Walking into Velveteen Audio, a recording studio in downtown Edmonton, Jordan Norman ushers us inside. “You guys want a beer?” he asks. The man is a crowd pleaser — and nothing says “welcome to this nondescript downtown building,” like an Old Milwaukee. The outside might be lackluster, but inside, the purple walls of a laid-back living room space lead to the door of the recording studio. This room, like any other studio, is filled with the tense sight of a dude fucking around with what seems like a billion knobs. But any trace of seriousness in the air is muted by the playful sounds of one of Norman’s latest tracks being performed live.
Edmonton band Jordan Norman and The Wisdom Teeth has been putting out grungy sing-your-heart-out folk tunes since the release of their 2011 debut album, Before We Say Goodnight. Their sound has the heartfelt lyrics and acoustic sounds of folk, but it’s not nearly as mellow as the stuff your girlfriend’s dad plays around a campfire. Norman complements this style with distorted guitar sounds and the introspective and sometimes angsty lyrics of grunge akin to a mix between Neil Young and Nirvana.
Behind the glass of the studio, the band is wrapping up the recording of their newest album, which is currently untitled. Aside from putting together new tunes, Jordan Norman and The Wisdom Teeth have spent their time well in the Edmonton music scene. Back in March, they had a chance to open for the locally beloved band The Rural Alberta Advantage (RAA) for their sold-out show at The Needle.
“It was so magical. It felt like they were there to see us just as much as they were there to see RAA,” says Vicky Berg, back-up vocalist, melodica player, and keyboardist for the band. “The three of us managed to fill the room with sound, and people just responded so well. And you don’t get to do that a lot because you don’t have a room full of people all ready. For the most part you have to bring your own people to your shows, and that’s such a chore sometimes. But if there’s already a room full of people, then you just get to do your thing and it’s all right.”
One reason why the crowd loved and interacted with a relatively unknown band like The Wisdom Teeth can be attributed to Norman’s onstage presence and sense of humour, important factors for any audience member trying to have fun. Some bands, Norman acknowledges, can pull off the whole “brooding artist” thing, but that list is a lot shorter than those who try to unsuccessfully adopt the angst. “I get that everybody is different and that different styles of music demand different things, but for me, ultimately we’re there to have fun and make people enjoy the experience.”
This lightheartedness is also evident in the lyrics of most of the band’s tracks. “At the RAA show I played the first song — that was “Lip Bomb” — and the first line is a joke and the whole song is a joke, it’s all filled with puns and stuff. So I said the first line and there were all these people at the front that just giggled, and you get that and it’s just shocking. Like they actually heard it, interpreted it, and I knew it was going to be easy from there,” Norman recalls.
A chill and outgoing band is something Norman looks for and appreciates as an audience member. “The first sign of a show I’m not likely to enjoy is the band that’s clearly taking themselves too seriously. Normally I do a lot of stage banter and just feed off people,” he says.
Norman’s bandmates also see the importance of having someone who isn’t afraid to loosen up behind the mic. “I think he’s always trying to make each show special on its own, whether it’s through a different silly joke or a shtick or gimmick just because he wants everyone to have fun,” says Alex Vissia, back-up vocalist. “He’s really about having fun. He wants everyone to laugh at his shows. He writes some serious songs, but he’s really good at showing off his personality and people really take to that. He’s not afraid of making fun of himself, either. I think people are really drawn to that sense of humour.”
If you take the time to look around Edmonton and listen to local bands like Jordan Norman and The Wisdom Teeth, the amount of musical ability in this isolated prairie city can be quite astounding.
“The talent here is incredible,” Norman says. “I’ll hear someone’s favourite local band that I’ve never heard of and I’ll go see them and think, ‘Who are these people? They’re incredible.’ And not to sound arrogant, but the guys who play in the (upcoming) record here are stunningly good musicians. Like Trevor McNeely, Kurtis Cockerill, Geoff O’Brien, Alex Vissia, and Vicky Berg.”
Norman argues that there is some sort of stigma around artists hailing from cities seemingly in the middle of nowhere. His lead guitarist, Trevor McNeely, who Norman says is undoubtedly good enough to play for a band like Alabama Shakes, is an easy example. But from the public’s point of view and the tendency to evaluate artists based solely on where they happen to be living, Norman points out that McNeely might not be perceived to be as good as someone who’s from Nashville — which, he argues, is a serious underappreciation of talent. Norman argues that there are upsides to being in a small music scene, though. “There are tons of musicians and everyone is a supportive musician, so everyone is pushing themselves up to be better. No one here has an ego.”
And he thinks people shouldn’t be so quick to judge Edmonton and its place in the music world: “I think Edmonton has one of the best music scenes that I’ve ever experienced. I’ve heard Winnipeg has a similar thing, and arguably we’re very similar cities. I think we’re very often the underdog; we’re often overlooked.”
At the heart of Norman’s sentiments lies the idea that one can swap the musicians in Edmonton and Nashville and the difference wouldn’t be tangible. That’s Nashville, Tennessee, a city that’s produced decades of renowned musicians: Willie Nelson, Lady Antebellum, Johnny Cash and Jimi Hendrix. And if that isn’t a big enough endorsement to get out there and explore the local music scene, I don’t know what is.