Band draws inspiration from ghosts of the past

Photo by Mayan Vered.

The Vancouver-based band Only A Visitor pays homage to ghost Chinatowns through their songs.

The art collective Publik Secrets presents some of their songs in a concert of new music, featuring the art pop quintet Only A Visitor in collaboration with the Kingsgate Chorus, Nov. 16 at Yaletown Roundhouse.

Family ghost stories

Robyn Jacob, the band’s founder, draws inspiration from her Chinese roots.

“We have a lot of ghost stories in the family, especially since mom was spread between Hong Kong and Canada for many years because of the immigration policy. The country wouldn’t let family be together ‘til the 1960s even though [our] first member was in Canada in 1920. There is one story about somebody passing away here − their partner living in Hong Kong. They knew he had passed away,” says Jacob, who is a pianist, singer, composer and educator.

In the process of making songs she is learning about her own history and her own ancestry. Growing up, she was raised on pop music her German-French dad played, including REM and the B-52s.

In Only A Visitor’s next record, which will be released in January, the album explores the Chinese diaspora moving to the West Coast, specifically true stories from her mother’s side of the family.

Dancing with the shadows of themselves.| Photo by Mayan Vered.

Exploring experimental music and new ways of presenting music

When Jacob was studying music at the University of British Columbia, she developed tendonitis − a common injury for musicians. But during the time she was recovering, she was forced to consider her path in music. She was hosting a radio show called The Rib on CiTR at the time. She saw this exposure to experimental music as a reaction to her classical conservatory music training.

“This was really great. It gave me a way to connect with the local scene. I could go to shows and interview musicians I admired because I could offer them radio time. I got to meet a lot of musicians that I still know today,” she says.

After graduating from school, Jacob started to develop a desire to write songs for voice as opposed to the keyboard. She started with a solo songwriting project called Fist Full o’ Snacks, which she described as very lighthearted − quite a departure from what she is currently writing.

“That [project] was a part of my evolution to Only A Visitor,” she says.

In the past year, to shake up her regular performance routine, she has looked for new ways of presenting their band’s music. For example, last January they collaborated for two nights of a show with Mind of a Snail, a shadow puppet projection company.

Jacob says she draws inspiration from her local arts community. She also learns from many of her peers who are handling interdisciplinary work. Learning how to change the standard concert also means letting go of what is planned, but she says there are limits to this more free-flowing approach.

“If I had more time, I could develop something more fully. But these are one-offs. We aren’t working on a big budget and they’re not very long-term developments,” says Jacob.

“We get together and do this cool little thing. It’s very much an experiment, with the potential in the future to revisit it and work it into another thing. We’ll see what happens. It’s really fun because it keeps me on my toes,” she says.

Audience reaction

Only A Visitor’s 2017 album.

When Jacob puts on concerts, she conveys the backstories of some of the songs’ themes.

“People come up to me after the concert and they say, ‘Thank you for telling the story. I’ve been thinking about this for so long.’ I’ve been researching for this album for the past couple of years but for me, I’m like, everybody knows this sort of stuff, but no,” she says.

Jacob thinks that certain histories are being covered up and she is peeling away their layers.

“People have their own editions of the story. There’s a tradition of erasure of history. But it exists. It’s how we’re able to live this dream of the Canadian identity − because it is so complicated. I think a lot of people are doing this work in their own way,” Jacob says.

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