Toronto’s Ohbijou may not be the first band that springs to mind when you think “folk fest” — their dreamy, orchestral pop doesn’t quite fit the standard folk music boiler plate, missing its traditional instrumentation and rootsy vibe. That said, anyone who’s been to the Calgary Folk Music Festival in recent years knows that it’s not so much about folk music, at least as a genre. Rather, it’s about music by folks: It’s a question of attitude rather than specific sound.
“Initially, I thought of folk music as the Arlo Guthries and Joan Baezes, that image of singer-songwriters and acoustic guitars — just sort of the barest bones,” says Ohbijou founder Casey Mecija. “Then I started playing music more often and going to more ‘folk fests,’ and I saw how they’ve come to incorporate so many different genres. Folk music can be a gathering of musicians that play any type of music. So I think ‘folk fest’ is becoming something to describe the community of people who gather to listen to music at a festival.”
Indeed, instead of casting folk fests in the terms the musicians performing, it might be best to discuss them in terms of those who attend — groups that tend to feel small and familiar, in spite of their impressive size. Such a definition would certainly favour Mecija and her compatriots, who themselves are pillars of a tightly-woven Toronto tapestry.
Until quite recently, Ohbijou’s headquarters was a house on Bellwoods Avenue — a street running parallel to Toronto’s celebrated urban park, Trinity-Bellwoods — tucked north of Queen St., just west of downtown. For like-minded musicians, this served as equal parts hangout, recording space and live music venue, paving the way for the release of two Friends in Bellwoods compilations, which turned a spotlight on local talent and raised money for a local charity.
“The decision to make [the compilations] for the Daily Bread Food Bank was a no-brainer,” Mecija explains. “Music feels like a very inward thing sometimes, where you’re writing about your feelings, performing and travelling with the same people all the time. But this was a way to use music as a vehicle to affect a greater community than the community we were attached to. To make a long story very short, the compilations have raised almost $25,000. And for a small little project, we’re really proud of it, and hopefully, we can figure out work that extends even further.”
Ohbijou’s big-city success story is made further compelling due to the fact that Mecija and several other bandmates hail from smaller dots of the map, such as Brampton, Ont. It’s reasonable to suspect that their desire to regain a measure of intimacy led them to seek out kindred spirits, building a network of friends not unlike that of a small town. In the same vein, while they adore the city that is now their home, from its grime and muck to its myriad cultural opportunities, the members of Ohbijou crave their time on tour.
“Once you’re on the road, there’s something so freeing,” says Mecija. “The road seems endless and the landscape seems ever-expanding. It’s nice to be in Calgary and then hit the mountains and see that transformation. It sort of does this thing where you feel more centred. You feel a part of a greater scheme.”
Indeed, you may notice that Ohbijou looks a little bit more at home than your typical Torontonians in our city’s dry mountain air — it’s no stranger to the Alberta wilderness. In 2008, it was invited to participate in the Banff Centre’s Indie Band Residency program; its time spent in our cherished Rockies, says Mecija, stands as one of the most important periods in the band’s brief history.
“Whenever we talk about the experiences that have most impacted us, Banff always comes up,” says Mecija. “[During the program] you are so encouraged to be creative musically, and you have all of the resources you could ever imagine to… turn it into a song or turn it into an idea. It was really, really exciting to us. The whole time we were there, we thought we were in a dream, because if we wanted to play a grand piano, it was there. If we wanted to arrange with a quartet, it was there, at the centre.”