Taking the omnichord to the next level

This is a story about the omnichord.

It was manufactured by Suzuki as a toy version of an autoharp. It has a touch plate for major, minor and diminished chords.

As the advertising tells us, “Anyone can learn to play it!”

“Yeah, and it can be incredibly annoying, too,” says Jenny Mitchell (a.k.a. Jenny Omnichord).

“It takes an awful lot of effort and, unless you learn to adapt it, it just plays the same sounds over and over.

“To take it to the next level, it takes a lot of dedication.

“It does have endless possibilities,” she says over the phone from her southwestern Ontario home. “I think it is really beautiful, but I know how to make it a little less annoying, repetitive.”

Yes, she does. In her practised hands of 10 years now, she creates sweet and gentle accompaniments to her quirky, poignant lyrics.

Whitehorse audiences can hear for themselves at The Old Fire Hall Friday, April 16, where she will share the stage with Melisa Devost.

But if you want proof before you go, just Google “omnichord” and you will see that Mitchell’s name pops up sixth, seventh and 10th and is among the top four images.

“What was the first website?” she asks. I tell her it is eBay.

“There are a lot of omnichords being sold on eBay,” she admits.”I think that’s just the same omnichord being sold over and over.”

The important thing is that if anyone ever needs an omnichord for their performance, “I’m the go-to player!”

Yes, the omnichord has been used by the likes of David Bowie, Daniel Lanois — “Oh, Daniel Lanois is my omnichord hero!” — and John Mayer, but Mitchell says very few people play only the omnichord.

Besides, Lanois can’t be easily booked … Mitchell knows … she’s tried.

However, just as the omnichord is a multi-faceted instrument, Jenny Omnichord is a multi-faceted person.

She has travelled Canada and cut people’s hair in exchange for their stories for a book she is writing.

When she was with The Burning Hell, she was in Whitehorse in 2008 and cut the hair of Kim Barlow.

But, in those days, she says she was having so much fun, she never got around to writing enough notes about the places she visited.

So, she contacted Barlow to enquire about coming up again, roughly at the same time of year — “I like the Yukon in April,” she says. “It’s kind of a mix between summer and winter.” — and that is when she was introduced to Melisa Devost.

“I’ve never met her,” she says. “But if she wants to play with me only because a mutual friend recommended it, then I think it’s great, so, I want to play with her, too.”

Mitchell has also just completed a project where she created album art that doubles as an antique game similar to Steeplechase. Instead of running around a track, however, players start at one end of Canada and race to the other end.

It is all based on her travels; the provinces and territories are a quilt she worked on while on the road and in studios.

People who pledged $20 or more, got a download code, a CD, a voucher to attend a show and homemade cookies.

The goal is to raise $4,100 to afford to press a vinyl record of the album.

It is no surprise, then, that this eclectic entertainer got her start with the Barmitzvah Brothers (who are not Jewish, not related, and not even all men). It is a band that was created for a school talent contest and continued as an electronic-polka band, rock and then bluegrass. Throughout, the members played unusual instruments.

With the birth of her son, Otis, Mitchell has tried not to change. But, the more she tries, the more she finds she just reinforces who she has always been.

“Places have turned me away just because I wanted to bring Otis, they were awful to me, and I realized how I never wanted to play there anyway … they are jerks.”

She decided she wanted to produce a children’s CD, even before she knew she was pregnant, but has since learned that her “adult songs” were suitable for children, too.

“My songs are in that middle ground; they are written for parents as easily as the children.

“It works, so I can take Otis to my shows and let him run around and parents can bring their own children.

“I don’t want to drive myself crazy by making everything babyish, and Otis appreciates not being talked down to.”

Information on Mitchell’s new CD is available at her new record label at www.labelfantastic.com.

Tickets for her Friday, April 16, show at the Old Fire Hall are available at the YAC Box Office, Arts Underground and www.yukontickets.com.

She then travels to Dawson City to play with a high school rock band for a fundraiser April 17.

Then, she and Devost team up again in Atlin at the Globe Theatre Monday, April 19.

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