Jill Ann Siemens admits to having a matter-of-fact way of looking at the complex business of music. “I’m a hard worker and I’ve got a lot of faith,” Siemens said. “The visions I have, I just believe they are going to work.”
She has relied on this philosophy countless times over the years.
A piano teacher who spent 22 years at the Victoria Conservatory of Music, the Kelowna native is credited with founding the Canadian Tenors in 2004. The quartet, which later found worldwide success as The Tenors, and continues today under the stewardship of David Foster, was hers to direct for a seven-year stretch.
Siemens mostly learned as she went along; if anything, her relative naiveté served her well. When a roadblock presented itself, she trudged forward and saw the plan through to the end. Success was measured on her terms. People told her the Canadian Tenors wouldn’t work, just as they told her the vocal group Tenore — her latest creation — would never fly. In both instances, she did not heed such advice.
“I just build it, and I build it with the vision that people are going to love it,” Siemens said steadfastly. “I don’t think about earning this much money, or winning this many awards, or that we’ve gone into this many countries. I just slowly keep working hard, keeping the faith, and getting the music out there.”
The Siemens machine is rolling once again. Tenore released its second recording, Christmas With You, on Tuesday, and will stop at the Royal Theatre on Dec. 10 as part of its cross-Canada tour. The group is operating without a traditional record label, but that hasn’t stopped Siemens. She has hired independent radio programmers and publicists to push the record, and has received distribution from Warner Music Canada and help from Victoria’s Pacific Music Marketing, which worked out a deal to get 5,000 copies of the album in Walmart stores across Canada.
It seems fitting, then, that Siemens got into the music business almost by accident. It began when she wrote Sempre Vicino: A Child’s Prayer for Peace. The song was written in 2002, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. in 2001. On a whim, Siemens entered it in Ireland’s Song of Peace contest. The event, organized by the Tipperary International Peace Convention, eventually awarded her composition first place.
Siemens travelled to Ireland with Victoria tenor Ken Lavigne to accept the award. It was there, after seeing Lavigne perform the song backed by the Tipperary choir of St. Joseph’s Primary School, that Siemens envisioned a creative future for herself.
The Celtic Tenors performed at the same event, which gave Siemens pause. Inspired by their performance, if not their commercial appeal, Siemens saw a void in Canada that needed filling. When she got home to Victoria, work began immediately on creating a group of her own.
She sold off a few of her personal effects — including her Mercedes-Benz and Bösendorfer grand piano — to get her dream off the ground. Investors came on board soon after, and the Canadian Tenors became a reality.
The early years were trying at times, both for Siemens and the group. Ten members passed through the ranks — some exiting on their own accord, some not — before she settled upon the core lineup of Remigio Pereira, Victor Micallef, and Fraser Walters. Following the addition of former University of Victoria student Clifton Murray in 2009, Siemens finally had her fab four.
“They worked hard. And that’s what it takes. You have to be able to put your ego aside, and they did.”
Within the next two years, Siemens — the group’s founder and legal owner of the Canadian Tenors trademark — would cut ties with the band. It was, she said, “time to move on.” In April 2011, Siemens sold her rights to the company for a sum she would not disclose. The group has continued scaling great heights, which pleases Siemens to no end. “I feel nothing but absolute joy and pride about the whole thing.”
As for what to do next, Siemens never entertained the idea of quitting for good. She put more of her time and energy into Tenore, a group that began in 2009. She was told, despite her success, that audiences weren’t desperate for another “popera-friendly” singing group. In true Siemens style, she paid not a whit to such things.
“There was no thought about that. I knew it would work — and it is. We sold 30,000 copies of our album and we don’t have a label.”
Siemens doesn’t have the energy she once did, so the Tenore game plan is structured a little differently. In the days of the Canadian Tenors, she oversaw every detail. With Tenore, the members have off-stage duties to carry out. “We all have our jobs to do. It takes a musical village to raise a band.”
There is an underlying motivation behind each project or tour Siemens puts her name behind: children in need. It is a cause with which she has first-hand experience. Following the death of her sister, Siemens took in three of her siblings’s six children. She has always planned her projects with a fundraising tie-in, often with proceeds benefiting a children’s charity, but now that she’s a grandmother, that side of her business is as important as ever.
This belief began when she was handed her winner’s cheque for the Song of Peace prize in 2002.
“I took the money I won and put it toward the overall endeavour, which is to create musical projects that will help children around the world that are suffering.”
Music is the perfect vehicle for instigating change, she added.
“All the world loves a beautiful song,” she said. “That’s what I always say to people.”