Emm Gryner dedicates first jazz album to her father

Singer-songwriter Emm Gryner has been writing and recording for decades. Now, she’s made her first-ever jazz album.

Gryner’s records have brought her Juno Award nominations and wide acclaim both here in Canada and abroad. She has released more than a dozen albums, worked with a large number of collaborators and, in the early 2000s, was even a member of David Bowie’s band, touring and recording with the late legend.

Her new jazz album Just for You is dedicated to her father. As Gryner explains, he picked out the standards for her to sing and even joined her in the studio for the first time to see her in her element.

She joined us for a conversation about that relationship with her father and the making of this new record.

What was your first introduction to jazz?

It was early. My dad played me and my brothers this wide, wide array of jazz growing up. Wes Montgomery, Bill Evans, Monty Alexander, Marian McPartland… My first concert was Oscar Peterson in Stratford, Ont. He really pulled us into that world. Whether we liked it or not as kids is another story.

Mostly instrumentalists — not necessarily vocalists who would’ve caught your ear as a singer.

That’s true. There was a big focus on piano in our house.

Did your dad play?

My dad dabbles. He plays by ear, just plays for the love of it. But no, they’re not professional musicians at all.

When your dad was introducing you to that music, maybe it wasn’t the coolest at the time. Did you come to reconcile or rediscover it as you got older and became a more mature music listener?

Absolutely. My dad chose some standards for this record, but it was even before he chose them that I started to really open up to it. I did a play called Joni Mitchell :River in London, Ont., where the director Allan MacInnis imagined a story told through her songs. I think for a lot of pop artists, when other pop artists foray into jazz, that becomes a gateway to learning more about it and really loving it. We need to be baited in, kind of. The musical director on that play was a guy named Greg Lowe, who some people may know as a jazz guitarist in Winnipeg. He had a big, big impact on me, because he bridged the gap between rock ‘n’ roll [and jazz]. He grew up listening to Sabbath and stuff, but then he made a career of playing jazz and doing all sorts of amazing things. He was my real introduction to what Canadians were doing in jazz. This whole scene in Winnipeg opened up to me, and that’s where I met Larry Roy, who played on this record and arranged a lot of it.

In some ways, this record is a love letter to your dad. Tell me about how you came to decide to make this record.

I think the last four years have been a really transformative time for me personally. As a pop singer, I tended to live as if I was the centre of the universe. And then I had kids, life shifted, a lot of things happened, and then I realized there’s something about giving, looking more outward — what can I offer? I realized I never considered making an album for my dad. He always wanted me to do a Christmas album, but that idea never really appealed to me. So, I thought what about singing some of his favourite songs? For Father’s Day, instead of giving him a tin of ground coffee, I said I’m going to make you a jazz album, so make me a list. Within 10 minutes, he made me a list of songs.

Did you get the sense that he was delighted by the idea?

Totally. What’s crazy is that he knew I was going to do it. He knew I’d follow through on it. He’s really loved it. And also through this time when we’re not able to be together, it’s been the thing that connects us. I had him come into the studio in Toronto, and that was a huge joy.

I understand that he had never really seen you in that situation before, doing what you do in a studio. What’s that experience like for you, and what was it like for him to see you in your element?

It was life-changing. We went to a place called Blue Sound and Music in the Beaches, run by Russ Mackay. Even though we’re all from different worlds — my dad is 85, and Russ records all this prog-rock, and I do all these different things — we had this nice camaraderie. My dad was sitting on a couch taking it in, and Russ was teaching me how to listen to where the beat falls, because it’s totally different from pop and rock. It was a really beautiful day of discovery.

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Larry Roy is a terrific musician. Was it Greg who brokered that relationship for you to work together on the album?

Greg played on my last record, which was a ’70s and ’80s rock thing. Unfortunately, Greg passed away in 2017. He was so generous with his time, playing on the record right up until his final days. It was a really devastating blow to lose him. When it came time to promote that record, I launched it in Winnipeg and I needed someone who not only knew Greg but also understood his very warm, complicated, versatile style. We also ended up doing some Joni covers together live, so it blossomed into something really beautiful.

You have some originals mixed in with the standards. How intimidating was it to write a tune and throw it in amongst that Great American Songbook material?

Either insane or brave. Songs like Anything Goes and Nevertheless, you can’t really compete with them. What I learned from singing with Davie Bowie is that you just don’t bother even comparing yourself — just do what you want to do. I knew I wanted to have a couple of my own songs on this record, so I just made sure that they weren’t terrible. I just boldly put them on. Surprisingly, the song Butterflies is one of my dad’s favourites, so it really worked out.

You’re putting this record out at a difficult time. Where does everything stand for you, being an artist and putting out a record at a time like this?

I’ve always maintained that I’ve lived a very uncertain life anyway, so some of this is not totally new. We’re musicians — it’s up and down, right? At the same time, I think it’s about reframing it. Instead of trying to do some big album launch, I’ve just been going around to people’s driveways in my town — older people, right? — and I say, “Do you know a senior who would like to hear some music? Here I am in this small town of St. Marys, Ont., I can do this so easily, just perform for people. There are a lot of older people who can’t get out and enjoy it. So literally I’ve just been going to people’s driveways and porches. I called this tour the “Just Because Tour.” It’s just been for the joy of it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.