A Chat with Up and Coming Jazz Artist Eliza Pope

"She is Canada's newest recording artist and she's terrific."-Tim Tamashiro, Host of CBC Radio Tonic


Toronto's up-and-coming jazz, blues and pop singer-songwriter Eliza Pope sat down with me over Skype to answer my questions about launching her singing career, and her first album ‘Call Me A Fool’ that came out in 2015. Just at twenty-one years old, Eliza's album has met critical acclaim. She’s performed at the Jazz Bistro in Toronto and been nominated for the Toronto Independent Music Awards—all while juggling a full-time undergraduate degree in Health Sciences at McMaster University in Hamilton. I listened to her album for two days—it is the perfect soundtrack to life in a bachelorette pad— and then nervously sat down with my questions for our noontime Skype date. A few faulty-WiFi false starts later, we were rolling along smoothly, and even through the crackled Skype call, her energy and enthusiasm shone through relentlessly. Her down to earth attitude assured me I had nothing to be nervous about after all. 

Cleona Tsang for Her Campus McGill (HC McGill): Hi Eliza! Thank you for agreeing to interview with us. Let's dive right in. I've checked out your Facebook page, and it says the genres of your music are jazz, pop and blues. I was wondering whether you’ve experimented with any other genres or did you just fall in love with these ones?

EP: When I started singing, a family friend taught opera in Romania—I’m Romanian—and he was inspired to give me opera lessons. I did that for about a year. Didn’t really love it…didn’t really resonate with me. Not singing in the same language that I speak in was difficult! It did however give me a lot of foundation for singing. I’ve always loved jazz. My parents had it on when I was growing up, and I sort of fell in love with that genre. I thought I’d give it a try, so in high school I started taking some jazz lessons, and when I started writing it went more into jazz, pop, blues…I’ve always liked RnB too, you know, all that soul music. I’m very much of that era in terms of music.

HC McGill: You’re from Toronto! Have you performed in other Canadian cities? 

EP: I’ve performed in Hamilton a bit. I go to school here; I go to Mac. Usually I perform around the GTA and Hamilton, sometimes in Burlington too. That’s the situation right now, but I’ll be done with my undergrad in April, so I’m thinking of maybe taking a year off to do music, maybe more touring when I have more free time on my hands!

HC McGill: You mentioned you go to McMaster. What are you studying there?

EP: I’m actually studying Health Sciences! Yeah, it’s like completely opposite to what I’m doing with music. I’m trying to keep my options open. Trying to delay answering the question of “What am I going to do?” until as late as possible (laughs).

HC McGill: Do you think you’ll try to penetrate the US market in the future?

EP: If I can, yeah! Canada is a really great place to start out; it’s a smaller industry so it's a little friendlier. They give a lot more opportunities to people who are doing this part time. It’s a little less intimidating as a whole. Hopefully later though, I can start thinking of integrating into the US, and see where it goes from there! I mean, the music industry is very different from what it used to be. It’s really the one percent at the top that gets ninety-nine percent of the attention so, I mean, it's difficult! It’s difficult. But I mean if I could, I would love to do it.

HC McGill: So at what point did you start thinking to yourself, “I’m going to pursue this”? I know you’re not doing this full time, but when did you want this for real instead of just letting it run its course as another hobby? 

EP: It was probably around the end of high school. I did my first gig around the end of high school, just before I graduated, and I fell in love with it! You know, just having people come out to see you sing and everything, it just planted the seed for me. Throughout university I got more into writing my own stuff and performing as much as I can. It was two summers ago while I was doing a gig that I was very fortunate to have been able to perform with some of Canada's best—if not some of the best—jazz musicians. They’re really incredible. And I was picking the brain of my bass player and he was like “Why don’t you record an album? That seems like the next big step!” And I was like, “what? ME? That’s like the next thing on the bucket list, you know, not something I can actually do! But I got really excited and it sparked that idea in me. And that summer, I got together with a pianist I play with a lot; his name is Mark Keyswietter—a really brilliant guy—and he was like “Yeah, I think you should go for it!” It came together really quickly, and by that August we were recording it. I got some wicked guys who laid down the track in, like, two days, and I just had to go in to do my vocals. Then when school started, I was going back and forth from the studio because I like to be really involved in the mixing process. And then last May we actually launched it and that was the big point for me, you know? We had a publicist, and I was doing gigs; it was all very exciting. So last summer was a big, big one in terms of getting my career off the ground and gaining exposure. It's very different from just doing gigs here and there once you have a product out there and songs you’ve written that have your name to them. I mean, its hard to not fall in love with it all at that point!

HC McGill: Seems as if it's been a very smooth process for you!

EP: Oh, definitely. It was a very painless process. I think it was just about working with the right people. It was the right timing, and I had great people who were on board with me. It felt very natural. It’s hard work, but really, it's worth every second.

HC McGill: Who would you say are your biggest influences—I guess besides the incredible musicians you get to perform with, which other jazz or blues singers?

EP: I have a lot! If you go back to the quintessential jazz artists, Ella Fitzgerald is one of them. I love Etta James; she’s one of those voices that have that power and rawness that just gets me every time. I want to be able to convey that through my own music. I haven’t connected with any other artist like I do with her just for her sheer talent and musicality.

In terms of more my genre and my style, I think Norah Jones’ sound resonates with me; her mix of jazz, pop, and folk. I’ve always been a huge fan of her—her album Come Away With Me has so many good tunes that are always one of my go to favorites, one of my stormy Monday records that I love to put on. Those three were huge influences. Of course, as I go by, I meet different musicians and people who are far beyond my skill level, and I pick little things from them. I have to give a huge credit to my vocal teacher as well; her name is Adi Braun. She’s quite involved in the Toronto jazz scene as well, and I wouldn’t be anywhere close to where I am now without her help.

HC McGill: I’d just like to say congratulations on your 2015 album Call Me A Fool! You sang a few covers of some very famous songs, like Over the Rainbow, and Here Comes the Sun. How do you decide which covers to do and how do you sort of make them your own?

EP: My thought process going through it is: firstly, I don’t want to do any song I don’t want to sing. With “Feeling Good”, I just love belting and sort of singing it all out so for me that was an easy choice. “Hit the Road, Jack”, I’ve always loved. Great song. They are all incredible songs. I partly wanted to do them just because they’re so famous! As soon as you hear the name of the song “Hit the Road, Jack”, you immediately think of Ray Charles. I wanted to do a little spin on those and take something that’s usually done kind of slow, giving it a little more spunk, a little more grit, sort of a build-up in the way you’d tell a story, and have it build up into that swing. I still wanted that hearty blues feel to it. It's kind of a mix of what feels good and what feels natural as an artist, really, and sort of bringing a new spin on things.

HC McGill: I listened to your original piece, ‘Try’, and I noticed how personal you got with the lyrics. What does your songwriting process look like?

EP: I do most of my writing on my own. I’m kind of all over the place when it comes to it. I wish I could say I have more of a streamlined process, though. I normally compose for the piano, fool around with some chords and then put lyrics to that. That’s kind of the process that ‘Try’ went through. It’s become sort of my anthem, so to speak, because I really wanted to write about what this whole process was like for me. Even just the role of music in my life—it's an uncertain thing but it brings me so much happiness. The theme to the song is more like a ‘We’ll see where this goes” kind of thing. For another original of mine, “Where Will I Find Love”, I was actually on my way to bed and all of a sudden these lyrics popped into my head; I had to write them down. The next morning I just put some chords to it!

It’s hard to be inspired—like a consistent-inspiration-piece is difficult to come up with. I’m trying to mitigate that now by sitting myself down at the piano every day like “Okay, just come up with something. Doesn’t have to be great. Just anything.” Just to get a little more consistency going, and every so often something works out. It’s very fun and quite challenging. It’s difficult to go through the classic songwriting progression that everyone expects. I’m also taking more jazz lessons to try and get more creative with my music.

HC McGill: Which track in your album would you say you are the most proud of?

EP: That’s a hard question. I think I would say ‘Try’ because, I mean, just to see something of yours that you came up with sitting in your room to this fully produced song is a very rewarding feeling. A lot of times it still leaves me in disbelief, like “Wow, I was just in my room, how did this happen?” The only thing I can say is how wonderful it is to see it be cultivated by the people I come across. They’ve really helped shape it and given me new ideas of where to go with it. I feel like the song is very honest; it came from a very vulnerable place and hopefully it captivates other people too. No matter where you are in your life, it conveys an emotion we can all identify with.

HC McGill: Would you call yourself a celebrity?

EP: I don’t think so. I consider myself a very regular person. I feel lucky that I get to do this but I don’t think I could call myself a celebrity without laughing!

HC McGill: What are some of your most memorable moments or performances as an artist?

EP: I would say definitely the album launch, which was at the Jazz Bistro in Toronto, a beautiful venue. The musicians that have played there were of the highest caliber, so I was very fortunate to play there. We actually sold out that night—it was a full house! I remember I would be doing sound check at around four-thirty and hanging out with the other artists in the green room; I remember they announced my name and there was just screaming like I had never heard before. I couldn’t even speak because I was so taken aback! It was so, so exciting to have people there—people I didn’t even know— to be excited to see me. It’s a very humbling and very exciting feeling. That’s one of the moments I will always remember. Just the initial reaction—it's one of those things I will never forget.

Another one was at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington. It was an outdoor concert, and I had never played at an outdoor concert before. There were about three hundred people, and I remember being so anxious because I had bronchitis! I couldn’t cancel because I was on a contract. I was basically on an IV of tea, ginger, and honey. I was coughing every five minutes. On top of that, my pianist had called earlier to tell me he was double-booked and couldn’t make it. So I was freaking out even more, but he got me another pianist to stand in for him. And this pianist was incredible. His name is Michael Shand and he plays for Johnny Reid—he’s phenomenal. I told him if I start coughing to just keep playing! In the weirdest way possible I ended up having one of my best gigs, I guess it was just all that adrenaline. I have no way to explain it, but it was just one of my best performances. I think just playing with those guys gave me the energy. So that was a very memorable performance for me.

HC McGill: I just want to comment on the logo of your name! It’s very stylistic. Did you design it?

EP: Thank you! I really like it too. A friend of mine, the editor in chief of the newspaper here at Mac (McMaster) designed it. I used to work at the paper too, and we were quite close. When I was putting this whole album together I was like “I’m not satisfied with the title…”. I needed it to be more exciting and so she took a crack at it and gave me. I was sold on it instantly. Her name is Amanda Watkins. She’s amazing at what she does!

HC McGill: I just have one final question for you! Do you have any gigs you’re planning for Montreal, or maybe more out east?

EP: I’m applying to play at the Montreal Jazz Festival, so we’ll see if that works out! It's tough to get a spot there, but I love Montreal as a city. If you have any advice for any good jazz venues in Montreal you could let me know! And other than that, some gigs in Hamilton, Burlington and some restaurants in Toronto. Hopefully another one at the Jazz Bistro in Toronto, but nothing in Montreal just yet. I will be trying though.


Check out Eliza’s official website and be sure to give her a like on Facebook! Her album 'Call Me A Fool' is available on iTunes, or here.


Images obtained from: