Unsung Toronto: Shawna Caspi
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Unsung Toronto: Shawna Caspi

Celebrated local songwriter takes it to the next level with 2012 release.

In which we profile some of the unsung heroes and heroines of Toronto culture.

Shawna Caspi
Loft 404 (263 Adelaide Street West)
Friday April 20, 8:30 p.m. (doors at 8 p.m.)

In music, the balance of proficiency in playing and proficiency in songwriting can be precarious. There are performers who, focusing specifically on one characteristic of the creative process, neglect the other, and it can show: technical know-how eclipses poetic sensitivity. Meanwhile, with other artists, you’ll have two or three repeating chords backing up a lyrically exhaustive piece, exhilarating to the mind but blandly conventional to the ears. There are very notable exceptions, of course, but it happens more than we’d like.

But with Toronto’s Shawna Caspi, that is certainly not the case.

Originally from Ottawa, Caspi has been gradually making a name for herself in Hogtown since her first compilation, 2005’s Trip the Light. Following up with 2008’s Paint by Numbers, Caspi emerged as a well-respected part of Toronto’s indie firmament, quickly becoming a local darling of musicians and critics. And rightly so. She’s one of those vivid, storied, shining talents, springing up in places ranging from Nathan Phillips Square to house parties. Coupling her virtuoso skills with a guitar—a product of her classical training, sweetened with a natural grace for all things folk—with an affecting, undeniably beautiful lyrical sense of nuance, Caspi is an artist’s artist, a musician’s musician.

“I have a classical background,” Caspi told Torontoist recently, “I took classical guitar for many, many years, which is where all the technique and finger-picking comes from. And I did continue studying guitar into university.” It’s been a traditionally solo effort, but with Skyline, her forthcoming 2012 release, Caspi is focusing on a fuller, bigger sound. With musicians like Murray Foster, Adam Warner, Joel Schwartz, Anne Davison, Rosemary Phelan, and Anne Lindsay on board, and producer Jason LaPrade at the helm, Caspi is presenting an epic, ambitious look at life in Ontario that celebrates its beautiful minutiae. It’s like a road trip put to music, alight with the haunting imagery of the Ottawa Valley, Toronto laneways, and our city’s unseen skyline, all flashing past the listeners’ ears.

Ultimately, it feels like a creation that’s been a long time coming. Along with performing in living rooms, a favourite format, she has also been a mainstay aboard the Ocean, VIA Rail’s Montreal-Halifax eastern flagship, playing for other passengers in what’s appropriately called the Skyline car. Knowing this, the arresting detail with which she describes places like farmers’ markets and bus stations becomes clear. This is the work of a person born to travel, both literally and in her music.

For tonight’s release party, Caspi is focusing on the intimate, stripped-down style that has brought her this far: “Often, when people have these big CD release parties, it’s a big deal, you get a whole band to play and it’s a huge thing. But this is actually going to be just me and the guitar, the way my live show is, with that kind of intimacy—that sort of honesty, because there’s nothing you can hide behind when it’s just you and your guitar on stage. And I love that about performing.”

Like much of what the city can expect this Record Store Day, Caspi suggests that these unconventional performances are a very inspiring way forward for Canadian music, perhaps resulting in a new scene, for lack of a better word. “There’s so much going on in Toronto,” she says, “and so much going on in people’s lives—everyone has a million channels on TV, everyone has the internet—that you don’t have to leave the house to go to something.” 

Tonight, this soulful artist is definitely a great reason to unplug and get out of the house.