Lins Honeyman talked to Jacob Moon and Joel Parisien of much-praised blues, roots and soul band THE COMMISSIONAIRES
Despite only having formed as recently as 2016, Canadian gospel blues, roots and soul group the Commissionaires are as far from being a rooky band tentatively stepping out into the music world as you can get. Thanks to the wealth of previous experience of the group's individual members, together with the strong and well-received debut album 'Shelter Me', the Commissionaires have the sturdiest of foundations upon which to build whilst possessing a sound that is so full of authenticity and seasoned soul that it seems like they've been around forever.
Spearheaded by Ontario-based singer/songwriter Jacob Moon and frontman of revered Canadian group Newworldson, Joel Parisien, the band has a pedigree that many acts would die for with Moon clocking in over 20 years as a solo recording and performing artist in a career that has seen him rub shoulders with big names such as Ron Sexmith, Gordon Lightfoot and Rush. Parisien's CV is equally impressive having written and recorded a number of top 10 Billboard hits with Newworldson whilst penning songs for a variety of different artists over the space of a career that, like his Commissionaires colleague, has lasted in the region of two decades.
Soon after deciding to work together and form the band now known as the Commissionaires alongside bassist Richard Moore and Lyle Molzan on drums, Moon and Parisien set about recording their debut album 'Shelter Me' which their website describes as "an eight song sonic journey with themes of justice and overtones of the soul's struggle for redemption" with the finished product hitting the shelves in December last year. Tapping into the fact that we are indeed living in turbulent times, the pair carefully selected a handful of on-theme songs to cover - amongst them Stevie Wonder's "Heaven Help Us All", the Buddy Miller title track and an incredible version of the old spiritual "The Storm Is Passing Over" - with the end result reflecting both concern and hope for the oppressed and voiceless as well as offering up new and unique interpretations of some arguably underrated songs.
I catch up with Jacob and Joel via a Skype call in a break from their busy schedules to find out more about the Commissionaire's debut release and specifically the decision to exclusively cover other artists' songs on the project. "It's fun to take on the role of a kind of song curator because every other album that I've put out has been made up of all my own stuff," advises Joel. "In this particular case, we were using the album to help us develop our artistry and overall sound but we wanted to pick some of our favourite songs and pay tribute to some of our favourite artists. Part of what made it so much fun was finding a way to get ourselves involved in these songs - to wrap ourselves around them - in a way that made them unique to us individually as singers. On the record, there are examples of where Jacob chose songs for me to sing and vice versa. What I really enjoyed about 'Shelter Me' as a project was playing that role of curator as well as being a singer and musician and it's the first time I've ever really had the chance to do something like that."
"I like the idea of presenting songs that people might not be familiar with and unearthing treasures that have been there for a long time," agrees Jacob. "It's such a crowded digital audio landscape right now and, especially amongst younger people, there's a lot of amnesia about some of the music that went before. If it hasn't been released in the last five years, they sort of don't know about it. We need, as Joel said, curators - people who will go into that vast sea of music and pull out the good stuff. For 'Shelter Me', we knew where to look for the treasure. We wanted to do songs that had a mature lyrical approach as well as a seasoned musical presentation to allow us to bring our own point of view to the songs. By the time we were done with them, they seemed like our own songs and we were kind of wearing them like a second skin."
Part of what defines 'Shelter Me' as a piece is the overriding theme of justice for the poor and oppressed - an approach cemented by the Commissionaires' partnership with Christian human rights charity International Justice Mission. "When we got together," explains Joel, "we wanted the central lyrical thesis of this record to be about struggle, suffering and redemption. Partnering with an organisation like IJM is just a perfect fit because of what they do around the world as an advocate for slaves and young people trapped in the sex trade. We knew, moving forward as a band, that we wanted to present our audience at all of our shows with an opportunity to take a course of action against these injustices and we wanted to make the songs on the album a soundtrack to that action."
Also highlighted on the album is the hope of redemption found in Jesus. "The Gospel of Christ is a social gospel and it levels the playing field and basically tells everybody who reads or hears the good news that it doesn't matter if you're rich or poor - everybody falls short of the glory of God and everybody needs grace in equal measure," Jacob adds. "Even though we live in a world where there are haves and have-nots and there is such a divide between those of us living in privilege in the developed world and those who are struggling with poverty and oppression in developing countries, the Gospel tells you that it doesn't matter who you are and what you've done. No amount of good deeds or good intentions is going to wash you clean. We want to address that particular point of focus in the Gospel message. We want to say that, if we don't look at ourselves through a worldly lens, we realise that we are all equal in our ineptitude and our struggle, our sin and our inability to find redemption on our own."
One of the highlights of the Commissionaires' debut release is a version of an old spiritual called "The Storm Is Passing Over" from the pen of US black gospel's Charles Albert Tindley whose own life encapsulates the struggle between slavery and freedom due to being born to an enslaved father and a free mother in the mid-19th century. "I first became aware of the song watching a soul gospel documentary called Say Amen Somebody from 1980," advises Jacob. "That documentary was shot when Thomas Dorsey - the father of gospel music - was still alive and making contact with gospel artists and choirs. 'The Storm Is Passing Over' was a song that the Barrett Sisters performed in the documentary and, when I watched the film, I remember thinking it was a great song. I put a little band together back in 2001 called Jacob Moon and the Soul Gospel Experience and that was one of the songs we used to do and it used to really raise the roof. As far as I am aware, no one else has really covered that song since so I knew it was fair game for us to bring to the table for the Commissionaires album. Chantal Williams sings on that song on the album and she sang with the Soul Gospel Experience when she was 14 years old. She's nearly 30 now and she sounds almost exactly like she did back then. Even at that young age, she had such a mature voice and I love the sound of her voice and her soul on that song."
I wonder how two artists who were successfully ploughing their own respective musical furrows decided to team up to form a new band. "I've been a solo artist for over 20 years and I've always formed bands to back me up on things but mostly I'm carrying the brand myself," explains Jacob. "When I got to the 20 year mark and released an album to commemorate that milestone, I felt a little bit of emptiness - a feeling of missing out on the camaraderie and co-operation that comes when you're part of a band. Long story short, I reached out to Joel and, when we got together for a coffee, it was clear that we definitely had similar influences. I thought it might be interesting to put my own style and Joel's together and see if there was a list of songs that might suit the both of us. Everything we've done so far has lived up to my hopes for the project - two people putting their efforts into something to make its sum greater than its parts."
This sentiment is something that Joel concurs with: "Whilst Newworldson was a band, so much of the content started with me," he states. "That's not to take anything away from the other guys because what they did as co-arrangers and collaborators really took every song I had to another level but almost everything began with me. With the Commissionaires, it's been fun to work with another person and share the responsibilities equally. As we've moved forward, this project has found a name and a brand and it's been a very different experience to Newworldson. Having someone else pick songs that I was going to sing was refreshing too. Jacob suggested that I sing 'The Storm Is Passing Over' and, because I wasn't familiar with the song, singing it in the studio felt like a very fresh experience. The album's full of moments that happened very spontaneously and organically."
I ask Jacob to describe what Joel brings to the table and he's quick to respond. "I was hoping that he would bring the whole 'Soul Joel' affect to the collaboration and he certainly did. Coming into the project, I was already a fan of his vocals. I didn't really know how the whole production aspect of things was going to work out but I knew that, if it was like any of the gigs we'd played just before we started on the album, it was all going to be fine. He clearly has a ton of experience in terms of mixing and recording and, in the live arena, there's a spark and an energy that allows us to try anything."
Joel responds in kind: "I like working with Jacob because he's a front man like me and, after carrying the weight of a project for so long where the spotlight is shining squarely on you all the time, it was great to share the load. Being 'the guy' all the time can take its toll and you can almost get sick of hearing your own voice which then leads to you second guessing your own artistry. I had hit that point where I was bored of listening to myself but working with a guy like Jacob - who is a great singer and a different kind of singer from me - was so good. What I love about working in this partnership is that, for half the time, I get to accompany Jacob as a back-up vocalist or a musician and, when it's my turn to sing, I feel like there's more gas in the tank because all that lead vocal responsibility isn't sitting squarely on my shoulders. That goes for everything - the artistic decisions that we make and the administration behind the scenes. I also love Jacob's guitar playing. There's a stream of music in the Americana, folk and singer/songwriter vein that Jacob draws from which throws up new ideas for what we could do in the future. We're both bringing something different but compatible to the table."
That compatibility has certainly allowed the pair to offer up an album that has been enthusiastically received by those who have come across it. "So far, everybody that I've talked to has been thrilled by it," confirms Jacob. "In the current digital climate, it's a challenge to get it through all the noise and into the ears of the people who might respond to our work. The people who get the album get it because they've been listening to this kind of music for a long time like we have."
"'Shelter Me' is very intentionally a blues gospel record," admits Joel. "When Jacob and I were having our initial conversations, Jacob had this idea of making an album that was - as he calls it - Southern gothic in style. I remember wondering what on earth that meant. When I think of Southern, I think of rootsy styles of music - New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville - and I think of the very crucible of American music. Music that's raw and organic, dusty and evocative. When you think of the word gothic, you think brooding and almost menacing. The gothic element is a mixture of the supernatural with the realistic and I found that especially intriguing. Then I tried to work out what Southern gothic would sound like in the studio. I could almost visualise it - dusty, wooden and distressed - and we ended up dragging big chains across the studio floor or shaking pieces of rusty metal in a bucket and mixing them in with the snare drum to evoke that Southern gothic feel."
As we draw near to the end of our call, I ask Jacob what the immediate future holds for the Commissionaires. "We have gigs lined up and we hope to add some more," he confirms. "Over the summer, we'll be writing some original songs and doing a new video series. The Commissionaires will be definitely making some more new music in 2017."
"The thing that will make future records different from the first one will be an emphasis on original material," adds Joel in closing. "It'll be interesting to see what we do from an original music composition point of view and I'm really looking forward to that."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.