Singer/songwriter Jennifer Gasoi, seen here in a promotional shot for her new book, was back in her hometown last month. (photo by Philove)
Jennifer Gasoi’s new book, Blue and Red Make Purple, is both a hardcover children’s book and a CD collection. It was released to immediate acclaim, winning the 2016 Parents’ Choice Gold Award and a National Parenting Product Award.
Illustrated by Steve Adams, Gasoi’s songbook has a vintage feel with a touch of Chagall. It is vibrant and surreal, full of movement, as a group of animals get up to all sorts of musical capers. “I love the illustrations for this book,” Gasoi told the Independent. “I feel that Steve accurately depicted the joy, love and depth of my songs. He offers a brilliant visual representation of the music.”
Gasoi has local roots and, 15 years ago, she was performing at Rossini’s jazz bar in Kitsilano. She studied music at Capilano University’s jazz program and took part in community choir events around town before she decided it was time for a change and moved to Montreal. There, she taught music to young children and parents. Her debut album, Songs for You (2004), garnered awards and nominations, as did her second CD, Throw a Penny in the Wishing Well (2012).
Among the honors for her second recording was a 2014 Grammy Award for best children’s recording. An unusual compilation, the CD introduces children to a wide range of genres, including bluegrass, calypso and klezmer.
“Winning a Grammy was a life highlight,” said Gasoi. “It was something I had been dreaming of since I started my music career – and having Cyndi Lauper present the award was pure gold.”
Gasoi’s lyrics are deceptively simple. The song “Happy” from Wishing Well, for example, starts gently in a voice that sounds as natural as exhaling, were it not for the jaunty, syncopated piano accompaniment. This brief “ditty,” as she calls it, is written for children but models a spirit of resilience and self-acceptance that could be a mantra for any age. A chorus of “I feel happy” follows lines such as, “When I jump, when I fly, when I feel, when I cry.” Likewise, this song teaches generosity and compassion: “When I laugh, when I live the life I want to live, when I take a little less than I give. I feel happy….” And, “When I dance the way I want to dance. When I step out of the box and take a chance, I feel happy….”
Gasoi’s voice brims with a mix of confidence, mischief and kindness. Asked if she’s aware of this last quality, she laughed, “I do hear that. I hear that I’m soothing. Even when I was in jazz clubs and I’d be thinking, ‘I’m rocking this, I’m digging it!’ people would come up and say, ‘I’m so relaxed right now!’”
As an artist, Gasoi is working to a plan. Her goal is to reach children deeply, authentically, as both an educator and a musician. This drive has long been apparent, said singer Christie Grace, Gasoi’s contemporary at Capilano. “She was always extremely self-disciplined.”
“I have a soul connection with children,” said Gasoi. “I see their light and their beauty. I pray that, through my music, I can inspire them to tune into what they feel, what they love, what they are good at.”
With an eye to the greater good, the singer wants her music to motivate children to be active and empowered citizens working for “a world that is based on peace, compassion and love.”
Gasoi also recognizes that dialogue is part of any educational experience. The adults may be the ones who have laid out the agenda, but the lesson goes both ways. She speaks of the rich education she gained during the 15 years she honed her voice and performance style “teaching music in daycares and community centres, a lot of mom and baby groups.”
Asked about what keeps her motivated, Gasoi describes a visit to an inner city school in Montreal. “I performed my songs to the most enthusiastic audience I’d ever seen,” she said. “The kids were beaming with excitement. They knew all the songs.”
In a population that doesn’t usually have a chance to attend concerts, the experience was all the more poignant. The singer described the group as “jubilant and receptive.”
“One of the teachers told me that one of her students, a boy with autism, had never sat still for more than five minutes during any other concert,” said Gasoi. “During this show, he was engaged for the full hour. It’s moments like these that keep me going.”
On stage at the Vancouver Writers Fest last month, Gasoi was utterly in her element. She addressed the audience of hundreds as if it were an intimate group of a few children, gathered around her knees. Her experience as an educator was apparent, as she asked questions and engaged the crowd in conversations, responding to the children as they called out answers and praising them for their unexpected gems. In the middle of “Little Blue Car Trip,” she asked the audience for another form of transportation. The first answer fired back, “Camel!” got a laugh from audience and band alike.
Gasoi’s band members – Jody Proznick (double bass), Joel Fountain (percussion/vocals), Chris Gestrin (piano/melodica) and Ralph Shaw (banjo) – are no less engaging. Shaw doubles as the Purple Man from the song of the same name, leaping across the stage to the strains of this energetic, multi-genred song, which culminates in a fiery rendition of “Hava Nagila.”
There’s nothing like a hometown reception for a returning artist and this show was no exception. “This week was absolute magic. Vancouver welcomed me with open arms!” said Gasoi, who continues to deliver songs packed with rhymes, wordplay and colorful imagery.
“I am constantly amazed by kids,” she said. “They are so pure, honest, innocent and in touch with their instincts. I see their potential and I am doing everything in my power to support them.”
Shula Klinger is an author, illustrator and journalist living in North Vancouver. Find out more at niftyscissors.com.