playing. "Blaze or burn out like a dying star" - great poetry.Yes, it's very clear that Suzanne took her early inspiration from Emmylou Harris, but she puts much more feeling into her vocal delivery.
2. "2458": A melancholy waltz with a beautiful solo on the Hammond organ, telling the story of a lengthy stay in the hospital room and all the emotions, especially being powerless, in the whole process - to do something essential yourself. No matter the circumstances, I think we've all been there once and can relate to this song.
3. "Spiral Road": A video of the title track captures the journey detailed in the lyrics. References are made to the First Nations culture, which gives this positive sounding uptempo song a special mystical feeling. Mickey Raphael plays the harmonica.
4. "Never Gonna Stop": "Glass cathedral under rain". Despite the doctors saying the boy wouldn't survive, his parents never gave up hope that he would come back from his coma. Suzanne herself hummed a lullaby and his father played a ukulele and sang Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" in the ICU. Great build up into a rock song!
5. "Tears Of Love": A comparison could be made with Trisha Yearwood in this sensitive country ballad, with some tasteful piano - almost sounding like a hymn.
6. "Enola Gay": Looking this up on the Internet, I found out that it was the name of the B-29 plane (named after the pilot's mother) that dropped the first atomic bomb. This also explains the mentioning of burning radiation. A somewhat pretentious rock song, that seems a bit out of place - despite the obvious good intentions.
7. "Angel Of Light": The Holmes Brothers are back in this realistically detailed gospel song. "The hospital chapel is open all night / But there's never a preacher or sinner in sight."
8. "Love Is Now": Suzanne sings with hope, optimism and joy to the powerful spirit of love: "Love laps the shore, and calls the war, sculpts the burning dunes of sand."
9. "Shrieking Shack": A slow rippling ballad, Chris Brown plays a farfisa organ here and the shakers are a very nice touch. The track incorporates "Smile" by Charlie Chaplin: "Smile, though your heart is breaking / Smile, though your mind is breaking" are recurring refrain lines.
10. "Wait For Me": I always like that expression 'soldier on'. Very nice violin solos! "If you board the ferry / Won't you take me too."
11. "Before And After (Redux)": The opening track comes back strong, to close off the album. Featuring Mickey Raphael's awesome harmonica and some extra mandolin in a very nice combination with the before mentioned banjo in a different mix.
For some reason the picture of Suzanne in her nice, fake-fur trimmed winter coat fits the music very well. She opens her heart to us in a powerful and painfully realistic cycle of deeply personal, poetic story songs. Chronicling an emotional experience of tragedy, fear of loss, but also some light, stamina, (motherly) love, tenderness, hope and patience.
The musical style is mostly (alt)country, with influences from rock and bluegrass. Skillfully played by a full band of great musicians like the Abrams brothers (John on mandolin and guitar, James on violin) and Burke Carroll on pedal steel, among many others. Arrangements and production are also top notch.
Without getting into personal details: when somebody you love is in a coma for a number of days, after a bad car accident, comes out but doesn't fully recover - that's a mind shattering experience, unlike anything else in life. I compliment Suzanne Jarvie for being so incredibly brave to record this album, sharing her own feelings with us!
Written & compiled by Johanna J. Bodde - November 30th, 2014