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It is prophetic that Treasa Levasseur entitled her 2006 debut album Not A Straight Line. You see, this enchanting Toronto-based songstress has never followed a straight line, personally or musically. Over the course of three full-length records and a vinyl EP, this rootsy singer/songwriter has earned a truckload of rave reviews, a bunch of awards, extensive airplay in Canada and the U.S., serious peer respect, and a reputation as one of the most charming and compelling performers working the circuit.
She has done this on her own terms, completely. Self-managed and her own record label (Slim Chicken), Levasseur has defied industry wisdom (does that even exist in these turbulent times?) by following her own musical muse, refusing to be neatly slotted into any one stylistic niche. This may make the lives of music scribes, radio programmers, and record store clerks a mite more difficult, but that doesn’t deter this determined dame.
Treasa’s versatility as a songwriter and recording artist is duplicated and even extended in her favorite role, that of performer. She is in great demand on both the blues and folk festival circuit, having played such prestigious events as The Montreal Jazz Festival, Toronto Jazz Festival (opening for George Benson in a triumphant show this past summer), The Calgary Blues Festival, The 2010 Philadelphia Folk Festival, the 25th anniversary Women’s Blues Revue at Massey Hall, and Guelph’s renowned Hillside Festival, amongst others. She also headlines her own shows at house concerts, clubs and soft-seater concert venues. She feels equally at home in all settings, she explains. “If I play the main stage at The Kitchener Blues Festival, as I did this summer, then I’ll give them 90 minutes of blues, soul, funk and r ‘n b. Then I might be at The Cove in Westport, Ontario, where the crowd is all between 55 and 70. There, I’ll tell lots of stories about my life, I’ll sing some blues, some folk, a jazz number and a Carole King cover. They’ll love it and I’ll love it.”
This musical shapeshifting isn’t just about keeping the customer satisfied, as Levasseur gets personal fulfilment and joy from all these varied shows. “Performance is what I love above all else. It is the place where I feel least nervous anywhere on earth. When I’m onstage, I feel that this is exactly where I’m supposed to be. What live performance has over everything else is that it is spontaneous.”
She’s a natural raconteur, connecting with her audiences in unforced and spontaneous fashion. David Gavan Baxter, a noted Toronto guitarist/producer/recording artist and a long-time musical collaborator with Levasseur, sums up her talent as a performer best. “Treasa makes friends with her audience, one by one. No one will ever leave a Treasa Levasseur show feeling like they got less than they bargained for. She delivers, as a writer, singer, player, and bandleader.”
Treasa’s musical journey has been an unconventional one, but it helps account for the wide stylistic swathe she cuts. Like so many great r ‘n b singers, she began singing in a church choir. “My mom ran it,” she explains. “She always made me sing the alto harmony vocals, never the lead, but that helped me learn the technique of music.” She also took classical piano lessons from a young age to Grade 8, and her skills as a pianist and backing singer have long been in demand by her peers. Those she currently performs with include noted Canadian roots artists Corin Raymond, David Baxter, and Claire Jenkins.
Growing up, musical theatre was a real passion. “I took theatre all through grade school and high school, singing in musical theatre productions,” Levasseur recalls. “That was how I was getting my music out at that time. I was writing journals and songs, but it took me a long time to really feel I knew how to write or had something to write about.” Back then, Julie Andrews was Treasa’s original vocal hero, and she retains that love today.
A turning point came with Treasa’s discovery of folk music at 18. “I got my first Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot albums then, and I wore the hell out of that first Cowboy Junkies album,” she says. ” Joni blew my mind, and I learned to sing everything just the way she sang it.” A love of soul and the blues came later, and Levasseur’s list of vocal idols now includes Aretha Franklin, Annie Lennox, Etta James and Mavis Staples. Carole King is another inspiration, both as a songwriter and singer.
Levasseur’s love of theatre prompted a move to Toronto to attend theatre school. There, it was the music side that most engaged her. “I had an amazing singing teacher, just magical. Her big thing was ‘can you be authentic? Can you let go of all the B.S.’? Can you deliver the lyric of the song as if it’s a story?’” Treasa took her advice to heart, and that’s a key to her prowess as a singer. “Yes, I have a voice, but it’s not perfect,” she explains. “What I have beyond that is that I really really try to mean it, every time. My older fans say ‘I can understand every word you sing.’ That is not down to my diction, but the fact I mean it. I never phone it in.”
Any illusions of becoming the next Meryl Streep were shattered early on for Treasa. ” I’m a terrible actress because I’m really bad at taking directions,” she laughs. “In my second year, a professor told me ‘you’re never really going to be an actor. You have this thing in you where you have to create things, you won’t be content representing the work of others.’ All through theatre school I’d been helping people with their songs, then, in my third year, I was asked to write music for a show we were doing, and I really enjoyed that.”
Levasseur was now truly bitten by the music bug. She had a stint playing
and singing in Whitehorse, and on her return to Toronto, she began gigging
regularly. She played in hiphop, metal and rock bands, but started to find
her true musical identity once she paired up with a band called Before The
Glue Dries. “That was a group made up of theatrical carpenters at Theatre
Passe Muraille,” she reminisces. “With them, I played five years of
Thursdays at The Shop party, in the basement of their carpentry shop there.
I’d just gotten my accordion, and that’s where I first started jamming with
people and playing roots music.”
That led to another long Thursday night residency, this time at the legendary Cameron House, the bohemian mecca of Toronto’s Queen Street West’s music and arts scene. There, for seven years and counting, she had played keyboards and accordion and sung backup vocals for roots troubadour Corin Raymond, an invaluable apprenticeship.
Levasseur continued to hone her songwriting skills, and by 2006 she felt confident enough to step into the solo spotlight with her debut album, Not A Straight Line. Produced by David Baxter, it featured such local luminaries as Richard Bell (The Band), Carlos Del Junco, Sean Cotton (The Undesirables), Kevin Fox, and Justin Rutledge. The album is a well-crafted and musically sophisticated collection of songs drawing upon both the folk singer/songwriter and r ‘n b traditions. Eight originals are featured alongside covers of tunes by local peers Bob Snider and The Undesirables, and they demonstrate Treasa’s emergence as both a literate (the title song is about particle physics) and emotionally eloquent songwriter and convincingly versatile vocalist.
Not A Straight Line helped pave the way for Levasseur’s breakthrough second album, 2008′s Low Fidelity. Treasa had a one word mandate for this record, Memphis. “The main criticism of Not A Straight Line was that it was difficult to categorize. For Low Fidelity, I said ‘I’m going to make a record that sounds like Memphis,’” she explains. By this time, Treasa’s love affair with the classic soul and blues sounds of that city on the Mississippi was in full bloom. One of many album highlights, “Stuck In Soulsville” tells the true story of a musical epiphany she experienced there.
As on the debut, covers of tunes by The Undesirables and Bob Snider fit seamlessly alongside strong Levasseur originals. “I wrote the songs on Low Fidelity on the mandolin in my backyard, post-breakup,” explains Treasa, with typical candour.
The reaction to Low Fidelity on both sides of the border was as warm as a July day in Memphis. The album scored a Juno Award nomination for Blues Recording of the Year and was embraced by the CBC and the Canadian blues community. The Toronto Star’s Greg Quill termed it “a rich, wholly satisfying amalgam of original soul, blues and R & B confections that showcase her stunning voice and set her up for the big break.” An Exclaim reviewer wrote that ” Levasseur’s crystal-clear voice has the right balance of breathy passion and the subtlest rum-soaked grit.”
When the record was released in the U.S. in 2010, the response was unanimously positive. Rave reviews flooded in, and serious radio exposure on such outlets as Dan Aykroyd/Elwood Blues’ widely syndicated House of Blues Radio Hour show (240 terrestrial stations plus satellite channels) and Bill Wax’s popular Sirius XM satellite radio show. “Radio in the States has been incredible,” Treasa reports. “House of Blues did a one-hour feature on Low Fidelity, and I immediately sold hundreds of CDs off my website. ‘Stuck In Soulsville’ was a No. 1 hit on XM.”
The press was equally supportive. In Juke Joint Soul, Ben the Harpman wrote “From chanteuse to shouter to sanctified, Levasseur shows the depth and poise of an artist ready to break into international mainstream markets.” Irish music critic T. Halpin concurred, noting that “each and every track on her Low Fidelity has got a real vintage tone, from blues to jazz with a modern pop twist.”
Even more pleasing than the reaction from press and radio was the fact that the Memphis music community recognized Treasa as a talented kindred spirit. They embraced her music, and, in 2010, some of the city’s legendary players, singers and producers helped Levasseur and her band The Daily Special record three tracks at Willie Mitchell’s famed Royal Studios in Memphis. A 7-inch vinyl EP, The Memphis Sessions comprises three slabs of satisfying Southern soul. “That was the conclusion of the Memphis chapter of my life.” Treasa explains. “I felt I had to go down there and make a record with the people I’d met. It’s a musical thank you to the city of Memphis.”
Never one to rest on her laurels, Treasa then began planning her next full-length album, 2011′s Broad. Talk about audaciously ambitious. Her mandate here was to record with four different bands and producers, working in three studios in two cities (Ottawa and Toronto). The fact Levasseur pulled this off within a month is testimony to her skill as an organizer and bandleader. “I just love logistical challenges,” she laughs.
The result is a musically expansive (yes, broad) but always cohesive tour de force, one confirming Levasseur’s evolution as a songwriter. Her artistry as an interpreter is demonstrated on covers of songs by Randy Newman (the acerbic “God’s Song”), Neil Young (“Walk On”), and Torontonian Mike Evin (the irresistibly upbeat “We Should Dance”). Nine strong originals cover the emotional gamut, and were written over one highly productive period. “The songs on Broad are post-Memphis and mostly post breakup, fuelled by a lot of pinot grigio,” Treasa recalls. ” I lived at the corner of High Park and Lake Ontario then, and I wrote most of this record walking in the park and by the lake.”
Levasseur premiered the songs in courageous fashion. “I had a house concert at my home in December 2010. I invited all those closest to me, musicians, friends, my promo team. I hate playing solo, but I played all the songs solo, to the people whose opinion most matters to me, It was one of the craziest, most frightening gigs of my entire life!” As fate would have it, Levasseur learned the next day she’d been awarded a grant to make a new record, and that evening she met the man who became her husband. “Speaking of life chapter switches, that was a real flip moment!,” she says.
Despite the organizational challenges, Levasseur stresses “I really enjoyed making Broad. That to me is the favorite part of it and what I will keep from that experience. Working with all of those bands, going in for three days and having to do three songs with people I’d never played with before, that was fantastic. It felt like a culmination of all the experiences I’d had up until then. It was a breakthrough, to go with the flow and really allow the input of others.”
Having the cream of the crop of Canadian blues and roots players and producers on hand didn’t exactly hurt the cause. Treasa worked with Ottawa blues band Monkeyjunk and producer Steve Marriner on four songs, Toronto’s Raoul And The Big Time and producer Terry Wilkins on three, The Wroxton All Stars and producer Ken Whiteley on two, and her own regular band, The Daily Special, on three more, with David Baxter producing. Comprising drummer Brad Hart, bassist Brian Kobayakawa, harmonica player Paul Reddick, and guitar aces Baxter and Champagne James Robertson, The Daily Special are just that, and Levasseur is quick to acknowledge their role in her success.
So what’s in store for this ever-evolving artist and her growing and loyal audience? Expect the unexpected, Treasa hints. “I have a blank slate in terms of what comes next, but that doesn’t freak me out. I have dreams to make jazz, folk, cabaret, and rock ‘n roll records. I’d love to make a Christmas record with [piano virtuoso] Robi Botos, a French album because I’m bilingual, a duo record with Baxter, a reflective singer/songwriter record, just all kinds of albums.
“I’m in this for the long haul, no matter what. If I’d been in it for the
money or fame, I’d have quit a long time ago. I’m in this because I love to
do it. I got into this for the music, the art, the fun and the people. It is
about connecting with other people, and that is what I will focus on from
Reflecting on her career to date, Treasa pinpoints one true sign of success. “People know roughly how to say and spell my name. I’m delighted at that!”
Treasa Levasseur remains a name and an artist to watch closely.
Written by Kerry Doole