Straddling the renegade worlds of alt-country, blues and soul, Jess Knights’ hard-to-pin-down style is reflective of her own unassuming past. A classically-trained opera singer, who’s spent time living in Germany, Thailand and New Zealand, Knights has been defying convention since she started cutting her teeth in the boozy, rough-hewn dives of her native Calgary.
“I started playing in blues bands when I was in my early 20s, with players that were sometimes 20 to 30 years older than me,” says Knights. “I was a young woman in an older, mostly male, scene, playing some pretty seedy establishments, and that sometimes meant that I had more to prove onstage to gain the respect of the crowd.”
Recalling the raw timbre of Etta James, her crystal-clear voice radiates vintage soul. On her debut EP, Won’t Wait—due out independently on October 27—Knights flexes a sly, heart-on-her-sleeve sweetness while chronicling tales of corrupting religious boys, a friend’s battle with addiction, and finding the light of humanity from darkness.
The album was recorded between OCL Studios and the living rooms of Knights and producer Josh Gwilliam (George Canyon, Road Hammers), and she enlisted a crew of heavy-hitting musicians as her studio backing band. Members of The Flat Whites, including Juno Award-winning songwriter Russell Broom (guitar), Chris Byrne (bass), and Spencer Cheyne (drums), along with multiple Juno and CCMA Award-winning songwriter and producer Mike Little (keys) ensure a rollicking, full-bodied sound while letting Knights’ pristine vocals shine. Aaron Young (Ghostboy, The Blackbelts) also contributes to a track.
“It was important that the record had a bit of grittiness to it, like the hole-in-the-walls where this record was conceived,” she says. “The players really helped me bring that sort of tone and texture to life."
Gospel-tinged opener “You Come for Money” is an example of the singer’s inability to fit into a single box, setting the album’s tone with an infectious, reverberating blow. On the title track, Knights coos around a blistering halo of fuzz-buzz guitars and saccharine ‘60s soul-pop vibes; boot-stomper “No Jazz” channels the singer’s juke joint roots; and the understated “Shot a Bird” describes the regret of an unfaithful lover.
As an artist, Knights celebrates the resilience of women and embracing female sexuality. Her album art, in particular, is a nod to the ferocity of her voice, as well as her own desire to unleash the lioness buried beneath.
The five songs contained on the EP were forged out of more than a decade of honing her songcraft and a fair share of paid dues. Won’t Wait represents Knights’ long-overdue introduction to a realm beyond the bleary-eyed last calls of the watering holes she came up in. A hunger, heart, and voice this big are hard to restrain, and she’s not waiting anymore.