Shawn Hewitt with Trucks Leaving Friday (May 9), at the Cameron House (408 Queen West). $5. www.schmusic.com
Don't feel too bad if you haven't heard of Shawn Hewitt yet. He's only been playing under his own name for a year, he doesn't have an album out, his new band's only played two shows with him (just one in Toronto) and he has no big-name connections.You'll be hearing about him soon. Why? Because he doesn't sound like anybody else, he takes risks and he makes music that's intellectually stimulating and possesses that elusive element known as soul.
Combining asymmetrical abstract-math rhythms with tortured soul singing, Hewitt calls his unique sound Afro-Kraut, a fusion of Afrobeat and Krautrock. This almost describes what he's getting at, but it isn't completely accurate.
"Afro-Kraut was just a play on words to help me not be pigeonholed into that whole neo-soul thing that's going on," Hewitt explains in between a sound check and a solo show.
"I'm really interested in the rhythm, the hypnotic feel and the odd time signatures. I like searching for melodies within rhythm. Some people are a little confused when they stumble across the Web site. They expect me to be playing R&B or hiphop or reggae. It's weird being a young black guy playing music, because everyone assumes you make one of three genres."
Many talented Toronto musicians happily do impressions of sounds from another time and place. Sometimes they do it well, but too often there's a sense that they aren't being completely honest about their own roots and influences. Hewitt's done his time playing in straightforward bands, following the formula of a given genre, but he realized he had to forget all that and become deliberately naive again.
"In this town a lot of people are trying to recreate what's happening down south or across the pond. I wouldn't say I sat down and tried to build a new sound. It just sort of came out.
"I played in a couple of other bands, and the last one was a rock-soul kind of thing. It was neat, but I didn't feel there was any room for growth or that the music was saying anything as art.
"The whole neo-soul thing is fine and people wear some cool clothes, but it's not the 70s, for god's sake. We're in the 21st century now. There need to be new rhythms bubbling up from the underground."
About a year ago, Hewitt started playing solo shows. He switches between electric piano, organ and guitar and has an uncanny ability to silence a room with a glance or a smile. He often inserts extended pauses between sections of his sprawling, epic songs, yet manages to let the crowd know the song isn't over with a look or a carefully calculated gesture.
In March, he unveiled his new, still unnamed band. The Inflated Tears, a Roland Kirk reference, is one of its current working names.
Their first performance left the audience unnerved because the group was way too focused and tight to be playing its first show. They've only been rehearsing since January. The crew includes Austen Valentine on bass, djembe and keyboards, Will Culbert on drums, Laurie Kugler and Elizabeth Samson ("L2") on trumpet and alto sax respectively and Jones, who's responsible for guitar, keyboard and the Zappa-like conducting madness.
Hewitt's happy about how quickly the band has come together. "It's like seeing my kids go to university and getting their master's each time they play a song," he says. He often refers to his songs as his "kids" during the interview.
On one level, his music can be appreciated purely for its formal qualities, but there's also a strong backbone of emotionally resonant songwriting. He grew up loving traditional soul music, and Hewitt is still enamoured of the song. He isn't simply making difficult music for the sake of it. His lyrics aren't straightforward pop songs, but while culture and politics are sometimes his subjects, they aren't didactic political rants either.
"I think everything is political and that this is what breeds passion. Every day, there's a fight for our minds and wallets. My songs are part of this passionate struggle. I hope it doesn't sound cheesy, but I look at the rhythms of life as well. For example, I might be on the bus listening to a mother screaming at her kid, and there's a melody hidden in there. It's not that I think of the actual melody of her voice, but it helps joggle loose what I'm trying to say."
Hewitt, who lives in Scarborough, spends a lot of time on the bus. It seems odd that someone would choose to live out there, but Hewitt explains that it does have its advantages.
"I grew up in rough 'n' tough Scarborough, now known as SARSborough. I'm living there again now as I plot the introduction of this army I'm in the process of building.
"I lived downtown for a while, but with all the distractions and all the scenes, it's hard not to get sucked in. To develop myself as a person and artist I needed to take myself out of that and try to see who I am. Scarborough is where Toronto grows its really scruffy goatee. There's a goldmine of song material out here."