Music of love and courage with Emily Steinwall

After vocalist and saxophone player Emily Steinwall graduated from Humber College two years ago, she hit a jackpot of sorts when she soon landed a tour with Alessia Cara.

Steinwall spent eight months on the road as a backup singer for the Canadian pop star, including performances in big-league stadiums and on late-night TV. “It was a great learning experience,” Steinwall says. But it also made her realize her true calling as a musician.

“It had always been my dream to get a prestigious gig like this one,” the 24-year-old says. “Now I realize that it’s up to me to follow my own intuitive guidance.”

Steinwall has since poured herself into solo work. Last fall, she released her first single titled Here, Right Now. In January, she quit touring in order to focus on her own music. She has since released a three-part live recording called the Peace Theatre Sessions, and last month, she recorded her debut album, Welcome to the Garden, slated for release in a few months.

Her band includes Joey Martel on guitar, Claire Lee on piano and synth, David Maclean on bass, Eric West on drums and Kyla Charter and her twin brother Jackson on vocals.

“It’s been a new and exciting project that’s hard to classify in a genre,” she says. “It’s like psychedelic pop-rock jazz.”

We asked this former participant in our Jazzology program to tell us more about the work she’s done so far, what to expect from her debut album, and how her philosophy on music has evolved over time.

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That tour with Alessia Cara sounds like an incredible experience. Can you tell us more about what that was like? What memories stick out? What did you learn from it?

It was a really cool insight into the life of a touring musician. I love Alessia and was really inspired by how down-to-earth she remained through her becoming a celebrity and all. I also developed a close friendship with the two other backup singers, which I will cherish for the rest of my life. I learned to be totally sufficient in my own body, feeling at home wherever I go and trying to be comfortable in any setting. We would be on a plane and in a new city every single day, which can get very lonely and monotonous. I had to really face myself honestly and become comfortable in that. I fell in love with the travelling lifestyle and especially with performing every night. My dream now is to tour with my own band.

I really developed as a vocalist thought this experience, because there was a standard of consistency that was enforced, and all of the gigs were very high-pressure. Things like getting off a flight from Toronto to London and immediately having to go and perform for the BBC on three hours of sleep, crappy airport food and jet lag. It is rough being a singer on the road, too, because airplanes and hotels are dry, which makes it hard to maintain vocal health. I became very aware that my body, being my instrument, takes work and dedication to maintain. It taught me a lot about listening to my body and feeling present. I feel that my confidence and consistency as a singer has greatly improved.

It was also very eyeopening in a more philosophical way, because I had always had it in my mind that once I performed with a big name at iconic venues or on celebrity talk shows, I would somehow feel fulfilled, self-actualized or be satisfied with my musicianship because of the outside validation I was receiving… but life isn’t like that. It had always been my dream to get a prestigious gig like this one, but I realized that I had been chasing that dream for a dishonest reason. Now I realize that it’s up to me to follow my own intuitive guidance and do everything from a place of honest love, rather than chase things like fame, clout or validation.

So, tell us more about your solo work. You’ve said that writing music and lyrics is still new to you. What has that creative process look like? Did you ease into it slowly, or dive right in?

I’ve always been the type of person to throw myself fully and fearlessly into new things. Sometimes this can be chaotic, but I have found it always works out for the best. I booked a show in April, 2018, with a dancer friend who was coming up from Vermont for a few days. I decided that I would write some music that I could sing, because I had only really been performing as a saxophone player until then, so I just dove in and announced that I would be performing songs that I hadn’t even written yet. That got the ball rolling and now I’m really focused on songwriting. Both my parents and my brother are songwriters, and I’ve always loved creative writing, so it does feel quite natural. I love the directness that words offer to convey emotion, and I think that when words are paired with music it can be very powerful. I love exploring things like philosophy, nature, consciousness, art — it is nice to explore it all in words as well as music.

Credit: Savanna Shea

You’ve been involved in a bunch of different projects, including some genre-bending ones. What are some of your main influences?

My solo project is my main focus right now and is very genre-bending. It features musicians who are all amazing improvisers with an individual approach, but who can also nail any musical “bag.” I’m very lucky this way. It gives me so much freedom in writing because I know they can do anything. They are all extremely talented and creative people who can basically do everything in a way that is very exploratory, so it gives the show a very unique vibe.

My influences for writing are so eclectic, and I love experimentation. John and Alice Coltrane are huge influences for me, as well as Queen (Freddie Mercury especially), Billie Holiday, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder and Esperanza Spalding, to name the big influences. I love the idea of being a shapeshifter and having a timelessness in the music I create — suggesting different eras, personas, timelines.

What can we expect from your debut album?

Every song is pretty different in terms of style, but there is a uniformity in the melodic and lyrical content. Like I mentioned, I love to explore the idea of timelessness in art. Some of the songs are influenced by the music from the 1920s to 1950s, so they have a nostalgic quality and an acoustic performance, while others are my attempt at sounding like the space age, futuristic and synthetic. The album is called Welcome to the Garden, which means many things to me. I want to leave the interpretation of that up to the listener.

All of my songs are about love. I am fascinated by the human experience of love. Not just romantic love, but that feeling of love that we all feel in various forms. It can be as simple as playing with a puppy, or as profound as a transcendental spiritual experience. In all cases, the essence of it is the same. It seems to be the only thing that we can all agree on. So this album is really an exploration of all of the ways that I have experienced love in the past year or so.

You and your brother spent some time in Los Angeles this summer. What did you learn there that will help guide your music career?

To sum up what I learned in California: Fearlessness is vital in the process of creating. Jazz is freedom and presence, that’s all. There are truly no rules, despite what we may have learned in school. There is a history that we should honour and respect, and a language we can learn for more effective communication, but that doesn’t mean there are rules. It all comes down to love and connection. That’s why we’re here and that is the whole point of art. As cliche as that sounds, it’s what I have experienced to be true every time I perform. If this is done honestly, everything works out.

How has your jazz background come into play with all these different projects?

My jazz background taught me quick thinking and versatility. It is about having your ears open to react with the present moment of what’s happening. I think this is an element of all good music, no matter the genre.

What are some of the favourite gigs you’ve played recently?

I love performing with my band. Truly nothing brings me more satisfaction and joy. There is also a local singer named Jenna Marie who I play with at the Rex when she does her R&B night, and that is always so fun because the audience knows and loves the repertoire, which makes them immediately loosen up and have fun. No one can feel disconnected when you’re playing Stevie Wonder songs, and Jenna sings them really well. I also did a really fun Fringe Festival show in July with a group of dancers called ZEST and two musicians (Hannah Barstow and Julien Bradley-Coombs). It was a mixed-media show and was totally new for me, and I thoroughly enjoy doing completely new things.

How was your experience with the Jazzology program? What did you like about it?

First of all, Heather Bambrick is the best. She is such a joy to be around, and really gets her guests thinking and excited with her questions. She is such a relaxing presence so I think it makes for an open interview experience. It was cool to do it because I was in my fourth year at school and I was thinking, “Wow… people care what I have to say about music?” It helped me transition from the student mentality to the artist mentality because it helped me feel more confident in what I was doing and also forced me to solidify my own opinions about music.

If you could thank our donors that support the Jazzology program, what would you say?

Thank you for believing in the power of music. The world of capitalism and materialism is always teaching us that only profitable things are worth investing in, and art is not a necessary part of the human condition, even though we all know deep down that it is. It takes a lot of integrity and generosity to believe in art enough to support it financially. I am so grateful that Toronto has so many programs and institutions dedicated to artists — especially young artists! — that are only possible with the help of donors. So, thank you so much for believing in music, believing in local musicians and for supporting them despite the fact that you may not see a profitable monetary return.

Why is music education important to you?

I truly believe music teaches us to be better people. It connects us to each other, makes us work in teams, and gives us a firsthand experience of something unquantifiable (call it God, call it love, call it our spirit… whatever it is, we all feel it in music). Human consciousness developed with music and creative expression, and it enriches our lives in too many ways to list. So, teaching this to people is so important.

What about other plans for the future? Where would you like to be years down the road?

I plan to keep writing, learning, performing and exploring. I have let go of all my tangible goals like getting famous or winning a Juno Award. I don’t really care if that happens anymore, as long as I am doing my best and pushing myself to my highest potential as an artist. I want to travel with my music, touring with a band or even as a side-woman. I want to be a person who radiates love and inspires people to be courageous in their own lives.

You can follow Emily Steinwall on Facebook and Instagram, or visit her website at