Annabelle Chvostek is a Toronto-based singer, composer and producer whose music harkens back to the grittiness of 1930s tango, vaudeville and swinging Hot Club jazz. Throughout her career, Chvostek has composed music for dance and film, co-written songs with Bruce Cockburn, and played with the folk band The Wailin’ Jennys.
Chvostek’s new album String of Pearls brings together her Canadian singer-songwriter tradition and the nostalgia of her East European heritage along with a long-standing connection to Uruguay. The songs were arranged and co-produced in Montevideo by long-time collaborator, composer and multi-instrumentalist Fernando Rosa, who gathered some of Uruguay’s top tango and classical musicians to add to an already stellar lineup of musicians from Toronto’s jazz manouche community.
For the New Music Spotlight, Chvostek joined us to talk about the cross-cultural sound and intrinsic resilience of her latest album.
Reading about you, the term “jazz manouche” comes up a lot. What does that mean to you?
It’s the legacy of Django Reinhardt. It’s the jazz that ended up in Europe and was embraced by Reinhardt. It’s that type of jazz from that era that has an emphasis on acoustic guitar, and it’s holding up the rhythm and playing the upbeats. You have someone like Django Reinhardt who created this whole way of playing that has proliferated, and so there are many amazing players now who are playing that style.
What drew you to that style?
I’ve always loved it. I do feel a nostalgia for that era, my grandparents’ generation. The fact that it crosses over continents is very appealing to me. It’s just very alive, it’s very positive, and it’s a very exciting sound.
Cross-continental seems to be the theme of your album, too.
I’ve been going to Montevideo for 10 to 12 years now with my partner who is Uruguayan. I started playing informally with a musician, composer and producer there named Fernando Rosa. On this album, I invited him to participate. He actually brought in the jazz manouche idea, and it caught fire. I was able to find musicians back at home who play that style — this niche that exists all over the world in these tiny pockets. It’s very strong wherever you go. Montevideo has it and Toronto has it, so it was a wonderful moment of finding the world here.
What’s the jazz scene like in Montevideo?
It’s a crossover. There are musicians who have a foot in many worlds. That scene is also the tango world. There’s a strong presence of tango there, both from the golden age and the new tango as well. You’ve got Brazil next door, so you’ve got all this Brazilian jazz coming in and this relationship to Latin guitar playing — the Spanish guitar used in this rich, distinctive way. And there’s candombe, the rhythmic, African-rooted style of playing. All of that exists there simultaneously. All of those sounds are very much part of the scene. It’s very exciting to witness.
A lot of those sounds come through on your album. How did String of Pearls come to be?
It’s been a long time coming. I had to take a break from touring and playing for quite a while. I had a bunch of things I had to deal with, the foremost one being that I lost my hearing in my left ear after a feedback blast. I had to adapt to late deafness. That was part of the ideas behind some of the songs. It was a time in my life that was so much about finding my resilience, finding out how to adapt to change, and finding the beautiful side of that.
The song String of Pearls really does feel like a pep song.
Yeah, you can deal with what’s coming. You can deal with what you have. All these hard things that come into one’s life, there’s another side to them. That’s the beauty of the pearl. It’s this grain of sand or this unwanted thing that gets embedded and coated in this lustrous material and becomes its own beautiful object. That’s the story of the pearl.
I have to think that having an injury like that that causes you to lose your hearing probably rocks everything about the way you approach music. Did it take a lot of adapting, in terms of writing, creating and performing?
It did, most notably performing and playing in an ensemble have been really challenging. I can’t listen to loud sounds for very long, so I have less endurance. There are all kinds of things to which I’ve had to adapt. Ways to listen and ways to hear my collaborators have been the most challenging. But there are ways. It can be done. I feel like this album shows that. We also made a mono version of it for hearing-impaired people. One of the things that happens with this type of hearing loss is that sounds mush together and it’s hard to find distinction. So, having the mono mix specifically done that way makes it accessible to so many people.
What are you most proud of?
I’m so proud of the way the collaboration happened. It can be a tricky thing to do a cross-cultural collaboration, so I really opened up to the influence and input of other people. I laid low and let things happen more than I have in the past. Fernando Rosa and David Travers-Smith, my two co-producers, did an incredible job. To have had a chance to play in an ensemble setting that I had never done before, I’m so excited that it happened.
This interview has been edited and condensed.