By Jill Langlois"It's funny when we talk about community, because for us, it's just our friends." As she fiddles with the drink sitting on the edge of the low wooden table in front of her, Casey Mecija tries to get to the crux of her band's constant association with the community to which they belong. The Ohbijou front-woman's whisper of a voice holds its own over the low din of acoustic music playing in Toronto's Dark Horse Espresso Bar. "I think the word 'community' has so many different associations. I think that Toronto is full of so many different communities and we just happen to live in it and create with a tight-knit group of friends that are playing music also," says Mecija.
Ohbijou are one of the few orchestral pinpoints on Canada's map of independent artists, one of many influenced by the DIY style and community-focused ideals of Broken Social Scene. Born out of Mecija's Brantford childhood home, the now seven-piece band wasn't even an idea in the singer's mind when she was listening to her little sister and now band-mate, Jenny, learn violin precision theory. Their debut, 2006's Swift Feet for Troubling Times, was a collection of songs with a soaring, whimsical feel, pairing strings, horns and keys with the rock staples of guitar, bass and drums. But taking another listen to their first baby, Ohbijou thought their newest addition, Beacons, had some filling out to do. "The first record felt sparse," says Mecija. "I think that we didn't have as much arrangement before as we do now, so I think there was an unconscious theme that we were trying to fill [Beacons] up."
Part of filling up Beacons came out of an unexpected experience for Ohbijou. After applying for the Banff Centre's Indie Band Residency - where three emerging art bands from across Canada are given a two-week residency at the Alberta-based Centre to develop as a group, perform new songs, and record at the in-house studio - they were shocked to hear that they'd been accepted. The band were able to work with other artists from across the globe, and had the chance to record three songs for Beacons, one of which was album closer "Jailbird Blues," where they were accompanied by Australia's Elston String Quartet. Working with other musicians gave Ohbijou new inspiration and a fresh look into how they work together. "It was basically two weeks of taking space away from normal life and just focusing solely on the band," Heather Kirby (bass, banjo) says, sitting across from Mecija and James Bunton (drums, trumpet) who both nod in agreement. "It was just a great opportunity for us to focus in."
"It was outrageous; it was ridiculous. We would never think that we would ever have those opportunities," Mecija adds. "We all applied because it was such a great opportunity, and when they accepted us and we ended up there, we were like, Wow, there's access to people who want to help us, like progressive musicians, classical violinists, orchestra players who were so refined and so amazing at their instruments. It kind of brought integrity to what we do as well. It was sort of like we were seen at that level also."
But the Indie Band Residency isn't the first ambitious move on Ohbijou's part. Mecija's first foray into music was during grade 10, when she and her friends would gather in each other's basements to play music together. Mecija never thought she would play her songs to a real audience. It wasn't until she moved to Toronto to attend university that she saw music in a different light. "I was still very shy with music and didn't really want to invest that much time in it, but as I went and saw more shows and saw what music existed in Toronto, I started to want to play it more," says Mecija. Meeting the others along the way, Mecija collected a group of friends akin to nerdy band camp kids, with all the talent of a childhood trumpet player, and all the drive of a rock star wannabe.
In need of a space of their own, Mecija's own Toronto home, best known as Bellwoods, became the centre where the band and their friends could create and perform together. Located on Bellwoods Ave., one block from Trinity-Bellwoods Park, the house borders Toronto's Queen West neighbourhood, where hipsters gather and music flourishes. Because of the ample practice space in the house's basement, Mecija says they can comfortably "practice, gather and hang out." The space also lends itself to house shows put on by the band, so it's become somewhat of a Toronto venue in its own right. It keeps Mecija's inadvertent community together and gives them a home base.