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Sierra Jamerson (pictured) talks about what music means to her on a Zoom call. (Kianni Reynolds-Lewis)

‘It’s my soul calling’: Sierra Jamerson’s musical journey

by Kianni Reynolds-Lewis

The arts are an essential human function. Humankind and music can’t function without one another. We have the burning desire to create, whatever it may be, however big or small. It only makes sense that it would take a special type of person to help foster this function. A teacher willing to help mold and guide a student towards greatness — someone like Edmonton-born musician and vocal coach, Sierra Jamerson.

Jamerson grew up in a musical family in Mill Woods. She remembers her mother once telling her she knew she could sing at one-year-old. Her grandfather toured with Carlos Santana and Van Morrison. Her mother, aunts, uncles, and cousins had a traditional African-American gospel group. At the age of nine, Jamerson wrote her first song, and at 11, her mother had her join a musical group. However, Jamerson didn’t seriously begin making music and performing until she was 16.

“We travelled all over North America and sang,” said Jamerson. “It helped me have a huge love for music and singing and helped me cut my teeth and build some good chops as a singer.”

She performed at talent shows at her high school, W. P. Wagner, and recorded an album at McDougall United Church with her group. Once she was in university, she branched out from her gospel-style.

“I joined a punk band,” Jamerson laughed. “We were playing all kinds of bars on Whyte, like Deviate and The Artery, which is now The Aviary.” But one of her favourite venues is Edmonton’s only jazz club, the Yardbird Suite, one of the first venues she played when she was 17.

If you were to combine the sound of Erykah Badu, Jamerson’s favourite singer, and neo-soul with folky, alternative pop and piano, you would get Jamerson’s musical style. Other inspirations include singer/songwriters like Tori Amos, Alicia Keys, and Emily Haines, the lead singer of her favourite band Metric.

Sierra Jamerson sings a cover of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” for a Facebook live concert put on by the Yardbird Suite.

During her last year of university, Jamerson began vocal coaching. She set up shop in her parents’ living room, using their parlour piano. What started as a means to earn extra money turned into a nearly 10-year long career as she landed a job at musical retail chain Long & McQuade. Eventually, the COVID-19 pandemic shook her new-found comfort.

“My student list went from about 30 to five over one weekend in March,” said Jamerson. It was a major financial hit, and it didn’t help that she was already suffering cuts in her paycheck for studio rental fees and future administration payments. She needed something more. “I was like ‘well shit. I’m going to have to do something on my own to survive.’ The way I had been teaching before was over.”

Jamerson has always had an important spiritual practice, having been on her own healing and self-discovery journey. It wasn’t until one night while living on a farm that she made her plan.“I just woke up in the middle of the night, and I was like, ‘I need to start teaching on my own,’” said Jamerson.

“Singing is something that comes from your soul. The most rewarding thing for me has been the connections that I’ve made with students and seeing them open up and express the truest parts of themselves. It all swirled together like soup in my brain, and at the end of June, I launched Soul to Soul Singing.”

Soul to Soul Singing is based on Jamerson’s idea of holistic vocal coaching, a practice she created herself based on ideas exposed to her. It looks at a singer as a full being and “not as just a throat.”

“I want you to shed the layers of self-doubt, anxiety, and insecurity that silences and blocks so many singers,” said Jamerson. “I’m not only looking at wanting you to become a better singer, [but also] having better control of your instrument and being more artistic in how you sing.”

This form of practice differs from otherwise outdated ones. Jamerson states most vocal coaches preach that there are only two ways to improve your voice: “Learning how to sing songs the best way and building technique.”

“But when you work with me, we’ll sit down and create goals,” said Jamerson. “We’ll do the inner work of changing your mind to allow yourself to go from point A to point B. A regular singing coach will tell you to keep doing the scales and if you get stressed out, ‘just relax.’ That’s the big difference.”

It’s no secret that Edmonton has many talented indie singers and musicians. However, when it comes to our music scene, Jamerson defines it as “nearly dead.”

“The problem is there aren’t a lot of venues,” said Jamerson. “They don’t seem to thrive here. And that’s because people don’t go to live music shows. It’s not something that’s culturally valued here. Generations of backward thinking policies [in Edmonton] have turned our downtown into this endlessly commercialized hockey district with tons of construction.”

Another problem Jamerson points out is a lack of culture.

“All these years of always putting arts and culture last effects, and the effect is that talented musicians leave Edmonton as soon as they can. The ones who are left are trying to figure it out. But opportunities are becoming slim, and that’s what’s scary about COVID.”

For aspiring artists, Jamerson warns that “it’s not for the faint of heart.”

“It’ll be discouraging; you’ll get rejected from so many things so many times. But if it’s the only thing that gets you out of bed, do it.”

She also advises that young artists should learn to be more creative with ways to make money. “The music industry is changing rapidly. People don’t buy albums anymore. They don’t download songs; they stream them on Spotify, and that doesn’t make you any money. If this is the thing you want to do forever, you’ll have to learn about business and marketing.”

As for Jamerson’s future, she will continue to teach online, so far not planning to return to in-person lessons even if a COVID vaccine is made. However, she refuses to let the pandemic limit her.

“When I’m not expressing and not making music, I’m not myself,” said Jamerson. “It’s my soul calling. It’s my purpose here on this earth.”

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