With a band name that seems to evoke thoughts of distant shores and places that emerge from the mists of our imagination, Edmonton’s Picture the Ocean have begun an intense musical journey that has taken them to places most of us can only daydream of.
Only recently appearing on our musical horizons, they’ve just released a debut album this past spring, but have rapidly outgrown the old tiny bars and leaky barns of their performing past. As a spinning moon swiftly stirred ocean tides, they suddenly seemed to be riding a wave of unprecedented scale that proved to transcend borders as readily as any and they found themselves brought on board for the tour of established Australian artist, Aurora Jane.
Picture the Ocean played as her backing band while she travelled around Canada and Jane would hop on bass to add even more depth and dynamism to their performances. They continued on to the States, UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Czech Republic in a single year and are now settling down in India for just under a month. Drummer Matt Blackie puts it into perspective: “My last 36 hours in Europe were spent waking up in Cesky Krumlov in the south of the Czech Republic to snow, taking the train to Prague and sneaking in a beer before my connecting overnight bus to London. Then, I visited Big Ben and Buckingham Palace for a few hours before catching our flight to Bombay to arrive to 30°C heat. So, sometimes, it can seem very surreal.”
Blackie was an addition that changed the band significantly. Picture the Ocean began as a harmonic roots duo of Jacquie B and Jesse Dee for three years and three albums. With Jacquie B on keys and Dee on a Gretsch guitar, the energy level of their music has been pumped up significantly by Blackie’s percussive third dimension. Although things have moved into a more rock-influenced sound, there is a lounge atmosphere that could gently lift the ceiling off a room — and certainly some eyebrows in places that have such contrasting musical aesthetics and traditions.
Jacquie B explains how performing has been different from other places. “Here in India, we are bombarded with photographs and autographs after the show, which is sometimes surprising since it’s not always obvious that the audience is fully engaging with us. Depending on the state, there are ‘no dancing’ laws in effect.” But the band seems to agree that their music has been very well received. Playing alongside Jane has also exposed them to a lot of good fortune, as she has toured India for the past seven years and become quite well recognized there. She already knew where the best venues were for shows and got them all invited to play at a new conference, called India Music Week, which was created to help expand that country’s growing live music scene.
Without a doubt, it’s an expensive undertaking, but there are grants available to musicians for these types of projects. They applied for and received support through the Alberta Music Industry Association’s International Touring Program, which turned their daydreams into something that could really hold water. The true value of such experiences is nearly unfathomable, except for what we can glean from those who have had them first-hand.
Jacquie B offers a glimpse: “We were invited to meet some children who live and work in India’s largest, yet most productive, slum, Dharavi. After a tour of this incredible place, the kids shared their original junk drum compilations, under the name Dharavi Rocks, with us and we showed them some body percussion/counting games. That whole experience was enlightening and profound. A large percentage are recycling everything you can think of and turning it into new and raw materials sold back to companies for a pittance. However small the pittance, they are their own bosses and are some of the proudest and happiest people I’ve ever seen.”
While living nomadically has given them an envious ache for the simple comforts of a house and the calm stability of routines, like gardening, cooking, yoga and having their own beds, she makes an important point that “never again will we complain about being broke-ass musicians who don’t have a home or possessions. Those kids, and all the 1.5 million people who live in Dharavi in only 600 acres, are working harder than anyone could know and the government doesn’t even acknowledge them.”
Grants have consistently proven incredibly important to our national creative development. Musicians are some of the most engaging sources of wisdom we have and, when they travel to places like these, the impacts they have on communities and audiences can be quite prolific. Blackie has found that, “They don’t have many western bands coming to play here and even the local club/rock scene is fairly recent, so they are thrilled to have us in most places… In India they love original music and want to hear what your band does! So, because of all this, they tend to be great listeners and treat us with great respect.” Just the same, it must be a hugely inspiring environment for bands that have typically developed their careers in bustling, distracted bars and dense musical circles.
It can be very interesting to consider what we think of as indications of a successful life and how we define being successful as an artist. For Jacquie B, it’s about “performing to a roomful of music lovers, who are there because they choose to be. It’s a beautiful experience that I’m happy to say is one we experience more and more often, at least in Canada.” Blackie is also able to offer his philosophy that “long-term goals are harder to see if you are getting any closer to, like walking on an endless beach… You keep walking and the point in the distance seems to keep moving away. It’s only when you look back that you see the trail of footprints that have been accomplished.”
Much of Picture the Ocean’s current album describes scenes of their past. “We use a lot of landscape imagery in the music and this has expanded our sonic repertoire, for sure,” says Blackie, while Jacquie B adds, “We’ve written about life in Edmonton, about life on the road, about life in small town Wells in the winter… We are most definitely thinking about the next album and how we want to go about making and writing it.”
If their first one has been any indication, we have a lot to look forward to. In the meantime, their visit to Calgary this month will finally “bring us home for the holidays and much needed rest and reflection time.”
Welcome them back to Alberta on December 19th at the Rhino and 21st at Wine-Ohs.
By Cait Lepla
Photo: Caitlin Boyce