A Victoria vocalist brings his stylings to the spotlight at JazzFest.
ON THIS CHILLY SPRING EVENING in Fairfield, my interview subject and I are scanning for a spot to sit down in a busy coffee shop. There’s a table for two that’s free; I move to claim it. Aaron Scoones pauses and smiles wryly. He observes that my silver-cased MacBook, which I’m about to flip open, will be one of eight, all set on tables, white Apple icons glowing in chorus. I didn’t notice.
Makes me wonder what else I don’t notice about what’s going on around me. Scoones and I are both musicians, but clearly, we perceive our environment differently. Depending on how our brain works, we notice and prioritize different things. How does that affect what we do, say, and create? Scoones and I settle at our table, and this twinkly young Berklee-trained wunderkind is ready to reveal to me how he processes sound, and how it inspires him to create, engineer, and perform music. (Besides vocals, Scoones plays bass, keyboards, drums, and guitar.)
The boyish Scoones looks like he’s accumulated little more than half of his 38 years (“I’ll never get tired of hearing that,” he laughs), but his upbeat impishness is nicely balanced by a thoughtful, grounded vibe. For someone so knowledgeable, he never condescends, happily inviting me to hear through his ears like a pal who giddily gives over their headphones so you can geek out on what they’re listening to. He’s excited about his upcoming JazzFest gig at McPherson Theatre, opening for a headliner—but he’s super-duper-duper excited about hearing the headliner: the US R&B band The Suffers. “If I weren’t opening for the show, I’d buy a ticket and go see them anyway,” he enthuses. It’s a double-edged sword, he says, being inspired by—and utterly deflated by—those who make the music we wish we could make.
Spoiler alert: self-acceptance doesn’t always come easily to creative types, but this angst has utility—if harnessed properly. “You have to be a bit neurotic to be a musician and get better,” Scoones observes. “You practice the things that you’re the weakest at. If you’re doing that all the time, it can really get your self-confidence down, so you have to be your own best friend, too.” He credits local vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Brooke Maxwell for giving him a clearer perspective. “Brooke told me there’s always going to be a gap between your current skill level and your musical taste. That made a light bulb go off…so I could be a little bit easier on myself.”
From where I sit, there aren’t any discernible deficiencies in Scoones’ vocal performances; he’s won awards, apprenticed with Louise Rose, and the R&B styling he refined and mastered at Boston’s Berklee College of Music dovetails nicely with an easy stage presence. Entering his sonic world is clearly a pleasure for listeners. Still, he keeps his eye trained on his idols, including singers like Kurt Elling, Bobby McFerrin, Tony Bennett and Harry Connick Jr.
When I tell him I once lived in Bobby McFerrin’s Minneapolis neighbourhood, Scoones lights up. “Bobby McFerrin is a massive reason why I sing. His live concerts were available in the Berklee library; I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I’d go sit in the library and put on these videos of him that aren’t available anywhere else, and absorb as much as I could.”
McFerrin once told me his daily life could be overwhelming sometimes; he couldn’t turn off the acute perceptiveness and sensitivity that made him such a deft and prolific musical force. It was a liability in everyday situations where there was too much stimuli, like big-box stores or parties, and most people couldn’t understand his social reticence. Scoones mentions a young bass phenom, MonoNeon, who creates music from what he hears in people’s speech. “He is famously a person of few words,” Scoones says. “I think it’s because he hears the melody in your voice; that’s what he’s processing, and there’s no stopping it. I relate to that, because there’s no way to turn off my brain from hearing a particular part of music.” I tell him I tend to hear meaning: lyrics and melodies. Scoones strictly hears sounds. “You can tell me what the song is about, and I’ll tell you what the song sounds like. We could be talking about the same song and not even know it.”
He’s involved in a lot of projects, often as a sound engineer, the other half of his studies at Berklee. “I love [the immediacy] of live sound engineering…it’s very different from the studio world, where you have to live with your decisions, and they can come back to haunt you.” The collaborative nature of the engineer’s relationship with live musicians means “you become the fifth member of the band, if you really click with their music.” It’s an invisible role, yet “you really feel actively involved in what the audience experiences, and what the band experiences. It’s super rewarding.”
Performing with local band The Timebenders, who specialize in a very theatrical approach to pop music from the 50s to the present, is also rewarding for Scoones. He’s definitely got the chops—and animation—that make him ideal for the gig. He says the band itself is like a family, and “it’s really rare that you’d be at a show where you don’t get to connect with the audience, and ride on other people’s songs while you do that.”
Riding on those familiar chestnuts is a delight for Scoones, yet he yearns to create original songs as well. His devotion to getting the sound just right in the studio—and having the lyrical meaning be profound instead of trite—makes the prospect a bit daunting for him. “I’ve produced and collaborated, but I’ve finished possibly three songs of my own…one of which I’d share. It makes me so nervous that I couldn’t back the song up in five years, that I’d be embarrassed by it…would I love to have an album that I wrote myself? More than anything. I’m not quite there.”
JazzFest organizer Darryl Mar has slated Scoones to “ride” some classic tunes with Adam Dobres on guitar and Thomas Kinzel on keyboards as a 30-minute R&B opener set for The Suffers. “It’s a really big stage that I’ve never played before,” Scoones says of the McPherson. “I’m a little bit terrified, but mostly just excited and thrilled.”
He says in addition to The Suffers, this year’s JazzFest will give people a chance to see English singer and multi-instrumentalist Jacob Collier again, whom Scoones effusively dubs “the greatest musician in the world right now.” Collier, who won a grammy for Best Vocal Jazz Performance, puts on a great show. “It’s an amazing experience. What he hears and can reproduce at the level that he does is just indescribable.”
The 36th TD Victoria International JazzFest runs June 21-30 at various venues. The Suffers, with opening act Aaron Scoones, perform June 23, 7:30pm, McPherson Playhouse. Other artists include Jacob Collier, Trio LSD, Davina & The Vagabonds, Gregory Porter, as well as many local musicians. See www.jazzvictoria.ca for complete lineup, schedule, and ticketing options.
Mollie Kaye is a vocalist, lyricist, and writer who definitely sees the gap between what she’s capable of and what her idols achieve; she keeps going anyway.