Jazz chops shine through duo’s performances of old and new tunes

Melissa Lauren and Nathan Hiltz performing in Lions Bay House Concerts series

Lions Bay House Concerts: Melissa Lauren and Nathan Hiltz, Lions Bay private home, Saturday, May 11, 7 p.m. For more information on location and tickets visit eventbrite.ca/e/lionsbayhouseconcert-melissalauren-hiltz-nathanhiltz-mothersdayjazz-tickets-38892504528.

Old joke: After being booed and heckled, the incompetent Shakespearean actor breaks from Hamlet’s monologue, turns to the crowd and says: “Don’t blame me, I didn’t write this crap.”

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The joke’s underlying truth is that most of us feel more secure and less responsible when we take shelter behind someone else’s words.

For years, singer Melissa Lauren ducked behind the graceful words of master songwriters like Harold Arlen and Irving Berlin. She cooed and crooned the classics while an uneasy notion gnawed at her like the impulse to confess. She wanted to write her own songs and maybe, eventually, sing them.

“The first time’s always terrifying,” she says. “You’re always a little bit more confident when you’re singing somebody else’s song.”

For about two years Lauren wrote “lots of really crappy songs.” Sometimes verses came “pouring out.” Sometimes unfinished tunes stared back at her like the one unpainted wall in the basement.

But after two years of swiping left on her own tunes Lauren heard something she liked. And it turned out, she wasn’t alone. Listeners liked her original music.

“Eventually, I learned how to stop saying: ‘Really?’” she says with a laugh.

Today, Lauren sings jazz standards like Duke Ellington’s “All Too Soon” as well as her own, jazz-tinged music.

She travels with two setlists, she says. There’s one collection for jazz aficionados who might call out “Savoy Records, 1955!” as part of a song request. The other list is for partygoers whose tastes lean to pop, folk, country, and jazz. The result has been the creation of a barely distinguishable alter ego, as though Superman’s secret identity was Superb Individual.

That divide will be evident on Lauren’s upcoming album, No Heart of Mine, where one side will be reserved for jazz classics and the other for Lauren’s originals, including “Time,” a ballad inspired by the birth of her daughter.

For Lauren, jazz started out as an intruder.

“I didn’t want anything to do with jazz because it wasn’t cool amongst my friends when I was 15. So I hid it!”

And so, an outcast among non-conformists, Lauren ditched Nirvana and Pearl Jam in favour of Doris Day and Frank Sinatra.

Her love of jazz, largely unknown outside her bedroom walls, became public knowledge when she joined the Toronto All-Star Big Band as a teenager.

“We toured all over the place,” she says. “Got my jazz chops going,”

Lauren is currently touring with guitarist Nathan Hiltz. The two met about 10 years ago when Lauren picked the guitar player out of a backing band for a tour.

“Eventually we had a romantic connection but that was way later in the game,” she says.

Hiltz’s guitar playing can stretch from understated to blistering.

“He knows when to lay back and be cool. He knows when to show off a little bit,” Lauren says.

She’s also impressed by his bottomless knowledge of classical jazz.

“I never have to bring charts to gigs,” she says.

The ease of their on-stage relationship is ideal for house concerts like the upcoming show at a private residence in Lions Bay.

“It’s always better to play those with someone that you know really well,” she says.

The semi-private performances have become “quite the rage,” Lauren adds.

While you might be compelled to stick to a setlist on an arena stage, the smaller scale of a house show allows for more flexibility and improvisation, as well as an ease with the crowd.

“You don’t have to worry about weird, random actors,” she says with a laugh. The audience calls out tunes and Lauren is “hopefully” able to sing them, she says with a laugh.

Lauren tries to bridge her two not very divergent fanbases in concert, she says.

“Even if you’re not a huge jazz fan, you don’t have to worry. We’re that kind of jazz where you can like anything and still like this music.”


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