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Victoria-based singer makes her own music — and her own guitars

Musicians are accustomed to playing guitars which bear unique fingerprints, from pick-ups and pick guards to fretboards and strings.
Victoria-based singer-songwriter Jess Perkins releases her first full-length album Living Room today. ALENA EBELING-SCHULD

Musicians are accustomed to playing guitars which bear unique fingerprints, from pick-ups and pick guards to fretboards and strings. The instruments are frequently modified by their owners to fit specific needs and wants, all in an effort to produce a distinct, individual sound — something singer-songwriter Jess Perkins took to heart a few years ago.

The Vancouver-raised, Victoria-based performer started building acoustic guitars in 2016, after learning the craft from a number of notable luthiers in Montreal and Ontario, and now owns and operates her online shop, Geography Guitars. She plays several of her handmade creations on and off stage, but it was the guitar Perkins uses for live performances — a steel-string model made of Engleman spruce, Indian rosewood, and walnut — that factored prominently in the creation of her first full-length album, Living Room, which arrives Aug. 14.

Perkins, who received her degree in geography from the University of Victoria, moved back to Victoria last year so she could complete her degree in teaching. The 28 year-old is on track to graduate around Christmas. What then? It’s a question, Perkins said, that she has asked herself many times during the past year, when her songwriting, guitar-making, and scholastic studies came to a head. Her answer? To marry all three pursuits. “That’s my dream as I get older,” Perkins said.

“Be a teacher, build my guitars, and never stop writing music. I want to do it all. And I think it’s plausible.”

Her uncle, Ken McBride, was an early supporter of both her music and luthiery (around Sechelt, where he lived, McBride was known as “the guitar doctor” for his ability to repair ailing guitars). Perkins spent the summer of 2018 working with her uncle and producer Roy Code in a Sechelt studio on versions of the songs that would eventually become Living Room. Code passed away suddenly at 57 after the sessions, which left the album in limbo for a time. “I didn’t really know what to do afterwards,” Perkins said. “I definitely thought it was never going to get finished.”

With her uncle’s help, she was united with producer Ben Karlstrom in Surrey. The album was in the progress of being recorded when tragedy struck again. McBride passed away at 66 on Jan. 30, after a very brief battle with cancer.

He got to hear a finished version of the record before he died, “which was so special,” Perkins said. Living Room is dedicated to both her uncle and former producer. “It would would have never happened without them,” she added. “It’s a miracle this album ever came out. So many things happened.”

Her journey as a luthier dates back several years. After being exposed to the craft during a visit to Sechelt, she signed on for Sergei de Jonge’s guitar-building course in Chelsea, Quebec staying on for a short apprenticeship afterwards. She also apprenticed in Hilton Beach, Ontario with Zach Lefebvre of Treehouse Guitars, and worked in Montreal at the Mile End Guitar Co-op. “Back when I first started [studying luthiery], I went to Montreal one weekend and knocked on the door,” Perkins said. “I waited and I waited [for a spot] and they put me on the waitlist. Finally, there was a spot, and spent a couple of months working really hard and gaining all the knowledge I could. I networked the heck out of it, and from there I met the most amazing people.”

Perkins, wrote her first song when she was 12, released an E.P. in 2013, The Back Road, with Code. Her talent has expanded considerably in the years since. Living Room features songs she wrote while “navigating my mid-20s,” Perkins said, with all the “heartbreak, triumphs, and mishaps” that entails. “I ultimately found where I stood on things, what I wanted, and what made me happy.”

Victoria will be her home from this point onward. She will have her choice of pursuits once she receives her degree from UVic, but moving off the Island is not in the cards, she said.

“I am pretty set on it. I think when I originally left Victoria after my undergrad, I was going abroad so I packed up my stuff and left for good. But when I came back, I wanted to be back. It’s a very special place.”

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