Jon-Rae and the River Smells Like Holy Spirit

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.”

"It’s more that you live the Christian life, not necessarily that you go to church and you’re Christian because you go to church,” Betty adds. "I think Jon-Rae sees that there is so much hypocrisy and that’s what bothers him. He sees the so-called church as not really doing the right thing in society. So, he thinks that you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian. It’s like Gordon says, ‘We can go into a garage how many times and we don’t become a car.’”

In attending church as a boy, Jon-Rae was first exposed to the music that has impacted him the most as a songwriter. His father suggests the Pentecostal services Jon-Rae attended were really just parties with wailing, old-time, inclusive gospel music that truly inspired his son. "[Jon-Rae] says, ‘You’ve ruined me because every song I write sounds like a gospel song,’” the Reverend laughs. "He is, in some ways, a storyteller and gospel music is primarily a story of thanks giving. Most gospel music is a kind of testimonial and he grew up with that and it has affected him musically.”

Just before the Fletchers moved to Kelowna, Jon-Rae discovered the band Nirvana and their sound irrevocably shook him up. "I remember where I was when I first heard ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’” Jon-Rae says. "I was outside the church in the parking lot. I had no connection to anything with screaming vocals and distorted guitars — I had no idea about that stuff. So, I had to have that album and I told my parents I want to buy this Nirvana album. Me and my dad sat down and listened to the entire thing together.

"After it was finished, we talked about everything on the album and what it meant. He understood that I understood what it was about and he was fine with it. He just wanted to know that I was conscious about what was going on, on that album. That’s what living with my parents was like. If I was going to live with a Christian family, it would be with my parents in my family.”

When I ask Jon-Rae if the River’s incorporation of crowd sing-alongs, group clapping, and dancing is derived from his gospel roots, he suggests that his approach to live performance really stems more from studying Cobain’s newfangled punk attitude. "I actually found that the best way to perform was by doing those Nirvana songs and losing yourself in those minor and barre chords and screaming at the top of your lungs.”

Spurred on by the resurgence of punk, Jon-Rae started his first band, Edgar Wilson, which is part of a period that both he and his parents regard grimly. "I was rebelling and I was into dark shit,” Jon-Rae recalls. "I was into writing songs that were very self-deprecating, suicidal even. But I was 16.”

"I think he was frustrated with us and the scene here,” Betty says. "He went to a Christian school; that’s one thing we pushed on him and it was probably one of the worst things that we did to him. Teachers at Christian schools don’t understand minds like his, one that questions everything. Christians tend to be very legalistic and don’t like you to go outside of the box but Jon-Rae pushed that limit and caused a lot of trouble. It made his life hard in school and that’s one thing I wished we’d never done.”

This convergence of gospel and anti-authority punk ideals is one that still resonates with Jon-Rae today. I ask him if he believes that the Holy Spirit churchgoers experience is the same one he felt when he first heard Nirvana. "Yeah for sure; it’s the same shit completely. I mean I’ve lost myself in a mosh pit listening to Anagram in the same way that I’ve lost myself in praise. I know that praise is directed to God and — Christians would be so pissed off at me for saying this — I do think that it’s the same God we’re praising. It’s this celebration of life and music and it’s good.”

When he was 21, Jon-Rae fatefully joined a collective of Kelowna expats who moved to Vancouver to pursue music and they inadvertently started a band called the River. After kicking around Kelowna coffeehouses and writing and recording songs for a solo EP called Now Then, Fletcher moved to a transient home in Vancouver dubbed "20th Street House,” which gained renown as a hub for notorious parties and musicians. It was here that Fletcher connected with Jay Douillard and the two started a CD-R label called Deer and Bird to release each other’s music, including Fletcher’s stunning solo record, Then Again. 20th Street was also where Fletcher hooked up with future River members, including Darcy Hancock, who currently plays lead guitar in Ladyhawk. "We were all kind of quick musicians, so Jon-Rae would just show us the songs and we’d just get on stage and do it,” Hancock says. "Over time, we got better at it because we played so many shows. We never really practiced or anything. Jon-Rae would write these songs and we’d learn the words from him playing them around the house.”

In spite of its makeshift nature, the nine-piece River developed a cult audience around Vancouver, thanks in part to fans who fell in love with Fletcher as a solo performer. Ian Mosby, who along with Douillard now contributes to an MP3 blog called Popsheep, saw Jon-Rae Fletcher and the River play countless times. "What struck me was that he was often the average kind of indie guy on-stage but, occasionally, this song would come and there’d be so much passion in it,” Mosby recalls. "You could tell from an early stage that he really had something going. Then, when he added the full band, it was a pretty amazing transition from this shy, indie singer to this manic, gospel, punk rock thing.”

Encouraged by Colin and Terry Stuart, owners of Vancouver’s indie studio of choice, the Hive Creative Labs, Fletcher and the River recorded their self-titled debut album between 2001 and 2002. As momentum continued to build for the alt-country band, the Hive collective offered to release the band’s 2003 follow-up, The Road. Some time between recording this album and setting a release date, Fletcher fell in love with a girl named Myera. The month The Road was to be released, he followed Myera to Toronto and the River, in its West coast incarnation, was done.

"It was very hard because the album was just coming out and everyone in the band was so excited about it,” Fletcher recalls. "It was really difficult and Myera knew that and I felt so regretful about that in some ways. I told them when I left that only good shit was going to come of it and it’s true; only good stuff happened.” In September 2006, Jon-Rae and Myera got married in Toronto.

Jon-Rae and I leave his house and cross Kensington Market for Amadeu’s Restaurant to meet up with the latest incarnation of the River, a seven-piece band that bring Fletcher closer to God every time he plays with them. The first show Fletcher played in Toronto was in December 2003 opening for Owen Pallett’s Les Mouches and featured two former members of the Vancouver River backing him up, including current vocalist Anne Rust D’Eye. When I ask her about the differences between the two Rivers, she suggests it’s essentially familiarity. "I get the sense that the Vancouver River was a bunch of guys who were friends forever. One of the fun things about this Toronto River is that we didn’t really know each other before we first started playing together. So, there was a lot more room to adapt to each other and develop a different sound.”

The current River includes Fletcher, Rust-D’Eye, Ian Russell, Mike Stafford, Jonathan Adjemian, Paul Mortimer, and a drummer from Toronto named Dave Clark, who is not former Rheostatics drummer/Woodchoppers leader Dave Clark. Most of these folks helped make 2005’s critically acclaimed Old Songs for the New Town, an aptly named collection of Vancouver-era River songs re-arranged for Toronto listeners. All but Clark (who recently replaced Steve Kado on drums) entered a studio with engineer Paul Aucoin to create Jon-Rae and the River Knows What You Need.

Though he loves them now, when he first saw the new River play in Vancouver, Darcy Hancock didn’t know how to feel. "I was just like, ‘I don’t even know what kind of music this is,’” he said. "It’s a totally different thing. He’s playing all of these old songs with different people. He’s got a synth player now, which is a dynamic we’d never have thought of adding to the band.”

When I relate Hancock’s perspective to the new River, they all agree that their individual idiosyncrasies are what make them complement each other so well. "I think the thing about this band is that it doesn’t really make sense that this group of people is playing music together,” says Adjemian, the synth player in question. "Everybody does music on their own in other aspects and I think it all sounds different from anybody else’s, which I think is wonderful.”

As for Fletcher, he describes playing with this River as the best moments of his life — a cosmic connection that manifests itself in a visceral manner. "Playing with them is the closest thing I can get to the Holy Spirit,” he says emotionally. "We transcend what we’re doing in pure joy. It’s a great thing having an audience that’s clapping and singing along, but I do think that, first of all, we’re playing for each other and we’re playing songs that we really enjoy.”

At the gospel inference, I recall the last question I asked Jon-Rae when we were at his house earlier. I asked him if God is important to him. "I’m not sure,” he said tentatively. He then sighed deeply and continued. "The God that I was raised to believe exists is a hateful and spiteful God who gave birth, or whatever, to a loving God.” He paused and then cut himself off. "I don’t know, I don’t know. I don’t want to comment on it.”

When I told Jon-Rae that I couldn’t help but ask about the role of God in his work, he suggested that it was an easy connection to make because of his background, as the son of a minister.

So what’s a more complex connection to make? "I don’t know if there is one,” he said. "Between me and Nirvana I guess.”