THE JESSICA STUART FEW with BULL KELP and THE DONEFORS at the Cameron House (408 Queen West), Friday (March 15). $15-$20. 416-703-0811. And as part of CMF at the Courthouse (57 Adelaide East), Tuesday (March 19), 7 pm. $10 or wristband. cmw.net.
The Jessica Stuart Few are Toronto's only folk-pop-jazz group to feature a Japanese zither called the koto. But frontwoman Stuart isn't worried about being perceived as a novelty act.
"After anyone comes to our shows, they might mention the koto, but I don't think that's the main, final note they carry away," she says. "There are far better koto players - even in town - than me, but I'm probably doing the most inventive writing with it."
The trio's sophomore album, Two Sides To Every Story (independent), is about dichotomies and dualities: yearning to travel while living in the city, following lives other than your own on the internet.
It's divided 50/50 between guitar- and koto-based songs, with backing from double bassist Dan Fortin and three drummers (on different tunes): Tony Nesbitt-Larking, Fabio Ragnelli and Nico Dann.
Stuart comes by the koto honestly. Her mother plays it, and the two studied together under a sensei in Japan when Stuart was a child. These days she sees herself as an ambassador for the instrument in the Canadian indie world.
That's partly why she included her version of the Eurythmics' Here Comes The Rain on the new disc.
"One way to really hear [the koto] shine is to cover a song people are familiar with," says Stuart. "There's this canvas of their being comfortable with a song, which then allows me to show off what the instrument sounds like."
Though the band has obvious jazz roots, Stuart emphasizes groove and feeling over a cerebral approach.
"I'm really coming at this from my heart rather than an intellectual place," she says. "With this album and the newer stuff, I asked myself, ‘Does it sound good? Does it feel good? Does it transport me when I'm playing it?'"
For the album sleeve and liner notes, Stuart continued her collaboration with Winnipeg-based artist Takashi Iwasaki, who also did the art for her 2010 debut, Kid Dream.
"I was reading some reviews of his work, and the words used to describe it - ‘whimsical,' ‘playful,' ‘quirky' - have also been used to describe my music. So I felt a kinship with him."
Asked if it's her handwriting in the lyric book, Stuart laughs and confesses that she used a handwriting font.
But the singing is real, right?
"Yes, the singing is all real, I promise."