The man known to Queen Elizabeth II as Baron Lloyd-Webber of Sydmonton is an overpaid, authority-worshipping gnome who’s responsible for some of the most wretched musical trash of the late 20th century. He also composed Jesus Christ Superstar, which almost redeems him, at least in the eyes and ears of anybody who’s ever wept like a total ninny over the stirring version of “Everything’s Alright” from the 1973 film version of the blockbuster musical. It’s a performance, especially from Yvonne Elliman, that proves there are no absolutes, even in the realm of trashy, authority-worshipping gnomes.
“Everything’s Alright” is lovingly referenced in “Sweet Music”, one of the brightest tracks from Pawnshop Diamond’s graceful 2008 sophomore album, Leaning to the Sun. Singer-songwriter Katie Ormiston smiles knowingly when it’s brought up over coffees at JJ Bean on Commercial Drive on a wet Sunday afternoon. “That song,” she sighs, shaking her head. “Her voice”¦” Indeed, it’s a gem, from an era that seeps like warm honey into the grooves of Leaning to the Sun.
Ormiston wrote “Sweet Music” after watching the autumnal Neil Young concert film Heart of Gold, which might give you some further idea about where exactly Pawnshop Diamond is coming from. The frontwoman and her bandmates make grown-up, deftly played, literate pop with a touch of country, folk, and a little well-heeled rock on tracks like “Liquor Store”. Just about anything on Leaning to the Sun would sit comfortably beside Joni Mitchell if you dialled the radio in your time machine back to the early ’70s. Or you could just as easily put Pawnshop Diamond on a bill with like-minded locals such as Parlour Steps and Eldorado.
“I have older tastes,” offers the Victoria native. “My brother was 10 years older than me, so in Grade 4 my birthday gifts were, like, Dark Side of the Moon. Nobody in Grade 4 was listening to Dark Side of the Moon or The Final Cut, except for me. Or Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, all that stuff. It was my brother’s record collection. And my dad’s music, from the ’20s and ’30s, I loved that stuff.”
Of course, the problem with making adult music is that you tend to attract adult listeners—something that Pawnshop Diamond discovered when it lit out across Canada a couple of times in the wake of Leaning to the Sun. The album received gushing hosannas from anybody lucky enough to actually hear it, and Ormiston notes, “We have wonderful fans. Not a lot of them, but that’s okay.” But even that small band of supporters isn’t filling the draft-beer-and-pork-rind dives in Kenora, Ontario.
“Every conference I’ve ever been to, it’s been, like, ”˜You have to play live six months out of the year,’ ” she says. “And I started trying to make that happen, but our audience is not in a little bar in Nowheresville on a Wednesday at 1 a.m. It’s not there! Our audience? I don’t even know if they actually listen to new music, you know? They’ve got their old records, so I don’t know how to get to that audience. We’re not really indie, hip, listen-to-new-music people. We’re not Mother Mother, or something like that.”
After a beat, Ormiston muses that Pawnshop Diamond’s audience probably even wonders what the band sounds like live. Well, there are ways to find out. The group returns to the stage in Vancouver this weekend, airing new material that Ormiston excitedly describes as a more collaborative effort. Pawnshop Diamond has been working out the sonic details of these songs at the studio of recently recruited drummer Brendan Ostrander. In April, they’ll post the first number, “Sea Captain”, on their website, with three more to follow each month. “Download all you want,” advises Ormiston, “and if you wanna help us finish the album, leave a tip.”
The show also celebrates the band’s fifth birthday. Ormiston was working in a winery in Spain and nursing a broken heart when she started penning songs like the sad and smoky “Cabernet Sauvignon” from Leaning to the Sun. She didn’t plan to do anything with the material until her friend, keyboardist Nina Fleming, flew out on a mercy mission, and the two of them started playing on “benches, steps of castles, balconies, behind train tracks”. Ormiston figured she might as well go public with her music. Back in Vancouver, they formed the band—when Ormiston was 30.
This is useful information for anybody who thinks it’s too late to start, although it helps if you hit upon the same unfortunate recipe that Ormiston discovered out in Spain. In this case, it was an alchemical mix that included “emotion, time, and a guitar”. And you know what that makes? “An album,” Ormiston answers. And a really good one, too. Somebody should hip Baron Gnome to the formula.
Pawnshop Diamond plays Café Deux Soleils on Saturday (March 19).