By Angela Smith for Tom Tom Magazine
When Michelle Josef performed in an all-star tribute to the late Canadian folk singer Kate McGarrigle- in a band that backed up Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Emmylou Harris, Bruce Cockburn, and Broken Social Scene among others- one of the performers, Robert Charlebois, said to her: “You’re not one drummer, you’re five drummers – a folk drummer, a rock drummer, a jazz drummer, etc.” Considering the caliber of musicians she was working with, she took that as high praise.
Josef is not your average female country drummer. Her history is unique in that she underwent gender transition in 1997, the same year she was named the Canadian Country Music Association’s Drummer of the Year. Ironically, the same day the courier brought the award to her door she received a phone call from her band Prairie Oyster telling her they were letting her go because her gender change was too much of an issue for them.
“It was a great gig and I loved playing with them. After the soup hit the fan about my gender transition and I was let go I didn’t work for a year. It was not only financially challenging but spiritually and emotionally challenging. I always wonder how different it could have been if they had kept me in the band. They could have made this world a slightly more accepting place for transgendered people – but I guess they weren’t up to it. It was a different time then. I never wanted to be an ‘issue.’ I still don’t. I just want to rock the joint and turn the audience’s crank.”
Josef was 12 when her parents, hard-working but poor Ukrainian immigrants to Canada, scraped the money together to buy her first drum set. She began taking lessons in the local music store and in high school enrolled in the school band. “The music teacher lined us up in order of height,” Josef said. “Since I was tall, I was given the string bass. The chubby kid played tuba, and the smaller girls played flutes and violins.”
Josef said she really learned how to play drums by putting on headphones and “jamming along to Jimi Hendrix records. I was a total Mitch Mitchell freak.”
By listening to drummers such as Roger Hawkins, Al Jackson, Jr., Bernard Purdie, and Harvey Mason Josef learned that “you don’t have to play a lot of fills to be a great drummer.” As a student at Ontario College of Arts, she discovered Weather Report. “Psychedelic music and soul music were my first loves, although I have gone on to play a lot of ‘roots” styles – country, reggae, blues, swing, etc.”
She says for drummers to effectively play country and folk music they’ve got to love the songs. “Country and folk music are all about the voice and the song. The drummer’s role is to be supportive. I am a singer’s drummer. I look upon what I do as supplying the pulse and the rhythmic tonal spectrum of the song I’m playing. I do drum seminars and I tell the students that there’s a time to play the drums and a time to play the song. Ninety-nine percent of the time you are hired to play the song.”
She says some musicians look upon country as simplistic. “There’s not a lot of tight syncopation with wacky accents or odd time signatures. Still, there’s a lot of skill required to play with dynamics, sensitivity, a deep groove with great tone at quiet volumes. Infinity runs in all directions, including simplicity. It’s often what you don’t play that counts. It’s impressive to have the chops when you need them, but this kind of music rarely calls for elaborate or fast fills. Too many drummers think you really have to whack a drum to make it sound good. They confuse energy with tone. I learned to play quietly from working with Etta James. She demanded that you play from a roar to a whisper, and slowly, too.” She also made it clear, Josef said, that she “would punch your face if you didn’t deliver.”