March 07, 2007 : Gritty With Soft Spots: Ohbijou's Casey Mecija Talks to Spil - The Spill Magazine Online
I call Casey Mecija, lead vocalist, songwriter, and guitarist for Ohbijou, a little after noon. We are both on our lunch hour at our day jobs (Mecija works as a production assistant at CHUM), but through the phone her voice still carries the effervescent charm and sincerity she brings to her band's enchanting debut album, Swift Feet for Troubling Times. Her candor forgives my forgotten dictaphone and general awkward phone manner, and I settle into an interview with one of Toronto’s brightest indie balladeers.
Ohbijou started as [Mecija’s] solo bedroom project in the outskirts of Toronto. Realizing that her sister Jennifer was pretty great at the violin, Mecija enlisted her help with the violin, as well as vocal harmonies and organs. As it goes with all big dreams, Brantford could not hold the Mecijas forever, and eventually they moved to downtown Toronto to attend Ryerson University.
While at Ryerson they rounded out their lineup with a number of like-minded individuals. In addition to the Mecija sisters, Ohbijou became Heather Kirby (bass, banjo), James Bunton (drums, trumpet), Anissa Hart (cello), and Ryan Carley (keyboards, mallets, and harpsichord). Also included on the Swift Feet... are contributions from a number of their musical friends, lending to an impressive slew of instrumentation to the album.
But what’s in a name? When asked this question, Mecija replies that their name is a term of endearment that came out of nowhere in a romantic moment. And verily, ÔOhbijou does posses a sort of cute, faux francais romanticism that complements their sound perfectly.
Though Mecija does not strive to make particularly pretty, quiet music, the end result is noticeably so. The songs are rooted in simple chords and melodies. Mecija explains that to her, lyrics come first and the rest of the group tends to retain the hushed sparseness of the original singer songwriter pieces with an ethos that prizes lyrics and feelings over epic sound and catchiness.
As a band they appear very aware of when these basic melodies are lost through over-orchestration. This awareness of the notes as well as the spaces, (as Mecija has told the Eye Weekly) keeps their music from becoming overbearing but also subdues it, though the bands exploration within these parameters never fails to intrigue or entertain.
Listening to the songs of Swift Feet for Troubled Times, it is evident that Mecija has her finger firmly on the painful pulse of the irreconcilable relationship. When asked about why the figures in Mecija s songs are constantly dealing with the end of romance, her answer seems checked and somewhat self-conscious. As cheesy as it sounds, there’s a certain romance to living in a big city and [being] in a bad relationship that’s devastating yet romantic. “Favourite Skin” strikes an almost Margaret Atwood level of romantic malaise, though it is balanced playfully against an almost Dr. Suessian sense of rhyme. Lines like These eyes are open like picture frames/ that look at lives passing in subtle ways, build to a chorus of And you are my favourite skin to wear/ whether here of there or everywhere. The lightness of the rhyme scheme bellies the cruelly ravaged Ôskin of a once-lover. This tension between innocence and bitter lessons learned in love is a dynamic that Mecija excels at and plans to revisit often in her song writing, though she by no means limits herself to the broken hearted.
Among other influences, Mecija’s lyrics very consciously reflect the streets, parks, and people that populate Toronto. When asked about her references to the CNE and Parkdale Dollarmart in, "To Rest in Peace on Righteous Tides", she describes her city’s chief qualities as ones of grittiness with soft spots. Though Mecija does not revel in Canadiana, she definitely wears her city and neighborhood (Parkdale) on her sleeve.
Despite Ohbijou's singular sound, they do find themselves walking the same musical lines as a number of others artists. The exercise of listing off influences and contemporaries is a tiresome one for Mecija, though she sees some similarity between her song writing and that of former Eric's Tripp-er, Julie Doroin. Both songwriters are no slouches when it comes to constructing minimalist songs set around painfully frank lyrics.
Other kindred spirits that come to mind listening to Ohbijou are Yo La Tengo (the boy-girl harmonies ) and Jenny Lewis, in the sense that their eclectic instrumentation informs what genres a song will dip into. Heather's banjo turns the song into a banjo song. Likewise, Jennifer's violin alternately trickles or flows like a some austere stream through the British countryside, adding deep currents of Black Box Recorder-style grief to more than one track.
Indeed, Ohbijou stands apart with each band member bringing their own strong character to the project and in turn offering a unique timbre that doesn’t really sound like anything else. At times beautiful and heart-wrenching ("Misty Eyes"), while at other times somber and brooding ("Widths and Curves"), Ohbijou are astonishingly delicate/classic balladry and composition that rivals anything to have come from this city or any other over the past few years.
Despite their recent successes, Mecija and company aren t content to rest on what laurels they've accumulate to date. In the summer of 2006 Mecija and drummer Bunton began putting on shows in her basement to utilize a lot of spare time. "I have a dog that has hip displasia", explains Mecija. "I was using the parties to fundraise for its treatment. It's the sort of sentiment that makes one want to yell ÔOhbijou or some other form of random endearment for the band."
From this came the recently released, Friends in Bellwoods, compilation. Realizing that they had some pretty awesome friends, (an understatement when those friends include Bry Webb on the Constantines, Kids on TV, Sebastien Grainger, formerly of Death From Above, and Gentleman Reg of the Hidden Cameras to name but a few,) the shows snowballed from their original cause into the double-disc fundraiser for the Daily Bread food bank.
Without exaggeration, the Friends in Bellwoods compilation is quite amazing in both its diversity as well as its overall unity and flow. With over thirty-six tracks and more than two hours of campfire anthems, boy s club techno, and unadulterated indie pop and rock Mecija attributes its wholeness to the genres [actually] being fairly similar.
The album seems to speak very well to an overall aesthetic that drew each musician to the project. Perhaps this points to the unique Queen West aesthetic or maybe just one that holds this circle of friends together. In any case, the record could easily serve as a Cliff Notes on a hugely important chunk of Toronto s current musical landscape. Plus it s the only place to hear Bry Webb and Casey Mecija s sandpaper and silk cover of the Velvet Underground s Sweet Nothings. And seeing as the funds go to a noteworthy cause the album is a must-have for everybody who is anybody and those in between.
When asked to name her favourite acts, Mecija keeps it close to home, seeming to almost read off the list of artists on Friends in Bellwoods. Mecija says that she always says We re Marching On... to answer that particular question, no surpass, seeing as it s Ohbijou pianist Ryan Carley s other band. She also lists Germans, who have a new album out right now, Timber Tamber, The Acorns (out of Ottawa), and Jonas Bonetta, just to name a few. Not surprisingly, Mecija likes to keep her tastes somewhat quiet and close to her heart and home, though she will shortly be leaving all things quiet and homey for the the often raucous and foreign rigors of the open road.
In addition to ending the month of February opening for Bright Eyes and playing Eye Magazine s Canadian Music Week showcase, Ohbijou are planning to charm the pants off of western Canadians during a summer tour, hitting a few festivals along the way with their guerilla heart-on-sleeveness.
Ohbijou is exited at the possibilities of reaching different audiences in and outside of Toronto and Southern Ontario. Their opening slot with Bright Eyes is part of gaining exposure to a whole new set of fans. Anyone who hopes to catch Ohbijou live will be treated to pretty melodies and orchestrations [and] nice voices, Mecija promises in her understated way.
After a summer of touring Ohbijou will be retiring to a cottage to record with instruments, beer, and campfires, with their sophomore album to be released sometime after that. Mecija notes that being bound by their full time jobs, Ohbijou is a band that will be taking off slowly rather than bursting onto the scene. Mecija voices her respect for those who can devote their lives to the the full time, unglamorous career of a full fledged touring musician. Unfortunately for her, it would seem that somebody has forgotten to tell her that her band has already burst onto the scene, and that their Bright Eyes opening slot and Summer tour is likely only the beginning.
Catch Ohbijou before they re charging forty bucks a la the Arcade Fire, at Eye Weekly s CMW showcase along with Frida Hyvonen and Under Byen at the Mod Club, March 8th.