"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.
"I think that the house itself serves as an anchor for the community," says James Bunton, contemplating the role that Bellwoods takes on for the band and their friends. Mecija couldn't agree more. "Basically Bellwoods is just a house where there's music, there's art. It's a hub for us to practice and a hub for all of our friends to gather and play music and perform for each other," she says. "It's been a nice vehicle for us to be able to do what we do, and extend that even further to a grander community effort."
In order to capture their time spent in Bellwoods, Ohbijou produced a compilation of rare and new songs from themselves and their friends - a list that happened to include the likes of the Acorn, Gentleman Reg and Bry Webb from the Constantines; appropriately, it was called Friends In Bellwoods. "A number of our friends, who are a part of our community, have played [at Bellwoods], so one summer a few years ago, James and I were talking about how it would be really neat to collect all of these people who have had an influence on us," says Mecija. "And we decided that the only way that would make us feel good about doing it is if it somehow went back into the community, so that's how we decided to have it go toward the Daily Bread Food Bank of Toronto."
With Bunton at the recording helm of the compilation, it was more of a success than anyone expected. The record has already raised over $11,000. This month, a two-disc, 40-song sequel Friends in Bellwoods II will add to that total. Some friends will be returning for the second chapter, with new additions coming on like Sandro Perri, Basia Bulat and Great Lake Swimmers. "[Friends in Bellwoods] was a nice time capsule a few years ago," Mecija says. "It's a nice thing to have this year too, to be able to see how everything's progressed."
And plenty of progression has happened for Ohbijou in the three years between the release of their two records and of their two compilations. "I think a lot happens to people in three years, musically or not," says Bunton. "For bands, that's a long time. You can hear people develop and sort of growing."
Part of that growth happened because of Ohbijou's dedication to each other and to keeping communication open. Some of the recording for Beacons happened two years ago on a trip to the cottage at Muldrew Lake near Gravenhurst, ON in the Muskokas, where they were able to learn from each other and become an even tighter-knit unit than before. (Casey and Jenny Mecija, along with Heather Kirby and James Bunton are joined by Anissa Hart on cello, Ryan Carley on keyboards and Andrew Kinoshita on mandolin.) "We're a band that communicates. When you have so many members, you have to make time and make it a priority to always check in and see how everyone is," Mecija says. "It's not like we do that all the time, but months will pass and we'll just have to sort of reinvest and talk, just so that we're all on the same page, so that we're all creating and performing at the same level, and so that everyone's happy."
Mecija sees the changes in Ohbijou as well, noting that overcoming difficulties is something the band works on. "I think that in three years when you're hanging around the same six people a lot, you sort of throw yourself into really unusual situations where you have to work on the dynamic, work on how to make things persist, and prevail in hard circumstances," she says. "So I think that we've grown in overcoming those hard times and frustrations; frustrations in writing, frustrations in the recording process."
At least having a record label in Europe is no longer a hardship for the band. They recently signed to Bella Union, home to their friends, the Acorn, and to other bands they admire, like Fleet Foxes. It was an easy transition for them, with their first European tour being more than they thought it would be. "We got to play on the big ferris wheel in London," Mecija relates. "All the Bella Union bands got to take a turn around the Eye and we all played acoustically inside the ferris wheel pod. When do you get to do that? Never, right?
But even with chances like these, Ohbijou still hold their own community as crucial to their beginnings and to their development. "To still be able to play in front of people who appreciate [our music] is something we've all hoped for. I think [the band has] far exceeded any sort of expectations from when we first started," says Mecija. "I think as a band we are very invested in the city and the community that we're a part of; I don't think anything's changed about that."