A true Canadian band OHBIJOU hits home

If our nation's disposition could be captured through the essence of a single musical group, undoubtedly, it would be Toronto's orchestral pop ensemble OHBIJOU. Innovative, yet unassuming, proud, yet polite and respectful, multicultural in both influence and membership, what started out as a solo project propelled by the band's frontwoman Casey Mecija, in 2004, has expanded into a six-piece collaborative aimed at challenging itself musically, and contributing to the social needs of its community.

In support of the group's sophomore release, Beacons, I had the lovely opportunity to sit down with the band's leading lady herself. Amidst discussing the not-so-glamourous (and too often untold) lifestyle that goes along with being a DIY artist, Mecija spoke about the changes OHBIJOU has undergone since its inception, the growth opportunities her and her band members have been so privileged to receive, and of course, the cat fights that have gone along with being in a band with her sister. But, even while chronicling the lows of being stuck in a smelly van traversing across the countryside in order to play yet another gig which may or may not be worth their while, it was clear, throughout our entire conversation, that Mecija was/is truly appreciative for the chance to pursue her musical dreams. As she revealed to me early on, “I feel really lucky to be able to play in front of anyone.”

In terms of the vision behind their latest, Mecija explained that, as a group, the goal was to assemble an album that was different from their previous works, arrangement-wise. With six imaginative passive-aggressive types (her personal characterization of her bandmates) contributing to each composition, ensuring that all of the instruments (and players) have their moment(s) to be heard, while no one instrument overshadows the others, can prove to be challenging. With that said however, listeners of Beacons (myself included) will certainly contest that the band achieved their target, and successfully produced a musical experience typified by fullness, diversity, and vibrancy.

Drawing inspiration from both the “dirt and romance” of Toronto's city streets, Mecija considers herself blessed to live within such a, “weirdly exciting and densely populated city.” In her own words, Toronto is comprised of, “millions of people, millions of stories, and millions of things going on at once.”

Aside from touring and penning the songs for OHBIJOU, Mecija (along with her drummer) is also involved in various social works and awareness-raising efforts, most notably a comp project, entitled, Friends in Bellwoods which features the musical craftings of herself, along with those from some of her artist comrades from the GTA. Operating as a “digital diary of the house” (the title being a reference to Mecija's residence, the place at which the writing, and recording of the albums' songs occur), the sales of the Bellwoods comps have successfully raised upwards of $11,000 for Toronto's Daily Bread Food Bank.

When asked whether she felt performers in the public spotlight had an obligation to set good examples and get involved in their communities, Mecija optimistically responded by saying that she “would love it, if everyone thought it was a good idea.” In her view, participating in such activities, “just makes playing music feel that much better because sometimes it seems so introspective, inward, and isolating as you are writing about your personal feelings. Knowing you can broaden what music can do — it doesn't just have to be about playing shows - makes it that much more meaningful.” As for the rationale behind her choice to support the issue of hunger, Mecija explained that, “Toronto is a big city, and as such, has a big problem with hunger — not just in regards to the homeless population, but even everyday families don't always have enough food to eat.”

Unlike their debut, this time around, OHBIJOU's got management, booking, and publicity covered. Although Mecija recalled fondly (note the sarcasm) the days of personally gluing together and folding 5,000 of her cd booklets in her family room with her fellow bandmates (among taking on all of the other management tasks necessary for running a band at the professional level), she recognized that OHBIJOU required the extra help, so that they could focus on what is truly the most important to them (to any musician, for that matter); that being, quite obviously, the music. To this, Mecija added that, “the more you bring your music to a wider audience, the more complicated it becomes, and[when it gets to this point] it is better for the people more educated in the field to take on [your act's administration].”

As an ex-production assistant for MuchMusic, even prior to her band's signing with North America's Last Gang Records, Mecija certainly already had her share of run-ins with the corporate music biz. Based on those experiences, she learned that irrespective of the content that popstars, like Britney Spears, showcase, big budget musicians work just as hard as DIYers, and so accordingly, indies, like herself, shouldn't be so quick to judge them. Despite this acknowledgement however, Mecija still self-identifies with the “indie” mentality, and doesn't foresee herself discarding (or neglecting, for that matter) her community-orientation anytime soon.

When it comes to Canada's independent music scene, Mecija's biggest concerns revolve around the continued diminishment of funds allocated to our grant and residency programs. Not only has the Canadian Council just cut its resources intended for indies, but as well, the CBC is losing some of its best productions. This, coupled with illegal downloading, in her view, makes the music industry, currently, a very scary place for “the independent artist.” As she elaborated, “the arts is a money-less industry and it needs support from the government and private investors — it needs someone to take care of it, and nurture it, and that involves a dedication to funding. If funds keep getting cut, I'm not sure what's going to happen.” In regards to illegal downloading, Mecjia had the following insights to offer: “It is really hard [in general] to make money as a musician, and to sustain being a musician. [Therefore] it's important that when you put out your records that people pay for them, but this is so hard to control, and I'm not sure what we, as musicians, can do to stop this.”

Irrespective of her aforementioned anxieties about the future of Canada's independent music scene, Mecjia was also quick to point out the various internet-based facets, which didn't exist even five years ago, through which artists can now self-promote globally, at little to no expense. In addition, based on her own band's success story, it is evident that if you are willing to show dedication and commitment to other musicians and the music scenes within your own community that your efforts will not go unrecognized. This simple notion is evidenced by the fact that although OHBIJOU has toured both nationally and abroad, Mecija still unequivocally considers Toronto to house their biggest supporters.

OHBIJOU are performing at London's Aeolian Hall Thursday October 15 with special guests Olenka and The Autumn Lovers. Tickets are $15 in advance and doors open at 7 pm. Fans of Metric, Feist, Lili Haydn, and/or Tegan & Sara are sure to dig their sound. For more info on the band, check out their official website located at www.ohbijou.com