"With good people all around me, I'm living the life of dreams" – Julie Doiron, from 2009's The Life of Dreams
There are no small rooms and no small desires, only small players. Julie Doiron is playing the first show of her new weekly residency, and someone is asking her why.
"What else can I do," Doiron answers, "I can't go back to school."
The indie singer-songwriter is making her way toward the front of a Toronto coffee shop, where a guitar and microphone stand await. Before she straps on her instrument – a semi-acoustic from the 1940s – a fan asks about the CDs for sale. "They're $15," she says, apologetically. "Is that okay?"
In a world where poets and troubadours are content but often underpaid, Doiron can't pay her January rent. The likable New Brunswick native has lived in Canada's largest city for just over a year now. She teaches yoga, looks after her three children with her ex-husband and, new this month, plays a weekly show at Saving Gigi, a vinyl-friendly cubbyhole on Bloor Street West where fair-trade coffee and handmade food are on the menu. Capacity for her intimate gigs is capped at 25; tonight's special guest is the talented country crooner Daniel Romano.
Doiron, 39, is chatty and adorably scattered. Her material is at turns forlorn and hopeful, and before each song she tells a story, usually an anecdote involving the song's inspiration.
"It was in Montreal, in 2003, when I was trying to quit the music business," she tells the room, about the song Dark Horse. "I thought I should have more," she continues. "I thought about making a commercial album, or having a hit – just one song."
Though there's a friendly strum to Dark Horse, it's bittersweet in overall effect, with a line about "feeding your kids among all these pirates, you're feeding your kids the best that you can with what you've got."
With her soft, chalky voice and stylistic leanings toward both indie-rock and folk-pop, there are comparisons to be made to the highly visible Canadian artist Feist. But while Doiron has forged a perfectly respectable career – starting with the band Eric's Trip, signed to Seattle's iconic Sub Pop grunge label in 1990 – she's never come up with a snappy 1234-like hit.
Perhaps it's from lack of trying. "I have a devoted fan base," she says the next afternoon, now on Saving Gigi's sidewalk patio on an unthinkably mild January day. "I have no desire to alienate anyone who's been that loyal to me by trying to make a commercial song." Is there a "but" coming? "Well," she says with a smile, "I guess it would be great to be able to support my family in a more comfortable manner."
Doiron moved to Toronto because of her former husband, the artist Jon Claytor. (Those are his paintings which grace the cover and insides of Doiron's most recent album, the thoughtful I Can Wonder What You Did With Your Day.) He's pursuing his masters degree at York University; she's currently recording her 10th solo album with Rick White, the fellow former member of Eric's Trip and a long-time collaborator who has a studio in town.
Over coffee, the boho-breezy and youthful Doiron describes herself as a non-planner. "I live in a very unrealistic day-to-day way," she admits, talking while calming her windblown hair, long to the sides and with severe bangs that need trimming. "I assume everything is going to work their way out."
Perhaps they will – and so far they mostly have – but it can't be efficient. Indeed, Doiron often finds herself just like the less industrious squirrels of the world, with too few nuts when the snow comes. "It happens every Christmas," she explains. "I don't plan enough touring during the year, and I fall short of the money I need."
In the 1990s, when record labels looking for the next Seattle thought they found it in the Maritimes, Doiron and Eric's Trip were a bit flush. Sub Pop put her on a stipend of $400 a month – pretty pennies in Moncton at the time.
Of course, those days (post-Nirvana in more ways than one) are over. Doiron never learned to play the game, and never humbled herself to anyone. Which leaves her, not unhappily at all, teaching beginner's yoga three days a week, raising a family and recording and performing music. "I do what I do, as well as I can," as she sums it.
Doiron's never had a computer, but she recently bought an iPhone. It allows her to pick up and respond to e-mails more quickly. She's enjoying her time in Toronto, but this summer she'll likely return to Sackville, N.B., apparently a downward-dog-starved town where the fit and almost-40 mom might open a yoga studio. The new (untitled) album should come out in the spring, with touring to follow. "I feel like I can get it all together," she says.
Sounds like a plan.
Julie Doiron and guests play Saving Gigi, Jan. 12, Jan. 20 and Jan. 26 (859 Bloor St. W., Toronto).