By Aaron Wagner
Let’s be honest, 2020 has presented plenty of challenges for everyday people and the music industry is no different. Gone were festivals and shows and all the exciting plans that artists and bands had for the year. What would they do instead?
While some are taking their time off and trying to figure out what to do, Canadian country artist JJ Shiplett didn’t sit back and wait. He couldn’t.
Shiplett had just released his CCMA nominated album Fingers Crossed album in March and all of a sudden he couldn’t go promote it by playing live shows for his dedicated fans. But the response by his fans to the album that gave him hope and with that hope he went back into the studio to create a new sound of the same album he put out months earlier. This time, he cleverly flipped the album title around and is calling his special new project Crossed Fingers.
Shiplett stripped away the drums and all of the production that helped make his album such a success and instead focussed on his voice, with the soft support of a single guitar or piano at moments. It gives the album an entirely new vibe, a great one at that, and pulls the listener in that has them wanting more and more with each song.
Take a song like “Northern Lights” which has some get-up on the original album. On this album, it is stripped way back so that his signature, raspy voice shines through and can give the song a whole new meaning.
In addition to re-recording the seven songs from the original album, he cut a new one song called “Bluejay Highway” that fans will really enjoy.
Shiplett was kind enough to discuss this new project with us, the new song he included, and future plans of making a similar project.
Raised On It: Is this your first project where you’ve stripped things down to just your voice and a simple guitar/piano?
JJ: Ever since I started playing music I’ve always loved the simplicity of just a voice and an instrument. Even when I started playing live shows – it was always just my guitar and me. When it came to recording though, I’ve always added other instruments and had more production. So this was the first time that I made a conscious effort to minimize the sound while in the studio and let the focus just be on my vocals, the story and the song.
Raised On It: Is there a song that with the remastered version sounds like a completely different song to you? Whether it’s a different message or vibe?
JJ: Well I’ve always loved to belt out songs at the top of my range. I’ve always been able to use that to help a song feel more impactful but lately I’ve been trying to use my lower register. Forcing myself to get as much emotion and truth out of my voice, hoping it can be just as meaningful.
“Northern Lights” was a song where originally it was in the key of F# and on Crossed Fingers I brought it down to A and sang it in my lower register. It gave it a different feel. It doesn’t seem so urgent anymore – more contemplative and reflective of her every move she makes and moment that the two are sharing. Although the vibe changes, the story stays the same.
Raised On It: Tough question, but is there a song on this album that is your personal favorite after hearing it stripped down?
JJ: I don’t know if there’s one that is a personal favorite. I’m connected to each song in a different way, whether it be the writing process or the fact that some of them I’ve recorded many different versions of.
I am really excited for everyone to hear “Waiting On The Rain” though. I asked a long time musical collaborator and friend, Adam Patch Gill to come play some piano on it. I’ve got this little apartment sized Heintzman piano in my studio that’s out of tune and has some busted keys but he didn’t seem to mind. Once he started playing I could feel the emotion and that he really understood the song. He added a few extra bars on the end of the song and his explanation was that he wanted to make the sound and feel like rain was falling. I loved it even on my wreck of a piano.
Raised On It: What made you want to include a new song “Bluejay Highway” on the album? What’s the story behind that song?
JJ: “Bluejay Highway” was an old song of mine. Years ago I self-released an album called Drifter (it has since been taken down and I’m left with some boxes of cd’s in my basement) and it was on there. When the Covid pandemic hit I started to play some live streaming shows and people kept requesting it. I was taken back by them, I had forgotten the lyrics or even how to play it.
As I dusted it off I was also starting to work on Crossed Fingers and it felt really natural to add it to this collection. It’s a simple story of looking back on the decisions we make for our lives/relationships and how it affects us now. Like a ghost from your past sitting in your passenger seat on a lonely drive down an empty highway.
Raised On It: What did you learn about music or yourself from this stripped-down project?
JJ: I learned that I hate being told what to do. Well I actually already knew that but Crossed Fingers really helped me recognize that there are no rules and it’s up to me to create the sounds I want to hear. Yeah there’s guidelines and suggestions about how to create and build your music and your career but most of it doesn’t apply anymore.
I just wanted to create something that felt natural and most of my listeners were on board to just hear me sing (which is the way so many people were first introduced to my music – just me and my guitar). I always thought I needed to make things bigger, more production and more energy when really I’ve found that a lot of people are just wanting a good song from the heart. So that became my focus and has continues to be.
Raised On It: Can fans expect more stripped-down versions of songs in the future?
JJ: Yeah for sure. But also expect the opposite. All I want to do is create as great of music as I can with the tools I have in front of me. If it’s just a guitar and my voice – awesome. Or maybe there’s a symphony supporting the song. As long as it’s honest and from the heart I want to create it.