Jon-Rae and the River
Smells Like Holy Spirit
Jon-Rae Fletcher is drunk and breathless. After working an afternoon shift at a nearby bar, he just ran to his Toronto home in Kensington Market to find me sitting expectantly on his front porch. Tall with shoulders hunched, he is dishevelled and winded from the jog. "Hey Vish,” he says warmly, grinning that Jon-Rae grin — an equal mix of angelic innocence and problem child mischief. "I’m pretty drunk,” he confesses and, even though we both laugh self-consciously, somehow I’m not really surprised.
Over the past two years, Jon-Rae and the River have blossomed into Toronto’s wildest and most unhinged indie rock’n’roll band. Since leaving a revered version of his group the River behind in Vancouver in 2003, Fletcher has been one of Toronto’s most captivating front-men, thanks to his impassioned performances and his glorious alt-gospel songs. Fuelled by alcohol and a fervent belief in the songs they’re playing, the new River is a seven-piece family who lose themselves completely in their sweaty musical ceremonies and encourage their audience to do the same.
The band’s latest album is entitled Jon-Rae and the River Knows What You Need and, as near as I can tell, it’s a collection of soulful rock songs about fucking, partying and playing music. There’s little room for debate with "Just One More,” "Fuck Me,” and "Nothing to Do,” which are explicit sex jams propelled by horn sections and frank come-ons. "Best of My Time” and "Hard in the City” capture the restless spirit of youth and look to boozing and making the scene for a bit of excitement. "Roll” is a classic escapist song in the tradition of "Born to Run” or "Proud Mary,” where Fletcher documents a musician’s longing for the road after working one nine-to-five shift too many.
Sitting across from him at his dining room table, I tell Jon-Rae that the songs on Knows What You Need seem like his most open and personal efforts yet. He ponders this idea in his inebriated state and chuckles questioningly. "I want to be ambiguous about it,” he tells me bluntly. "The songs are about sex in a way that isn’t fulfilled and I don’t want to say that I’m not fulfilled sexually. I have been unfulfilled sexually and I’ve partied but I wanted to write an EP about sex that was inspired by soul songs from the ’60s and make the sex more obvious. I’d written other songs about partying, ghosts and travelling in the meantime and we put all of that together for this album. The songs are actually very close to me, although some just follow an idea, whether it’s a woman loving to have sex or a guy longing for an old love.”
While these are pretty classic tropes in rock’n’roll music, there are also many instances on Knows What You Need where Fletcher uniquely blends secular and spiritual imagery. Amidst the whiskey, cum and shit, there are references to souls that need saving, the cleansing power of baptism, and the retributive concept of hellfire. The son of a minister, a member of his church choir as a boy, and a student of Christian schools, Fletcher is no stranger to the teachings of the Lord. Still, I find it curious how he manages to reconcile the gospel side of himself with the uninhibited, sex-starved lush that has taken over his recent narrative voice.
"In Christian worship, there’s this thing called the Holy Spirit and you become possessed by it,” he explains. "This Holy Spirit is complete joy and abandon. In a religious context, I find that it’s acceptable, but when it comes to being really drunk or completely out of your mind fucking, that’s like debauchery. But I feel like it’s the same Holy Spirit — this overwhelming sense of abandon and joy. I’ve felt it so many times and I do feel that Holy Spirit does take part in sex and drinking. It’s about losing yourself in that abandon.”
By all accounts, Fletcher has always infused his music with the sense that he’s far removed from everything but the song he’s playing. Friends and relatives who’ve watched him grow as a person and performer say that even when he was a shy kid playing his songs in coffee houses in Kelowna, British Columbia he was clearly onto something. Though he’s lost himself making records and performing live time and again, it’s clear from his songs that Fletcher is also on a path of discovery and that he’s coming closer to finding himself.
The two figures that impacted Jon-Rae Fletcher the most as a young man were his father and Kurt Cobain. The Reverend Doctor Gordon Fletcher is currently on the Pastoral Staff of Trinity Baptist Church in Kelowna, BC; Cobain, a talented songwriter and heroin addict from Washington State fronted the band Nirvana and committed suicide when he was 27 years old.
Gordon and Betty Fletcher first settled their family (two daughters, one son) in Sherwood Park, Alberta, where Jon-Rae lived for his first 16 years. Though they saw to it that Jon-Rae spent every single Sunday of those years singing gospel songs and hymns in church, they were remarkably open-minded and forward-thinking parents. "For us, I suppose church is very much part of who we are, but who we are is demonstrated in how we live, not just church,” Reverend Fletcher says. "Church is more of an expression of what we believe and how we live than how we live being an expression of our church.”
January 06, 2013Ass16601