It’s been a successful summer for Abbotsford’s preeminent rapper. The past three months have seen him win the first ever Fraser Valley Music Award for Hip Hop, open the annual Jam in Jubilee concert series, and perform at the Envision Concert in the Park series. With the release of his first album in over two years looming, 2016 seems to be Saint Soldier’s year. He was gracious enough to sit down with me for an interview, calmly striding into the room and filling it with his quiet, yet charismatic self.
Our conversation was a varied one, broaching many topics beyond his music. Over the course of 55 minutes, Saint Soldier’s thoughts on Abbotsford’s growing creative community, his own career path, and his philosophical leanings all came to light.
It’s been an exciting summer for you: you won the inaugural FVMA in Hip Hop, you performed at Jam in Jubilee. How does that feel? How was it?
It feels awesome. 2016’s been such a great year for me. I spent the winter in Mexico and I came back, and in the first week or so my manager Charlie asked me if I was down to host an open mic night and that was something I wanted to do for years, so we started the open mics at SippChai. With Jas [the proprieter at SippChai]; he’s awesome, too. On the first night we had about 20 artists show up and it was such a powerful vibe. We’ve been doing that once a month. And the FVMA was just so awesome, I got to meet so many other artists as well and so many people wanted to jam and make music.
Does that mean we can look forward to some new collaborations?
Definitely. I’ve been jamming with Harma White. We were jamming for two nights and we came up with four songs.
At the Spotted Owl I’m holding Spoken Word Sundays every Sunday. Slam poetry: we’ve got some elder members form the Fraser Valley Poets Society. They come in regularly and share their poetry; they’ve been writing for 30, 40 years, and it’s so cool to have them come in and share that vibe. It’s slowly increasing; we usually get eight or nine poets every Sunday.
All of these community and creative events are relatively new to us, right?
It’s totally new in Abbotsford. In my whole music career, I’d be out in Vancouver’s open mics. I used to go to a place called Yanza Club for like eight years, and when Richard [Murphy, the Spotted Owl’s manager] started the open mic nights at the Owl, well I’d rather spend the night in Abby instead of driving to Vancouver.
Why do you think there’s this trend in Abby?
I think it’s the collective mind, the collective drive of all the creativity in Abbotsford. That’s how I feel. I feel like I’m a part of it. I see it and everybody around me, all the artists and me, and there’s so much humility in everyone That’s the most beautiful thing: everyone sort of wants to make music together and we appreciate each other’s art. It’s not competitive, you know? That’s what I love about it. I think there’s no limit to what we can do here in Abbotsford with that kind of attitude.
A lot of the time though, it’s the same crowd who attend these events.
It’s the same crowd because we love that environment so much we want to catch it whenever we can. Every time we’re doing this, it’s slowly growing and evolving. More people are hearing about it. Like you say, it’s new this year, and there’s a lot of younger people who are still shy. They do their music at home. They’re not ready to share on the stage or come to an open mic. I remember being there when I was younger. First time I stood on a stage my hand was shaking like I had a problem. I think slowly this is going to grow. I have no doubts because we have so many young people, all kinds of people, who just want to be a part of the music.
Could you maybe tell us about your first time performing?
I started writing when I was a kid in elementary school. In high school I kept writing, but I wouldn’t share with anybody except my sister. She always said, “you’re getting pretty good, share it with people.”
I did, with one friend, and he told me to go to open mic nights, but I was still too shy to share that kind of stuff. The first time I shared publicly was on Speaker’s Corner. You know: those cameras on the corner street that you put in a dollar and it records you for a minute and it was on on Much Music or whatever. So, I shared some rhymes on that and I dropped my email address at the end and when it aired like two weeks later I got a flood of emails, some hate mail.
Hate mail for one minute? That’s terrible!
I’d say the hate mail was only about 15 per cent of the emails.
Still, what the hell!?
I guess they’re all keyboard warriors. But I’d rather focus on the 85 per cent of positivity, a lot of people saying they connected with what I was saying and they wanted to hear more and I was like, Wow, me and my insecure state. Wow, I really liked that. So I did that one more time and got the nerve to go to a open mic night that The Beat hosted, someplace on Cambie, and I ended up doing that open mic and I won a Beat t-shirt for that night, so they liked it. I met some buskers downtown and asked them places to go, and they directed me to ANZA Club and that was a place that really opened me up. It was full of love and it was a very nurturing environment, and that’s what we’re trying to recreate here at the Owl and at SippChai, make it like that, how it was when I started: a noncompetitive environment where we just support each other, and show love, whatever level artist you think you are. We just appreciate your art and the fact you’re willing to share it with us.
I noticed that in your latest single, “A Stray”, the beginning is a news broadcast about a fatal shooting. What was the reason behind that?
That news clip you’re talking about actually inspired the song. That incident inspired the song. It was right in my neighborhood, I live in the Townline Hill area, and I’ve been working on an album with DJ Hark [Duality, out next month] and we were in the middle of working on some songs, and he sent me this beat and I said “Let me sit on it.” The next day that shooting happened where the elderly gentlemen was killed by a stray bullet. And it was something different. I felt a wave of emotion come over the city. It wasn’t one of the gangsters getting killed or something, it was somebody innocent. He was gardening. It was powerful, it was emotional. I had that beat and it had that emotion, and the day after that shooting I sat down and I wrote the lyrics to that song. I got back to Hark and he said “yeah, let’s lay this down.”
I have the most awesome team, all of my friends are part of it. The videographer Rav is one of my best friends, and the video editor Paul is one the guys who’s had my back since high school. He pushed me to get on stage. Everybody got together and we got the actors and we put the project together and it went smoothly.
Do you think things will change in our community after that incident? After all, we were still known as Stabbotsford only a few years ago.
When I put that song [“A Stray”] out, over the course of two months I got a lot of messages from young people, some saying that the song had inspired them to change their lifestyle, but most of those people aren’t from Abbotsford, they’re from across Canada. I can’t say. I think I feel the same way about it, it just keeps happening. I thought I heard gunshots in bed last night and it was like “there’s another one.” I don’t expect much change in these people, it’s sad to say. I feel like that’s the reality of it.
During your Jam in Jubilee performance, one of the spoken word pieces was inspired by someone passing.
After losing someone so close, death became such a real thing. Not only for myself but for everybody, everybody I love, and it also became an essential thing to accept. To make reality. That’s what that spoken word piece was about. We make a taboo of death, but it should be embraced in every moment, that’s the only way to appreciate life. To realize the reality and realness of death. How it’s actually always there. I heard an analogy like: Death is like a sword hanging over your head on a fine thread. You don’t know when it’s going to snap, and if you live like that then you’ll live fully. Not wanting to be lazy or complacent.
I found that, as time has passed, a lot of the time I’ll write, and I’ll be like, “Okay, this is so personal” but when I share it, it resonates with so many people, so many people are going through the same thing. I just share it all. Why hold it? Why hold it in? I don’t feel like it should be held back.
A lot of the time, me and my artists friends, I put my pen to the paper and I start writing, but there’s no thought that goes into it, I’m just opening myself up to a higher power, for the universe to flow through me, and my musicians say the same thing, “When I hold my guitar and jam, I’m not thinking what strings to pluck, it’s just the moment,” so why should I take pride in my art? It’s not my art, it’s my practice. The longer I’ve spent writing, the faster my brain is able to put words together, but it’s not me writing, it’s just writing. It’s the more practiced that pen is, that hand is, the more fluent it will write. That’s how I feel about that, no need to take pride in my art, it’s just what it is.