Most of the time, Only a Visitor’s songs take listeners to a deeply mysterious place. Yet what goes on in Robyn Jacob’s mind is rarely, if ever, fully explained, her enigmatic lyrics made even more puzzling by deliberate obfuscation.
“They’re, like, encrypted,” the singer and keyboardist says, reached at her East Van home shortly before heading into the recording studio to work on Lines, her band’s sophomore release. “I have struggled most with lyrics, to be honest. I read a lot of poetry, and I have a lot of friends who are poets, and I go to their readings and I’m like, ‘I could never write anything.’
“That’s sort of the monologue, internally: ‘Oh, I wish…’ Whereas I can sit down at the piano and create a riff that I’m super happy with easily. Music is so intuitive, compared to writing lyrics.”
“Bird Sanctuary”, one of the new tracks audible in demo form on Only a Visitor’s Bandcamp page, does suggest, however, that Jacob is beginning to lift the veil on what her songs really mean. Instead of gazing at her inner life, it takes us into the glorious outdoors—more specifically, Delta’s scenic George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, with its shorebirds, sandhill cranes, and duck-strewn lagoons.
“One of my oldest friends took my partner and I there,” she explains, “and I just had so much fun! It came at a time when I was getting pretty bogged down by everything around me—people moving away, people struggling to make a living—and it was like, ‘Oh, yeah!’ I just needed to get out and enjoy some beings that were having a good time being beautiful in the marsh. It was wonderful.”
Jacob plans to get even more specific on the third Only a Visitor release, which she’s already writing. The theme, she says, is as much historical as it is personal, and it should have particular resonance in this city of immigrants.
“My mom, her family is from Canton [Guangzhou], and her grandfather came here in 1912, I think,” she explains. “But the whole family wasn’t able to live together in Canada until 1968, so that was, like, 50 years of separation that spanned generations.
“That’s the legacy of our very racist history—the [Chinese] Exclusion Act, and all that—and people have no idea that it even happened. So I feel like there’s a responsibility, for me, to talk about that with this new material.”
Jacob’s biracial identity—her father is a “Germanic, white Canadian”—is the underlying reality behind Only a Visitor’s music. “I never felt like I fit in anywhere,” she says of her childhood, and she’s now determined to use that to her advantage, given that we live in a time when music is increasingly hard to define.
“People are trying to write what they want to write, irrespective of where they fit in a specific genre,” she notes. “We’re seeing a lot of genre-hopping, or people who sort of stand beyond the genres. I really like artists who can bring a new-music audience out, but can also bring the hipster audience out. I feel like that’s very much a current phenomenon.”
How that plays out in her band is that bassist Jeff Gammon and drummer Kevin Romain provide an elastic, jazz-inflected pulse, over which Jacob laces intricate piano lines that reveal her classical training. (She was well on her way to a career as an interpreter of new music, until a repetitive-strain injury threw her off the virtuoso’s path.)
The most intriguing thing about Only a Visitor, though, is that it boasts three singers: Jacob, Emma Postl, and Celina Kurz. Sometimes the pianist takes the lead and the other two provide spine-tingling harmonies; elsewhere, Jacob will assign a different character or viewpoint to each individual voice.
Unique is a word that’s all too easily thrown about, but this city has never heard anything quite like it.
Only a Visitor plays a free afternoon concert at Performance Works on Sunday (February 19), as part of the Winterruption festival.