We are Elizabeth Shepherd and Michael Occhipinti: ES:MO. Having performed together since 2012, we often found ourselves supplementing our larger ensemble tours with a few duo dates at the tail end. Our repertoire changed accordingly – you can’t perform the same songs with a 6-piece band as a 2-piece. Over time, we were surprised to discover the versatility that we could bring to such a stripped-down show. We each brought some of our respective musical past to the table – favourite tunes we’d never done, revisited covers that we had played in other contexts and ideas for new arrangements. After many shows and jams, the music took on a life of its own. We’ve both recorded projects where we’ve each put our stamp on other peoples’ music, but the real joy of this project lies in meeting each other as friends and equals who can bounce ideas off of one another, where the sky’s the limit. After 4 years of accumulated repertoire, we figured we should really commit this to record – and the result is this little gem.
In 2019 we had the opportunity at the end of a tour to book a few days in the studio at the Banff Centre For The Arts. We wanted to capture some of our live duo set, as well as work on some new ideas, and we left with a dozen songs and a memory of the unforgettable sound a mother elk makes to her herd when a few coyotes appear (we happened to be in the middle of that encounter). However, we wanted to expand on that first session and planned to record more. Once the Covid pandemic hit and canceled all of our concerts and tour plans, it all got very real: Michael is based in Ontario, and Elizabeth in Quebec, so if we couldn’t even get together with our friends and family locally, we were definitely going to have trouble recording.
Luckily, summer 2020 gave us a window where we could “bubble” with our families, and we got together in Quebec so our kids could play and we could do some writing. We were also able to get together in Toronto a few months later with Davide and Roberto, but just as we were close to having all the songs we wanted ready for mixing, the next Covid wave hit, so the internet proved to be our lifeline. We Facetimed or uploaded ideas, and recorded additional parts at home. Where mixing would usually mean being in the studio with David Travers-Smith to shape the record in real time, we ended up typing or phoning our mixing comments back and forth. All of this to say that it has been a long journey to The Weight of Hope. It seems surreal to even write this now, but while the dark period we’ve gone through globally has very much coloured this album, as it did all aspects of life, we’ve also tried to colour it with the joy and intimate communication we have playing live with other people. It has been very heavy to be deprived of that indeed.
The Weight of Hope comes from a line in a poem by Alice Oswald that we both thought fit the times we are living through, so much so that Michael referred to it in his lyrics for October Daughters, and Elizabeth created the words for the title track. We think it sums up a little of what emerged from the chaos; as the world seemed to be splitting at the seams while we were all holed up in our homes, we still forged ahead to create something beautiful, not knowing exactly how or even why at times. Music is a gift, as evidenced even in the most difficult times, so it seemed fitting that this album, which came together in a dark chapter, should teeter between the imperative and the desire to believe that things will be better. The thing we can always cling to is hope, however difficult that may at times feel; what better vehicle to deliver that hope than music?
Thank you David Travers-Smith for your dedication and for patiently interpreting our written and spoken communication as beautiful sound. Thanks to Davide, Mark, and Roberto for the creativity and enthusiasm they bring to our music. Thanks to all of the various recording studios and staff who recorded us in addition to David Travers-Smith, especially Jeff Wolpert, Jeremy Bernard, Roberto Occhipinti, Sydney Galbraith, and James Clemons-Seely. Thanks to Camille Gladu-Drouin for her creative photography, and to Stefan Verna for his vision for our Any Other Way video. Thanks to Frank Nagy for the photographs that inspired the cover painting and for capturing the painting itself, and to Larry Davidson at D’Addario Canada for the strings we photographed.
ES:MO is more than a musical duo, it is a tribute to the deep friendship between the two of us and our families. Huge thanks to our respective spouses who are connected to our work as well as being the anchors in our lives, Johan Hultqvist (Pinwheel Music) for his insight, support and consultation, and Cidalia Lopes for her inspired cover painting. Thanks to our children for their love and inspiration, Gianluca Occhipinti, and the four October daughters Bea and Lili Occhipinti, and Sanna and Alma Hultqvist-Shepherd.
A variety of people have helped ES:MO get to this point, too many to list, but thank you to Roberto Occhipinti for welcoming us into the Modica Music family, to Bernie Finkelstein for his input on this album, and to Matteo Ruperto and Max di Domenicus for sharing your beautiful promo video and photos from Rome. To all the faithful presenters and colleagues out there who invite us to tour year after year in Canada, Italy, Germany, and beyond – we’d like to thank each of you for believing in the music, and for keeping art alive through these wild times. See you on the other side.