Only a Visitor probes family history

An attic find sent the Vancouver band’s leader, Robyn Jacob, down a rabbit hole of research

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      When starting work on local art-pop quintet Only a Visitor’s second full-length, Technicolour Education, bandleader Robyn Jacob knew that she didn’t want to write another record about herself. She didn’t quite succeed in that regard, but otherwise she’s created a revelatory new frame for her life, her family, and her music.

      The process began on a sad note: her grandmother, after decades in the family residence, was having to move to a seniors’ home, and Jacob was helping out. “We were just cleaning out all this old stuff, because her house was the depository for everyone’s stuff as they moved out—and there were six kids in my mom’s family,” the singer and pianist tells the Straight in a telephone interview from her own East Vancouver home. “I’d spent a lot of time in that house as a child, so there were a lot of things I remembered, and it was neat going through all that again. And I think that’s where [the new record’s] ‘Bedroom Archaeology’ comes from, just going through all of this stuff, some of which you remember and a lot of which you’d never seen before. And it’s remarking on how much is in a life, and all the things that we don’t know about those who have come before us.”

      One particular attic find had special meaning for Jacob, who is of mixed Chinese and European ancestry.

      “In the process of digging through all the stuff in the house, my mom found her grandfather’s head-tax certificate, which was from 1920,” she reports, referring to the steep fee Chinese immigrants—and only Chinese immigrants—once had to pay to enter Canada. “He was the first of the family to come to Canada, and he, I think, spent a lot of time in Golden, working as a cook, and then also he was based in Vancouver for a while, too. At first it was just ‘Oh, look! This is an interesting piece of memorabilia,’ and then it really struck me a few days after finding that how little I really knew about my mom’s family and how they got to Canada.”

      Further research ensued, as reflected in Technicolour Education songs like “43 Years” and “Letters From a Child”. The first is written from the male perspective: Jacob’s grandfather and great-grandfather were the first to emigrate, leaving their wives and children behind in China and returning only infrequently.

      Only A Visitor,  "Technicolour Education"

      “One of the biggest things that I realized was that my mom’s grandfather, who moved here in 1920, was going back every once in a while,” she says. “His partner came here for a while and didn’t like it, so she went back. So that’s the beginnings of the ‘astronaut’ family; it started there. His son, my grandfather, also came here to work when he was young, going back and forth every couple of years or once a year or something—doing a similar thing with his family there. So it wasn’t until 1968—when a lot of government policy was changing, with Trudeau senior—that it became a lot easier for families to reunite, and that was when my mom’s whole family came here.

      “It was really striking to realize that my mom never really lived with her dad until she was 13,” she adds. “There were essentially three generations—her, her mom, and her grandmother—who were separated, essentially, for about 50 years. And that just sort of led me down this huge rabbit hole of research.”

      And that research is ongoing: now that Technicolour Education has been released, Jacob’s working on turning it into a multimedia production in conjunction with the Chinese-Canadian composer and performance artist Nancy Tam. (What this might possibly look like is suggested by Roxanne Nesbitt’s marvellously evocative video for “Bedroom Archaeology”, a flickering, pastel collage of family photographs and household bric-a-brac.)

      Tam, a more recent arrival from Hong Kong, is “writing a kind of sister record, tracing movement from China into Hong Kong—there was a huge, huge migration of people into the colony of Hong Kong during the ’40s and ’50s,” Jacob explains. “So what we’re doing is that we both have our collections of songs, and we’re weaving them into a multidisciplinary work, where we’re planning to have movement and the band performing, but also video and live foley. We actually just finished our first devising session for that in early December, so it’s currently in development, but it’s very exciting because it’s a totally new way of working.”

      Compared to the intimacy of Technicolour Education, the new project—due to debut in 2020—feels “very macro”, Jacob contends. Yet that just suggests that she’s onto something deep. Full of personal meaning, Only a Visitor’s latest is also a record that will speak to a lot of us, as we grapple with creating a more inclusive Canada in the 21st century.

      Only a Visitor plays a release party for Technicolour Education at the Cultch on Saturday (January 12).