Olivier Jarda's smart talk

Musician and Rhodes Scholar Olivier Jarda returns home to the maritimes from Oxford, home of Radiohead, and a, uh, big university.

Go West Musician Olivier Jarda hopes to rock Gus' pub before heading westward. photo Aaron Fraser.

Olivier Jarda suddenly appears across a high cafe table, looking hurried and apologetic, explaining how his drive down to Halifax from Moncton was snarled in traffic and construction, the day before traffic volume going the other way---up into New Brunswick from Halifax---would increase with SappyFest in Sackville and The Eagles in Moncton.

He's back only two weeks after some travel in Europe and the completion of his first year of his master's degree in international relations at Linacre College, Oxford University, where he's a Rhodes Scholar. "Fortunately I'm on scholarship so I don't have to work," Jarda says after settling in. With a heavy academic workload, music---playing live, mainly---is his one other responsibility and outlet during his days in Oxford, home to musical and music biz mavericks, Radiohead. But, he admits, "Oxford has kind of stifled my writing. I've written two or three songs since I got there, which has been a bit frustrating for sure. But I've been writing more since I came back to Canada." Keep in mind, he's been back only a couple of weeks.

Jarda heads out west, going as far as Edmonton this time, on tour after shows in Fredericton and then Halifax this weekend. "It's such a beautiful place to travel. That's part of the reason I'm going on tour again," he says, adding he hopes to break even, whereas his last cross-Canada tour put him in the hole.

For this jaunt, Jarda and band will play songs from a recent full-length album, Diagrams (released in stages starting in December 2007). Compared to his material with two previous outfits, Turnstiles and Ted Neely Beard (a jam band named after the actor who played the Messiah in Jesus Christ Superstar), his solo songs follow a bare-bones pop/rock structure and sound---perhaps a response to those earlier and more complex arrangements? "Maybe," he answers right away. "Actually, I think so. This album took half the time than the Turnstiles album. It's really nice to be able to strip everything down and have songs just be there."

Right after recording the album in Halifax late last summer with Charles Austin, who worked with Turnstiles too, Jarda left for Oxford to begin his first of two years at the university. Despite his studies, his songs aren't critiques of a troubled world nor are they visions of how to heal its rifts. Jarda creates as if by a mantra, "hooks before politics!" "Even if I do tackle some things that are more academic or more serious issues, I usually keep it quite simple. It's not really a conscious thing. It's just how I write," he says.

"The thing is, sometimes the way I write doesn't have as much to do with necessarily content than it has to do with sound. Musically and vocally, listeners may hear The Shins, Death Cab for Cutie or, one of Jarda's favourites, Chad VanGaalen. "You can take any VanGaalen song and not even listen to a single word and still be blown away."

One song on Diagrams comes close to a political stance. "My parents are from Haiti. They immigrated to Canada in the '70s and so I've always been interested in that ." Born in Ottawa, Jarda spent most of his youth in Moncton. He also lived a time in Regina, where his mother, a doctor, went for Canadian medical accreditation. Jarda focused his undergrad degree at SMU on Haiti and "the political happenings there. So yeah, 'Tropical Medicine' is a very simplified account of what's going on in that country." Though having travelled elsewhere in the Caribbean and to South Africa, he's still planning his first trip to Haiti.

This past April Jarda recorded an EP, Ghost Fees, for UK-only release (right now, though, you can at least hear the songs live) on a new independent imprint in Oxford, Jam Jar Records, at the label's studio. A mutual friend of Jarda and label head Toby Martin played intermediary. Jarda hadn't been necessarily looking for a home for his music. "With the internet I don't really see the line between fame and non-fame," Jarda says. "It seems to me that fame used to be equated with getting your music out there, but now you don't need fame to get your music out there."

Olivier Jarda w/Jon McKiel, Rich Aucoin and Lovesinger. Saturday, August 9, Gus' Pub, 2605 Agricola, $6.

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