Tracy K: Canada's First Lady Of The Blues Harp


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When my music makes someone happy, helps them unwind, relax and have fun, it is a greater achievement and fulfillment than any award I can receive.
Tracy KBorn and raised on the prairies in the small farm community of Beausejour, Manitoba, just 45 minutes east of Winnipeg, Canada, Tracy K has been performing since she was a child.

During the early sixties, when British rock groups stormed North American shores, she recalls her first introduction to the blues and how she was introduced and drawn to the early recordings of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

Since then, although she played briefly with a rock group at one time in her musical career, she has built upon this, her foundation for the blues. Steady performances and critical acclaim opened new doors for K, who penned the song "Rock This House" for the movie Scared Silent (2002), in addition to performing in the film with her band. She also recorded three original songs for a fundraising blues compilation CD and appeared, again, as singer in the band in another film, More Than Meets The Eye (2003).

Her 2007 release Old, New, Borrowed & Blues (Independent), produced by Toronto blues great Jack de Keyzer, earned her international airplay and rave reviews, and featured her own solid band of five years. It is a seamless blend of blues, with Chicago, Texas and Delta influences, country and rock, all finely crafted into an original contemporary sound.

Today she is recognized as one of the few female blues harmonicists in Canada, and one of the finest by any measure anywhere, winning the COM Harmonica Player of the Year (2006) and Ontario Independent Music Awards for Best Blues (2007); as well as being a nominee for Winnipeg Blues.com's Electric Act of the Year and First Runner-up for the 2007 Toronto Blues Society Talent Search.

All About Jazz : At what age were you when you decided to pursue music professionally? Do you recall the moment, or did you sense yourself drawn in that direction since you were a kid?

Tracy K: I first had the urge to perform when I was still a preschooler—about four years of age. I was drawn in that direction, for sure. I made up my first songs at eight years of age in a band with my cousins. I was in several theatrical performances and musicals throughout my school years, and landed a lead role for a dinner theater production while my own kids were very young. I have been a performer all of my life, and felt that a teaching position was not unlike performing, really.

I am also a visual artist, and saw myself teaching art, music, and drama, and working with special needs kids. I was known as a singer in my hometown, and was called upon for the National Anthem several times. However, I made the conscious decision to pursue a music career at 25 years of age. That is when I finished my third year in the Faculty of Education, studying to become a teacher. I went to Toronto for the summer, got a taste of the music biz there, and never left.

AAJ: This rock band you played for when you first started performing—was this a decision based on peer pressure, as many kids are drawn to music enjoyed by their peers? How did this band start?

TK: Actually, the first band was back in High School, and I was asked to join it, purely on my image. The two other male members took a chance asking me if I could sing, and as fate would have it, I answered yes. They used to watch me walk the halls in school at lunch playing air guitar and singing to an imaginary sound track.

It wasn't until I moved to Toronto that I started my own band. I had been singing with many other bands as a guest vocalist, both lead and back-up until that time, in Manitoba. However, my own shot at fronting a band in Toronto was short lived. I quickly realized how big and daunting the music industry was, and decided it best to get a gig as a background vocalist in an up and coming act. That way, I could watch from a safe distance just how it all works—enter The Blame. We were a six-piece, funky, indie rock band. I had background vocal duties with another girl, and I played harmonica, roto-toms, and other percussion toys.

AAJ: How long and where did you perform with them?

TK: I was with The Blame for about three years. We played the main haunts of Toronto's infamous Queen West music scene, and did a few regional gigs. The Blame did a fair amount of recording, including a video which received rotation on Much Music. We were also a CFNY talent search winner, which was the big indie radio station. This exposure and our studio experience landed me work as a session vocalist for other artists and some commercial work as well.

AAJ: You left music for awhile. When were you were absent from music? You left to raise three children. How long were you gone?

TK: I had my first baby in 1990 and was still part of The Blame at that point. I played with them up till two weeks before giving birth, and was back on stage five weeks after. It wasn't until I became pregnant for the second time that I left. I was six months pregnant in the autumn of 1991 when I moved back to my hometown in Manitoba with my husband and two year-old daughter. I reentered university, studying music and electives while on a waiting list to get back into the Faculty of Education. I was also working part-time as a silk-screen artist, my first trade.

Tracy K

When I became pregnant for the third time in 1994, I quit everything and decided it best I stay home with my babies for a few years. I sang for a couple of show/wedding bands during that time, and would make special guest appearances with some local acts from time to time, but mostly I was singing nursery songs and lullabies.

It wasn't until my youngest entered kindergarten that I went back to the music as a solo artist and embarked on my career as you know it today. That was around 1998.

Then in 2003, in mid-stride of my career, and just prior to recording a second album, all hell broke loose in my personal life. I was soon divorced, and then suffered stress-related health issues through to 2005. I played sporadically over this period.

In 2006, I was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, or Grave's disease, and was given radioactive treatment to kill my overactive thyroid. I was terribly ill at this time, and was finally given the medical green light in spring of 2007. I have some residual indications from the disease, but am out of the woods and ready to get back to living my life again. Stress really is a killer. My advice? Chill, man, chill.

AAJ: You were classically trained, weren't you? On what instrument did you receive formal training, or was it in voice that you were trained? Was this prior to, or before your absence from music?

TK: I had formal piano lessons growing up, but that ended when I was fourteen years old. While I was living in Toronto, I studied with Micah Barnes of The Nylons fame for one year, in 1988. He was a vocal coach, and these weekly sessions proved invaluable. I never lost my voice again after being trained properly, and am able to sing through colds. I even performed with a nasty type of laryngitis one New Years Eve in Winnipeg, 2001—that was truly amazing. I could hardly talk, but I was able to sing for the duration of the evening.

AAJ: When did you first pick up the harmonica? With so few women, even outside of the blues, playing harmonica, how did this start for you?

TK: I first picked up harmonica in 1982, while backpacking Europe. It was from a Canadian soldier based in Lahr, Germany. He was a guitarist, and we were staying at his apartment while working for the Canadian army flipping burgers for the soldiers. When we [my traveling partner and girlfriend from back home] decided to continue on our travels to the south, he gave me the harmonica that I was so often picking up and tooting and said to me "When you come back this way on your way to London, you better know how to play this thing!" I drove my friend nuts for the first month with "Oh Susannah" and "When the Saints Come Marching In."

However, on the trek back up from North Africa and the Mediterranean, we did stop in Lahr, and buddy was pretty impressed with what I had taught myself to that point. He let me keep the harp, and that was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the harmonica for me.

AAJ: Your earliest influences were the country blues of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. What was your first introduction to their music? What was it about their music that you liked?

TK: When I was in my mid-teens, I hung out with an eclectic group of friends. We were on the fringe. A bunch of old and young hippies if you will; the only ones of that kind in our tiny prairie town. They were into some real great stuff, like progressive rock and jazz, but blues was the main element and most revered. Half the time I never knew who the heck we were listening to, but I recall hearing Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee doing "Bring it On Home" and having it hit me hard enough to find out who they were, and hear more of the same. It just sounded like a whole lot of down to earth good fun, and what's not to like about that.

AAJ: Have your tastes since changed?

TK: I wouldn't say that my tastes have changed, but I sure went full circle and ended up right back where I started from—at the blues. Even as a child, my favorite songs had a swing element, or harmonica, or a horn section in them, like Blood, Sweat, & Tears, or Chicago. Hurricane Smith's "Babe What Would You Say" was one of those tunes that gave me that indescribable feeling that completely stole my undivided attention. I was way young then, and when I hear that song today, I can still smell my mother's house, and see the back yard from that kitchen seat next to the window where the radio was.

I grew up on hit radio of the sixties, so that influence is indelible. I have a brother who is nine years older than I, and his musical tastes were shared by me—the British invasion, American psychedelia, Canadian folk rock. I'm still a devoted Zeppelin and Who fan.

AAJ: Talking harmonica: why do you think so few women play harp?

TK: I think it's because most women are drawn to singing. I was a singer long before I was a harmonica player. Most female singers play either guitar or piano if they choose an instrument. As for why the non-singers don't pick harmonica as their instrument of choice—beats me. Maybe it's not perceived as lady-like or sexy? Ruins the lipstick? I dunno.

But if ya wanna get all psychological, I think it's the whole gun thing. It's like a gun [sorta] in size, shape, weight, and you can just whip it outta your pocket any ol' time. Guys had the ability and freedom to blow a harp whilst being cowboys and such. I think women and their hands were just too busy in the kitchen. It's evolution, man. How's that for a story on the spot?

About Tracy K
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