Blue Steele

Toronto duo Blue Raincoats is experimental, but in the good way. Chris McCluskey quietly retrieves the details.

Singer/guitarist Keri Steele has difficulty staying comfortable in a band for very long. She started the new age folk group Imaginary Heaven when she was still in her teens, making three albums before moving to Toronto and forming melodic loop-based female quartet Hush Hush. A pair of records later, Steele has once again switched gears, taking on a new electric guitar and vocal experiment in the duo Blue Raincoats.

“I think it’s largely getting older, and wanting to try different things. Just evolving musically, personality-wise and all those things,” she says. “You start to figure out what works for you, and that’s pretty much what has happened with me. I feel really comfortable with this arrangement, especially song-wise, and I can’t really say I’ve felt that way with the other two bands.”

The arrangement Steele speaks of is the partnership between herself and former Hush bassist Nina Martinez, who plays piano and guitar in the pairing. Recovering from jaw surgery, Martinez will be absent from the Blue Raincoats’ line-up for their eastern swing, but the record’s producer, Thomas Payne, will fill in.

“It’s unfortunate timing, but she had to have some things done. She’s the type of person when you first meet her you know you want to work with this person no matter what,” Steele says about Martinez. “We have some differences in our styles and our preferences, but I think we kind of cope with each other in a way I’ve never really had in a musical relationship before. She went to school for jazz guitar, but she’s pretty mixed.”

Steele’s short attention span in terms of all things static is also evident in the diverse presentation of Blue Raincoats. While she is excited about being a part of a fresh arrangement, the duo is already evolving.

“I’ve been experimenting a lot with different configurations, we probably have about six or seven on the go,” Steele says, laughing. “It’s a little crazy as far as keeping things straight sometimes, but a great learning experience.”

The duo draws upon her familiarity with different compositions by a vast number of musicians, so its structure most resembles her personality.

“I am a pretty quiet person, definitely more of a quiet leader,” Steele admits. “But it has that focus on vocals and it’s clear so everyone can work around it. I’ve been afraid to do that in the past, maybe it’s a confidence thing or something, but it’s made a difference.”

Blue Raincoats’ self-titled record brings Steele to the forefront for a collection of serene, gripping, dreamy pop. “Shocked” is an instantly likable melody with the makings of a radio hit. The single, like the entire album, is perfect to listen to on a rainy day. It follows a simple verse-chorus-verse format, but Steele’s soulful, melancholic voice is put together with sincere lyrics that find a balance that keeps the song from being overdramatic.

The lead track, the edgy “Middleman,” features grungy, distorted electric guitar overlapped with horns, for a sound that is somewhere between where Shirley Manson ends and Emily Haines begins. Steele says she was thinking of Haines when she wrote the song.

“I wrote it when the Metric album first came out. I love the delivery of her vocals,” she says. “She’s just not taking herself too seriously and there are some really cool vocal deliveries and some really cool melodies, and that’s kind of what I was listening to at the time.”

Blue Raincoats are set to tour through the coming months, but Steele is not looking that far into the future.

“It’s kind of like you live and you learn, you see how you get to a certain point,” says Steele. “Music is one of those things that I’ll always do and everything else in life will develop it and evolve. It’s always going to be something in my life in some capacity.”

Blue Raincoats, November 19 at Ginger’s Tavern, 1662 Barrington, 10pm, $5, 422-4954.

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