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SiS Featured Artist of the Month: Jaspar Lepak

SiS Featured Artist of the Month:  Jaspar Lepak

Jaspar Lepak has become, according to Richard Haslop, Audio Video Magazine (South Africa) “… a compelling and sometimes even riveting singer, pure and pretty without being precious, emotionally raw without being raunchy, with a clean, clear voice that drifts between folk, country and that middle ground that has been identified, by those who decide these things, as Americana…” But her journey towards becoming a critically acclaimed Pacific Northwest singer-songwriter began not with a guitar but with ballet slippers.

“During my last semester as an English major,” she explained. “I took a ballet class to fulfill an elective credit and magically discovered how to breathe from my diaphragm. I was listening to a lot Cat Stevens at the time, and one day while singing along, I realized that my voice had moved to a much stronger place, and I liked the sound of it.”

Her voice as a songwriter began to develop with a crisis of faith in the conservative religion in which she had grown up. Songwriting, she said, “gave me an outlet to express what I was feeling in a way that felt truer than talking or writing. Since I was a kid, I had always wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t get a lot of nurturing in the creative arts and had very little belief in my own voice. Songwriting, singing, and the friends I shared my first compositions with gave me that belief in my own voice, and it just kept growing as I kept writing.”

That writing process for Lepak, “usually starts with a strong emotion. Songwriting helps me work it out. I journal, then I strum chords on my guitar, and I hum a melody. Then I try out some of the phrases I have written down. I like working on big pieces of blank sketchbook paper. That way I can see the whole song at the same time. Melody and lyrics are always happening in tandem for me…” She went on to say, “It’s best if I can sit for a day or two and work on the song until it’s close to finished. It also works if I take regular time each day, like an hour or two, and work on the same song for a couple of weeks.”

As a performer, Lepak, like many artists, struggled with shyness. “The drive to perform was stronger than the fear, but it took years of playing open mics with shaky hands and shallow breath to get more comfortable on stage. It wasn’t until I started taking voice lessons and learned about breath control and practiced it, that my breath became something I could rely on onstage. And still, every once in awhile, I get really nervous and start to shake and lose my sense of breath while performing. It’s not always something I can control, but it is something I have more tools to control.”

Balancing life as a full time musician is a juggling act for Lepak. “As a writer, these days, it’s hard to find time to write. I started doing music full time three years ago, and booking, promoting, traveling, and performing have really taken up all my extra time and mental and emotional space. I’m trying to work now in seasons: a season for performing, a season for booking, a season for writing. It’s impossible to do them all at once. Also, as a woman in my mid thirties, I have more complex subjects that I’m writing about. Songs take more time, and the subject matter takes more courage. I’m learning to trust myself more than I ever have before.”

Life as a full-time musician brings other frustrations as well. “As an independent musician, the hardest struggle is people not seeing what I do as work. I hate the question: ‘and what do you do for a real job? a day job? For money?’ It’s infuriating. Or, ‘You’re really great. Keep at it, and we’ll be seeing your name in big lights someday.’ That’s so not the point. We need to see the work of artists as work. We need to stop seeing artists as children who need to grow up and get a real job. And success is not being famous. Success is doing good work and supporting yourself as you do it.”

Lepak’s idea of good work is steeped in writing about what matters. “I feel inspired when I’m writing a song that I care about. That moment when I share it with people who receive it is the best feeling in the world.” While performing in South Africa, Lepak experienced that connection in a powerful way. She had written “I Know a Woman” to reflect on her crisis of faith. “The first time I sang it for a live audience,” she explained, “I was outdoors in a beautiful garden at an art museum in Durban, South Africa. I was almost embarrassed to sing it, thinking everyone already knows this message: they will just think I’m another feminist whining about my vulnerability and place in the world. But people were crying as I was singing. Women gave me these huge, tearful hugs afterwards. And it just keeps happening every time I sing that song. The female voice needs so much honoring because it is so powerful, and I feel so proud to have written that song.”

For those who would like to test the waters of becoming a songwriter, Jaspar Lepak advises writers to, “…tell the truth. Be your most vulnerable self. Write about what matters to you. And take voice lessons! They will help you in ways you cannot begin to imagine. Please, take voice lessons. You will grow exponentially.”

Additionally she stresses the need for community. “Going to shows. Meeting other artists. Going to shows. Talking with artists. Going to shows. Building an artist network of support. In order to be a performer, you have to be a listener. Whenever I feel overwhelmed as a performer, all I have to do is go to a show to remind me why I’m doing this and how to do this.”

Jaspar Lepak found her breath in a ballet class and her voice in a crisis of faith. Now she has become, according to Helge Janssen, at Artslink, a songwriter and performer to be reckoned with. “Her core shines without compromise or submission, her words reveal insight, lyricism, humor and compassion. The real deal. It gets no better than this.”

Char Seawell
Char Seawell is an award winning singer-songwriter, a novelist, and essayist from Bothell, WA. A journalism graduate from Colorado State University, she is currently working on two historical fiction novels, one based in the North Cascades and one in pre-Nazi Germany,

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