By now, almost anyone reading this will have seen the remarkable duet between Grammy Award winning UK singer Seal and a street busker who had captured Seal’s imagination back in June. After Seal had taken in almost an hour of busker Jason Deeh Pitre’s singing, he joined him for a rousing rendition of “Stand By Me”. A video of it went viral, attracting millions of views, which has led to more work with Seal. The question most people have about the clip is who is this remarkable singer, blessed with a soaring tenor and lonesome falsetto, reminiscent of Roy Orbison and Del Shannon?
I first encountered Montreal musician Jason Deeh Pitre in December 2015, while directing a little indie documentary film called Last Thirteen. “Indie film” is perhaps too highfalutin a term for it, as it was a video project that was never screened commercially. However, it was a feature length film, and it needed music. The film itself documents one man’s emotional breakdown while wandering the streets of Seattle on a cold, rainy Christmas Eve, and it needed the right kind of music: sad, lonesome, wistful, and yearning. My partner on the film, an anonymous gentleman with a background in music who goes by the handle “Douche! the Monkey” online, came across Jason’s music first, and excitedly passed it on to me. The first tune I heard was Jason’s signature version of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”, and was utterly floored. Not only had Douche! found the perfect music for our film, he had seemingly discovered a legitimate and substantial musical talent. Not a “good singer”, but a musician with a vision and a sound. Jason very graciously offered us free run of his repertoire of songs, and it was his music that cemented our film. On the rare occasions when we do screen it, the first comment is almost always “who did the music to this movie?” Our most frequent review comment for the film is usually along the lines of “at least the music was good…”
The day after Seal’s appearance with Jason in the public square, an excited and star-struck Jason tweeted us the news, with a copy of the video. We re-tweeted his tweets, and wrote tweets of our own praising the video, hoping that we’d generate enough re-tweet action to get his moment noticed. When hours passed without our tweets getting the attention we felt they deserved, Douche! took matters into his own hands and tipped off media outlets, with CTV, the Canadian news network, being the first to react. By evening, CTV had run with the story and in the following few days, the clip of “Stand By Me” had been viewed well over a million times. News outlets around the world ran stories about Seal and “the busker” all week. Said Jason about the help from the mysterious Douche!, “I had a feeling that Douche was behind making the video viral, so I was grateful and a little tickled that I don’t even know who he is in real life. So when a person asks me how it all happened, I just say a monkey did it. Which is half true.”
Singing with Seal was the stuff dreams are made of, and Jason had been a Seal fan for years; the first compact disc he had ever bought was Seal’s debut album. He had been visibly nervous up to the moment he opened his mouth, but as he sung his first line of “Stand by Me”, he knew he sounded good, and the rest of the song just flowed. The comment section on YouTube had many comments from Seal fans who said that “the busker” had held his own.
Jason is not an egomaniac, nor does he come across as one. He is often soft-spoken and polite, and somewhat deferential. However, this should not be mistaken for false modesty. He knows he is good; after all, he has spent years honing his craft. He is proud of his work, particularly the work he has done with his band The Scroll. The duet, of course, was thrilling to Jason, but it raised a potential issue. He never really considered himself a solo singer, and he was worried that the video of his duet with Seal might convey the wrong image. Busking has been a summer gig he does for enjoyment; it is not the primary direction he takes with his music. As such, he looks at it as work. “Busking is hard for me because it’s like I have to play a role every day. I sing songs I don’t wanna sing and I project an image I don’t wanna show. When I’m onstage with The Scroll that’s the real me. When Seal met me while I was busking on the street, I wasn’t myself, but rather my ‘busking self’. So when the video went viral, it scared me that people would think I was just this street singer with this beautiful voice.”
When the video went viral, Jason wanted to make sure that anyone who was curious enough to check him out would find that he is no one-trick pony. So, the first thing he did was cover Seal’s “Bring It On” in his idiosyncratic, experimental fashion and create a startling video to go with it. Rather than showcase his soaring tenor, he wanted to show that there was more to him than a pretty voice. For Jason, being an auteur and bandleader takes precedence over being a singer.
— Seal (@Seal) August 2, 2016
So impressed and in awe of this artists incredible ability to redefine and subsequently own my song. Honoured J Deeh and thankful to have sang with you. – Seal
Of course, being an indie bandleader is no easy thing these days, in an era where traditional means of promotion have broken down, and the new digital-era means of promotion rarely results in even chump change for a musician. While Jason was satisfied with the music he was making in The Scroll, the band was struggling. The band had started and stopped several times over since the late 00’s, experiencing a complete turnover in personnel. The band’s music is challenging; it is not simple hook-laden fare. As Jason puts it, “The problem with The Scroll is that not a lot of people ‘get’ or try to make the effort to ‘get’ us. Bands these days are not subtle. Everything has to be easy to understand right away. I make a huge effort to be on my own island, so it keeps us from being in a clique or a scene with other bands. This is both a good and bad thing.”
Jason also points out a weird rabbit-hole musicians find themselves in, in the social media age: his band is more internationally known than locally known. While this sounds impressive, it is a big problem on a very practical level. “We can’t just fly to Africa and play because a couple of people bought the albums there. We’re a 7-piece band, so we need to make sure it’s worth the trip” So while The Scroll had been slowly attracting attention from individuals in far-flung reaches of the globe, it didn’t necessarily translate into anything tangible, like more gigs.
However, despite the fact that the Seal duet was more about Jason than his band, it did give him an opportunity to get his name and voice heard, which he hopes will in turn bring the more curious around to hearing his work with the Scroll.
After the hullabaloo about the duet died down, Jason remained relatively quiet online. Seal went on to join a few other buskers by surprise that week, even inviting one, Poppy Waterman-Smith of the UK, to actually open his next show for him, which she did to warm response from the audience. These buskers were also excellent singers; one thing for sure is that Seal knows a good singer when he sees one. However, we wanted to see Jason with Seal again; he just has that certain mojo that we hoped would find a wider audience.
Seal and Jason kept up a sporadic contact via Twitter messaging. Seal was on tour, and Jason was stuck in Montreal, but they had planned to meet once again when the opportunity presented itself. As it turned out, Seal had a couple dates at the Avalon Ballroom in Niagara Falls scheduled, while the Scroll was playing in Toronto at around the same time. Hesitant to invite himself to Seal’s show, Jason just mentioned he’d be in the general area. Seal unhesitatingly invited him to soundcheck at the first Niagara Falls show. This involved some serious all-night driving, but that’s rock and roll, and thirty hours later after arriving in Niagara Falls, Jason got a call from one of Seal’s people telling him, “Seal would like you to play today’s show.”
Jason described the scene backstage. “We entered the concert venue. It’s like an opera house- very big. Members of Seal’s band were working on songs and fiddling around. I noticed that there was only two of them (a guitarist/singer and a programmer/dj/synth/singer). I remember wondering how they were going to emulate Seal’s albums as a three-piece. I was intrigued. I was then escorted backstage by security. The backstage area was pretty sweet; a lot of food and snacks. I took advantage of that. I was starting to get bored backstage, so I decided to sit and watch soundcheck.”
After almost an hour, Seal appeared onstage after a jog (Seal is very fitness-oriented), and got down to business. Jason said, “Seal and the two other members start sound-checking a few songs. They then went through various things and changes for tonight’s show. What struck me was how hands-on Seal is with his live shows. He has a relaxed focus that very professional. He’ll use the soundcheck as a practice as much as a sound mix thing.”
Then came time for Jason to come onstage. After working out what songs to do with guitarist Isaac Bolivar, they came up with a medley of “Wicked Game” and “Stand By Me”, and ran through it twice. They then spent time jamming together on some of Seal’s songs, many of which were already familiar to Jason. “Jamming with him at soundcheck, I realized how much of an artist Seal is. He likes to take chances and be uncomfortable. All the concert DVDs and the show I saw that he’s done were very precise and meticulous. Those backing bands recreated his album tracks very efficiently. Now, with just a two-member backup band for this tour, it takes a lot of improvising to do some tracks justice. So even though it’s risky and limiting, it’s also very exciting. I felt I could throw ideas at Seal and he’d listen. Of course, I didn’t have the balls to do that too much, so I was just happy to play a couple of songs in his show.
At 8:30PM, it was showtime, and the venue was sold out. Seal performed a killer set, with the crowd loving it. The plan was for Jason to join him for the encores. Said Jason of the experience of walking onstage at the Avalon Ballroom, “Most of the crowd knew our viral video, so they knew having me for the show was a rare one-off. I walked onstage to an amazing applause. I was pleasantly surprised. The vibe in the room was electric.”
Jason started playing “Wicked Game”, and the crowd was right there with them. “I started to get into it. Midway, Seal took over the vocals a little and then we harmonized. It sounded great. We even improvised a little. Then we started “Stand By Me” (our viral hit). The crowd went nuts and started singing along.”
After the show Seal walked over to Jason backstage and told him, “That was great! Perfect!” He then added softly, “Wasn’t that fun?” Jason agreed. They exchanged a big hug, and Jason thanked him for everything. However, Seal wasn’t done. He invited Jason to join him for the following night’s show as well. Jason hesitated for a moment, wondering if the memory might be better as a one-shot, but he was having so much fun, he couldn’t resist. So, on the following night, it was back to the Avalon Ballroom again. Jason didn’t soundcheck on the second night. “Last night was pretty much perfect, so why bother?”, Seal said. Jason took the time to walk down to look at Niagara Falls. “Almost on every block, people came up to me to say they loved me last night. It was really surreal and humbling”, he says.
Seal delivered a second barn-burner of a show, and Jason went backstage right before the encore. This time, Seal just brought him onstage and he talked about their meeting to the audience. As Jason puts it, “The crowd was electric like the night before, so when we kick into Chris Isaak, they go nuts. Then, we segued into “Stand By Me”. The crowd ate it up again. Great applause. Seal and I hugged and I ran offstage.”
Jason took the opportunity to use the restroom, but while he did he heard Seal yelling “Where’s J Deeh? J Deeh?” from the stage. He hastily finished his business and ran back to the stage, where Seal told him, “Somebody in the audience has requested we do Prince’s “Raspberry Beret”. Do you know the chords?” Jason didn’t really know the chords, but a mic was thrust into his hand and before he know it, they were performing the song. “I just sang falsetto at the chorus and did synth parts with my voice. Unfortunately, after the performance, I’d realized that I forgot to zip up my fly.” After the show, he and Seal cooled off backstage, talking and singing snippets of songs together. About half an hour later, Jason departed for the long drive back to Montreal. As icing on the cake, his shows with the Scroll have been well received in Toronto, so he embarked on his journey home exhausted but in the best possible spirits.
Jason should get the last word here, since it is all his story. “The experience was surreal, fun, and more than I had hoped. I know most of you are wondering how Seal is in person. Well this is gonna sound like bullshit but it’s true: from the couple of nights I’ve been around him, he’s exactly what I hoped he would be. He’s just a cool cat. He’s very personable but also has a mysteriousness that is intriguing. You sense that he’s an original. The dude is gracious and the ‘real thing’ in terms of being an artist. I’m very sensitive to people who are not sincere, and I don’t feel any jadedness and insincerity in Seal. Of course, this is only from the two nights I spent with him. But I’m very proud to be a Seal fan. He really appreciates his fans and people in general. Anyway, for those who you who are interested in watching my part of the show, check it out!”
Check out music from The Scroll here:
See Seal with Jason at the Avalon Ballroom, Niagara Falls:
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Watch the original duet of “Stand By Me” that went viral
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About the author: Seederman tweets about music @Seedy_Rock and is a sometime contributor to Douche! the Monkey’s “Blanket Fort”