Nestled amongst tables, I sit with Robyn Jacob of Only A Visitor. The coffee, something called a clover or a dover, seems overly caffeinated. My legs are all jitters and my mind jogs. “This is the most drugged up coffee you will ever have,” she laughs as we fall into conversation.
Since their 2015 debut release of Tower Temporary, Only A Visitor has provided Vancouver with music as energizing as an elaborate caffeinated beverage. Fronted by Robyn and accompanied by drummer Kevin Romain, bassist Jeff Gammon, and vocalists Emma Postl and Celina Kurz, Only A Visitor weaves a sound impactful and fresh. Genre muddling, Tower Temporary found Robyn establishing a distinct voice. Between minimal and nearly neo-classical piano, mounting vocal harmonies and stuttering jazz rhythms, Robyn dives into cryptic imagery centered on both the personal and the abstract.
But if Tower Temporary found Only A Visitor laying the groundwork of their sound, their newest release, Lines, acts as a further exploration, an exclamation point on an already established sentiment. “As a group we have become more excited about the project,” she explains, and this rising enthusiasm is apparent. Lines illustrates a greater refinement than its predecessor, something which Robyn attributes to a growth in intimacy, “for Lines I have tried to write more for the members of the band, more specific to what they do.”
Though Lines finds Only A Visitor blending further into an intertwined unit, the themes at play remain diverse and vast. Contending with notions of feminism, the natural world and the trauma buried within history, the listener is served a smorgasbord of compelling images. Robyn attributes this thematic diversity to the nature of her creative process, stating, “I would experience something and I would go and have a writing session and it [these themes] would be the foremost thing on my mind. So, I would write about them. And it came to be they [these themes] imbued the tunes very heavily.” It is this approach to writing, steeped in the personal yet strikingly universal, which lends Only A Visitor an edge.
Yet, Robyn sees room for growth. At their June 16 tour kick-off and album release show at Red Gate Revue, for instance, Only A Visitor will be accompanied by dancers. “They are from the Two Big Steps Collective,” she notes, “It is a new thing for me. I am trying to explore working with other disciplines. I really like collaboration and it is another great learning opportunity.”
The addition of dancers serve as a marker of Robyn’s willingness to collaborate with surrounding creative communities. “I could not be doing what I am doing without their support. I am constantly asking people for ideas […] from all facets, from the improv jazz scene to the indie D.I.Y. scene. And I think that is something our band is able to do well, to go back and forth between scenes.”
This openness to collaboration, however, does not suggest that Only A Visitor is steering away from deeply personal subjects. If Lines hosts a set of pervasive themes filtered through an individualistic lens, Robyn insists that her next project will be defined by greater cohesion, while still pertaining to the personal and intimate. “I am working on a concept album,” she states. “It started out as a research project into my family’s immigration history to this area. Specifically to my mom’s side of the family, who are Chinese, and just digging up the history of this area in terms of Chinese diaspora. It was really fascinating to me, especially thinking of Canadian identity and identity in general, so it kind of bridges into my activism but it also bridges into me.” In this process, we see the maturing of a creative technique. Just as Lines uses the personal to extrapolate and explore larger, pervasive forces, Robyn’s search for identity vocalizes silenced and forgotten histories. Past policies of racism and white supremacy are revealed. “Canada is built upon erasure,” she continues, “especially Vancouver. I find it really satisfying to dig stuff up. And it’s there. The information is out there. And you don’t know it unless you seek it. It isn’t just handed to you.”
Buried within this exploration of themes daunting and grave, however, Only A Visitor remains dedicated to infectious melodies. Not all art needs to host thoughts long and winding, a point Robyn keeps firmly in mind. Despite dealing with subjects of significance, she still wishes “to make just songs.” And it’s this ability to house two warring and contradictory notions, beauty and exposition, which makes Only A Visitor so striking. In the pop skeletons of Tower Temporary and Lines, the listener finds something both ethereal and fleshy. As the voice of Robyn tangles up with those of Emma Postl and Celina Kurz, one is overcome by its angelic nature. But depth is found in the sublime and the personal.
Before embarking on a cross Canada tour, Only A Visitor will be playing at the Red Gate Revue Stage on June 16. On this date, their debut full length album, Lines, will also be available for streaming and purchase. For more information onlyavisitor.bandcamp.com, or follow them on social media.