Velvety-voiced jazz keyboardist Elizabeth Shepherd arrived on the international scene in 2006 and, since then, the Montreal-based soul-jazz innovator has established herself as one of the most alluring and imaginative artists on the scene today.

Elizabeth has a “soulful coolness,” states USA Today. Montreal’s La Presse writes that she is “more interesting than all the other jazz singers out there,” while MOJO magazine declares that her “wholly unique and unclassifiable style blurs the boundaries between jazz, R&B, pop and hip hop.” 

A six-time JUNO nominee, Elizabeth has toured extensively in North America, Europe, Japan and Mexico, selling out shows from the Cotton Club in Tokyo to the Jazz Cafe in London, England.

“There's an immediacy to music,” declares jazz musician Elizabeth. “There are so many things you try to put into words that ultimately can’t be expressed. You try, but you get bogged down in the nuances of what you actually mean to say, but not quite express correctly. With music, it’s immediate. That emotional content, whether you label it or not, is incredibly palpable.”

Shared Language

Elizabeth grew up in The Salvation Army, the daughter of pastor parents, Colonels Eleanor and Glen Shepherd. Though the family moved around as they were transferred to different postings, Elizabeth never felt unmoored.

“In retrospect, the church provided community because it was the one place of continuity from city to city or even country to country,” Elizabeth recalls. “The Salvation Army was important in providing a sense of stability for me.”

The other source of continuity for Elizabeth as a child was music.

“Wherever we moved, music in general and The Salvation Army’s rich musical tradition in particular provided familiarity and structure.”

For instance, when the family moved to France, Elizabeth befriended a Congolese choir. Though she could speak little French then and they spoke very little English, they took her under their wing.

“And so long before I knew what I was singing, I just had this incredible joy and sharing.”

Speaking Through Her

Elizabeth discovered jazz as a student at McGill University in Montreal. There was something about it that just spoke to her.

Elizabeth with her parents, brother and family

“Historically, jazz is deeply political and a music of empowerment,” she explains, “but it’s a deeply spiritual form, too.”

One of the biggest parts of jazz is improvisation, and that was an important spiritual step for Elizabeth. 

“In order to improvise, you need to get out of your own way to allow God to speak through you, because all ideas and all creativity come from God,” she explains. “That was what drew me to jazz. I remember writing in my journal when I was 19 that I felt as if my life’s mission was to learn how God spoke through music.”

Realizing that was a large part of the reason why Elizabeth is a musician. 

“It’s not just because I love music, not because it brings me joy, not even because I feel that I’m good at it,” she says. “It’s because it’s a spiritual path and it’s a way for me to understand God, to understand my place in all of this, to relate to others.

“To allow God to just speak through me.”

Her Home

For years, Elizabeth was a Salvation Army soldier (an official member). But as she plunged into her musical career and spent more and more time touring and in the studio, her soldiership had lapsed and she was reluctant to recommit. 

“Having grown up in the Army, I knew the demands it could—and should—make on your time,” she explains.

But as she settled down with her family in the Laurentian area of Quebec just north of Montreal, at some point, Elizabeth started to attend Salvation Army worship services on a regular basis again and has become more and more involved in the life of her church. 

When not on the road performing, she works with the choir at the Army’s Montreal Citadel. She also assists with the residents at the Booth Centre, a Salvation Army facility that offers temporary housing and the support of intervention workers to men experiencing housing difficulties, alcoholism, drug addiction and mental illness, and has been developing a music program. 

“Music is a way for me to understand God, to understand my place in all of this, to relate to others.”

“I’ve repeatedly seen the power of music to heal and bring joy and light in that setting,” she says. “However, I’ve also witnessed some of the challenges residents have in getting out to enjoy live music—either due to physical disabilities, chronic health issues or mental illness/addiction programs that require they stay put for treatment.”

Elizabeth plans to become an adherent this year, someone who believes in God, participates in worship, fellowship, service and support of a local Salvation Army congregation, and identifies with the Army’s mission statement.

“I didn’t even know that was an option!” Elizabeth smiles. “I thought you were either a soldier or you weren’t. But when my parents told me all about it, I thought it was very cool.

“It’s a great way of telling the world, ‘The Salvation Army is my home church.’ ”

Elizabeth Shepherd: Discography

2006: Start to Move Elizabeth’s debut album was voted among the top three jazz albums of 2006 by the listeners of the influential Gilles Peterson Show on BBC Radio 1 International. In 2007, it was nominated for a JUNO Award in the vocal jazz category and won the INDIE Award for jazz album of the year. 

2008: Parkdale Her second album deals sympathetically with its Toronto neighbourhood namesake, known for its grit. The album was nominated for both the 2009 Vocal Jazz JUNO Award and jazz vocalist of the year at the 2009 National Jazz Awards.

2010: Heavy Falls the Night Elizabeth’s third album was the first to be self-produced. It includes the single, Seven Bucks, which climbed to No. 37 on the Tokio Hot 100 chart. The album was long-listed for the prestigious Polaris Music Prize in 2010 and garnered Elizabeth the INDIE Award for jazz vocalist of the year.

2012: Rewind Her fourth album is a collection of soulfully reworked covers of beloved songs. Dedicated to her first daughter, it was nominated for the 2013 Vocal Jazz JUNO Award, and was produced by Elizabeth.

2014: The Signal This studio album is an adventurous leap into electro-tinged soul jazz. JUNO nominated and Polaris Prize long-listed in 2015, it was produced by Elizabeth.

2019: Montreal By far Elizabeth’s most ambitious work to date, the 2020 JUNO Award nominated album is her sixth. An innovative multi-media project celebrating her hometown, it is a collection of 11 songs inspired by interviews with strangers that together form an unofficial “people’s history” of the city. Groove-driven, soulful, electro-infused jazz, this opus is accompanied by a series of films for each song, as well as a coffee table book.

2023: Three Things In February, Elizabeth released her seventh studio album, Three Things (based on 1 Corinthians 13:13). It is a joyful celebration of love, resilience and connection.

Elizabeth be embarking on a cross-Canada tour this spring, summer and fall and plans to team up with The Salvation Army to include some concerts in Army shelters along the way. On May 6, she will be the featured guest at the Canadian Staff Band's Festival 54, taking place at Guelph Citadel, Ont. Tickets are $10 at the door.

Photos: Courtesy of Elizabeth Shepherd

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On Saturday, April 1, 2023, Arlene Holland said:

What a wonderful story of Elizabeth Shepherd. So inspiring, uplifting and beautiful. Her words on Salvation Army family throughout her life, truly being family. Not losing out on friends when moving, but an ever increasing family to cherish and love her. This is what military family’s need to feel with postings and leaving people behind.

On Thursday, March 23, 2023, Susan Beechey said:

We were so pleased to meet Elizabeth when she performed in Vancouver. We went to the Montreal Citadel many long years ago with her parents. We were delighted to hear Elizabeth and we were able to talk to her after the performance. She kindly gave us a CD after. Now we can enjoy her music whenever we want. Such a refreshing talent and lovely young women. We were so happy to meet her.

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