Tara Kannangara and the ‘beautiful energy’ between artist and audience

Brad Barker is JAZZ.FM91’s music director and host of Afternoon Drive.

With a sound that melds jazz, synth-pop, electronic, musical theatre and whatever else, Tara Kannangara is defying genres and carving out her own place in Canadian music.

The trumpet player, composer and vocalist already has quite a resumé. She received the Rising Star Award as part of the TD Montreal Jazz Festival and the Julian Award for excellence in emerging Canadian jazz artists, her 2015 debut album Some Version of the Truth was nominated for a Juno Award, and she has performed with some of the biggest names in jazz.

Her new record It’s Not Mine Anymore came out at the end of May, and she’s touring throughout Canada this summer.

Kannangara came down to the station to chat about her experimental style, the relationship between artist and audience, and taking time off from her career to work on herself.

Brad Barker: What’s making all those sounds in the song we just heard — all computer-generated or are there live instruments in that mix?

Tara Kannangara: There are some live instruments. It’s a lot of manipulation of live instruments, synth keyboard. It’s really just manipulating the raw sound, so you’re getting something that maybe you wouldn’t initially be able to know if it’s a keyboard, if it’s a guitar, or even if it’s trumpet or a vocal loop. It’s a little oblique, which I do appreciate.

Is that part of the goal, to take a real sound and make it something that someone can’t identify, so it’s uniquely your own?

I do like those surprising elements that make you sit up and question. As soon as there’s more questions, I feel like you’re making some good choices.

So you don’t want anything to be too explained, or ordinary?

Well, I do appreciate accessibility. I will never turn my nose up at the ideas of wanting to connect with people in a really direct way. When you can say something in plain-speak to someone, whether it’s through words or through music, and they get you, that is truly valuable. I never want to alienate anybody. The choices I make and the choices I have made are all to reach people in a way that makes sense to me. But I love to think about the audience. I want them to like it.

So as an artist, you can say, “This is what I do. This is my voice. Here it is. And if people like it, that’s their business, but that’s not part of the process for me.” You’re saying that part of your process is that you do want the result to be that people are experiencing it, enjoying it, reacting to it.

Oh, totally. I would be lying if I said I didn’t think about that element. I like this energy that’s created between an artist and an audience – the space in between. The artist puts out energy and the audience gives it back, and there’s that space, this beautiful energy that’s created between the two. And I love feeling that. I always think about it whenever I write or play.

Is that relationship you have with the audience something that you’ve experienced in the last while, or has that been there since the beginning?

When I was in jazz school, I think there was an attitude — at least for myself, I’m not going to say everyone was like this — that I really wanted to show people I understood what I was doing. And that was a lot more about me than it was about other people. Even with my fellow players, I was so concerned with people understanding that I took myself seriously and that I could hang, and all the while I was actually missing so much. I was not looking outward; I was only looking inward. And sometimes when you’re practising a more intellectual pursuit — which jazz has kind of become, in its own way — sometimes it forces you inward a little too much.

We had Joel Visentin here, and he was talking about when he left school, he was still writing the music he had written at school, and he sat down one day and said, “I’m writing music I don’t even like.” He abandoned all that and started to write things that he enjoys. It is an interesting incubator when you’re at school, and such a different experience than reality and life in some ways.

I think school is great because it gives you tools and information and vocabulary. And I think it’s so great to broaden your horizons, particularly with jazz — it’s always moving, it’s always changing, the horizon is like this moving target. But yeah, I do want young artists to think more about what they love. Making decisions out of love of what you do, instead of out of fear. I think that actually translates. I think people can tell. You can’t discern how people feel, but I believe people can tell if you’re making decisions out of fear.

Do you think you can just intellectually turn off the thing that makes you act in fear, and act in love? Is it as easy as that, or is it kind of hard?

Oh yeah, super hard. I talk about it as if I’m some authority on it. But frankly, I struggle with it every day.

But as long as you’re putting that narrative out there, then maybe you can follow it. 

I think anything worth doing, it’s a practice. I have to practise making these decisions out of love, just remembering what it feels like within my body, just like you practise an instrument.

Are you saying you’re not in the woodshed as much as you used to be?

You’ve got to try. Even as I get busier performing, there’s always a moment when I feel it, like man, I’ve got to get back and put some work in to my instrument, to my voice. And it’s actually incredibly rewarding. I’ve never regretted taking that extra time.

So there were two years between the Juno-nominated recording and this one. That’s kind of a long stretch. Did you feel pressure to come out with something quickly after the first one, to stay on that momentum?

I think I had to take my time. By the time that first record came out, I was already a different person. Usually when artists put out music, they’ve already moved past it somehow. That’s not to say I don’t value the work that I did, but I was literally a different person. I was older and had experienced different things, and I was looking for different things in my life. I wanted to honour the process, take some time, do some introspection and learn about myself. That can be hard, though, because you get the impression that people are waiting for something. But they aren’t. They’re out living their own lives. So you have to live your own life and when you’re ready and able, that’s when you do it.

So does that mean you were trying not to write songs for a while, or was the input/output happening simultaneously?

I would say simultaneously, but a lot of it was self-work. A lot of it was just figuring out who I was as a human, versus Tara as an artist. Because there are some things that I need to figure out as a woman, and that can be challenging when you have the distraction of a career. Careers can become a distraction, and then when you’re left alone in the quiet of your room, you realize there are certain truths out there — some are great and some are not great — and then you have to face it. And when you come out the other side, I think the art is better.