How this Calgary-born jazz artist is making her mark on the timeless genre (spoiler: it includes TikTok)
By Sara Romano
The first time Caity Gyorgy took the stage was at her elementary school talent show. In front of an audience of her peers and parents, she crooned a Joni Mitchell song—perfectly in tune, which is something she remembers as being the only real indicator of a good singer when you’re a kid. When the song was over, one of the parents seated in the audience turned to Gyorgy’s mom and expressed her surprise that she could sing like that. “I didn’t either,” said her mom.
Gyorgy’s musical intrigue slowly snowballed after her debut performance, churning from singing lessons (her repertoire showcased an affinity for Lady Gaga’s Poker Face) to joining every vocal ensemble in high school to falling head over heels for jazz.
“The switch that flipped was hearing improvisation from a singer and thinking, ‘Well, saxophones and trumpets do this, but so can voice,” she says. “There’s no limit to that.”
Gyorgy, 23, is bringing the best qualities of old jazz into the present, reinvigorating the genre with her witty lyrics and connecting with fans in innovative ways. To celebrate the release of her song Postage Due last year, the Montréal-based singer sent handwritten notes to anyone who pre-saved the song. She has also grown her TikTok to over 1.4 million likes, a fanbase that she attributes to her invitation to “join [her] on this journey of music.” Last month, she was nominated for a Juno award for her first album, No Bound.
To learn more about her achievements, New Wave sat down with Gyorgy to talk about old movies, sexism in the industry and how she’s bringing the Great American Songbook into the present.
What are your childhood memories of music?
I think I've just always sort of had this affinity for music, and just a love and a passion for it. Some of my earliest memories are of listening to people like Willie Nelson—definitely not jazz artists. I distinctly remember the song London Bridge by Fergie coming on the car, and absolutely loving it. I could always sing the melody, and I would just go around and mess around and see what I could play and figure out what the notes were based on what I was hearing in my head.
My dad showed me a lot [of music]. He showed me the Eagles and Emmylou Harris, a lot of country stuff. I was very fortunate to have had music around growing up. I talked to some of my friends who went to jazz school, and some of their parents would play them jazz records from a young age. And I didn't have that. But I'm grateful for the upbringing that I did have and the loads of music that was a part of it.
Do you think listening to those different styles of music in your childhood inadvertently shaped the way that you approach music now?
I always wonder about that, because my dad was always playing really great songwriters like Willie Nelson and Leonard Cohen, and all these different people that were just incredible songwriters. And so I grew up really loving these songs. I consider myself a songwriter now, and I'm such a huge fan of writing lyrics and making sure that lyrics are interesting and captivating. But still, you know, there's a little bit of humor in them. I think my love for those songs that my dad played me growing up has influenced my taste in music going forward. You know, there's all these jazz standards that have incredible lyrics that are so cheeky and so clever. I think my love for those lyrics has influenced my writing, and so I think that definitely began at a young age based on what I was hearing.
How would you describe your style of music?
I am obsessed with Bebop. I would say that my style is sort of like Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra, like the timeless singers of the 40s and 50s and 60s, mixed with more modern sounds. My style is very much inspired by the straight ahead, swing era, but I am still very much a 90s baby. And I do love my avocado toast.
What’s it like being a modern-day jazz singer?
Being a jazz singer today, I think it's an interesting balance of respecting what came before you while also carving a way for yourself to go into the future, because so much of the music and so much of a jazz singer's repertoire is the Great American Songbook. That's such a huge part of the music is to sing the same songs, but interpret them in your own way. So I think modern day jazz singers are still using those elements of the Great American Songbook of the 40s and 50s and making them our own.
When you’re writing music, do you think about how you might be a part of a variation of the Great American Songbook one day?
When I write, I write for myself, and I write in a way that I think is true to myself while also being true to my genre. And the genre has captivated me, like I'm completely in my element. When I'm singing and writing this music, I don't think I could really write a pop song. To be honest, I could write a pop song from the 40s, but not from 2022. I don't really think of it as a challenge; I find it challenging to make things modern, because I love using language that is from past eras. What I'll do is I'll watch old movies, and I'll write down phrases that I think are kind of interesting. I'll try to use those in a song to make things you know, seem like they could have been written in the 50s or the 40s. I just hope that when I write, I'm writing to last and that the songs are timeless no matter what genre they're in.
What was the jazz scene in Toronto like before the pandemic and how did the pandemic affect your work?
Oh my god, it was amazing. I was exhausted, but it was fun. It was like a good exhaustion where you're like, ‘Okay, well, this is exactly what I want to do.’ Performing for people live is just one of the most rewarding things, especially when they connect with you and your lyricism. Like there's nothing more rewarding than looking into the audience and seeing that you have people in the palm of your hand and the way that you're phrasing and telling the stories is touching them. I really miss being able to do that on a regular basis.
I guess the biggest part was how live performance just got taken away. Jamming was really difficult; I felt so out of practice. When I finally did get to play with people again, it was really really challenging. The music that I sing is such a social music, like there's a whole scene around jam sessions and going up to play with new people and meeting new people on the bandstand and playing with different people. That whole element of the music, which is such an important part of the music and its history, got taken away within like a day.
What’s something you wish more people knew about jazz?
There's like so many incredible women, and like non-binary folks that play this music. If you take the time to go search those people out and listen to their music, I think you're gonna really like it. And it's just so important to support women and non-binary folks that are in this industry. It's just so important to have the support of the listener who is listening to people that might not be the norm of what the genre used to look like.
This piece was published in New Wave's Spring 2022 Issue