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Meet Jarvis Church, one of this year's Searchlight judges

Jesse Kinos-Goodin

Gerald Eaton, also known by his performing name Jarvis Church, is a platinum-selling musician and Grammy-nominated producer. He got his start as the frontman for the Philosopher Kings, a Toronto-based R&B/pop act that became a radio staple during the '90s — a time often referred to as the Canrock revolution.

In 1996, the Philosopher Kings were awarded the Juno for best new group, and their sophomore album, 1997’s Famous, Rich and Beautiful, went platinum in Canada. Despite its success, the band dissolved, with each of the members moving on to even greater acclaim on their own. Jay Levine and James McCollum went on to form Prozzäk, while Eaton and Brian West started Track and Field, a production crew that would help launch the careers of some Canadian superstars in their own right, as you'll see below.

Eaton brings his experience to Searchlight this year as one of our celebrity judges. Below, he discusses discovering Nelly Furtado, working with K’naan, being nominated for a Grammy and what makes a great singer.

On producing Nelly Furtado’s debut album, Whoa, Nelly!

As the story goes, Eaton discovered Furtado at Honey Jam, a festival in Toronto for up-and-coming female artists. From there, Furtado, Eaton and West would go on to make history.

“While we were making songs that we thought would be singles, we also had this overview idea of us being on a deserted island and this album we were making would be the only thing we were allowed to listen to. So we were really making an album for us, for our standards, what we thought was fresh. That's a lesson I really try to keep with me today because I had my most success with it. I do believe you have to make the music you love, that you are excited about, that you would listen to. Trust yourself and make something that you are personally proud of.”

On meeting and working with K’naan

“I was at Sony Canada in the studio and we were doing a charity song for War Child where they were bringing together a bunch of Canadian artists. He was a new artist that got invited. When I heard him rap I was just immediately taken by him. We spent years working together.”

Their work included K’naan’s award-winning and critically acclaimed albums, The Dusty Foot Philosopher and Troubadour, the latter which included the world-conquering hit “Wavin’ Flag” — the only song Eaton didn’t produce.

“When we had ‘Wavin' Flag,’ we only had the hook. We didn’t have the verses. He worked with some other producers and they put the whole thing over different chords and made it what it is today. It happens like that a lot, you’d be surprised. As a producer, you can do the whole album except one song, and it's just one of the hard realities of it. It's so hard to know which song will blow up and all the income will be tied to that one song. It's challenging and one of the reasons why, when I work now, I’m a partner. After a few times around you start to set yourself up so you’re not cut out if you don’t write or produce the one song."

Why he still looks to Honey Jam to find the next big thing

Eaton is currently focusing on independent projects, such as working with another artist that he discovered at Honey Jam: Jordan Alexander.

“This is the first artist since Nelly, 12 years later I went back and saw her and have been working with her for two years,” he says. “I think she's absolutely incredible. Honey Jam, that's the place to go!”

On how sincerity counts when singing

“Singing in my opinion is a lot closer to acting than people realize,” he says. “And everybody can spot a bad actor who doesn't believe what they are saying. To me a bad singer is somebody that I don’t believe. That’s it. It's not about how many licks they do. There are lots of singers that can sing better than me in terms of technical skill, and do things with their voice that I can’t do, but I’m not into that. That's my yardstick — just whether I believe them.”

As Jarvis Church, Eaton ha’s used that technique to release albums featuring covers of Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield.

“I’m not trying to sing these songs the way they sang them,” he says. “I’m not trying to copy their singing, I’m trying to copy the intent and the meaning behind the words. If I can completely understand that then I can sing it and sell the song like they're my words.”

On his career highlight to date

“Definitely being nominated for a Grammy [producer of the year for Whoa, Nelly!], for sure. That was just such a surreal thing. It was one of those things where we made the album and then there was silence. We sent it out and we didn’t know. When it came back that people liked it and just ultimately getting that nod from the Grammys. It’s like, you were right. Everything you thought you were doing, it turns out you were right. That just has given me so much confidence moving forward. I really trust myself now. If I’m feeling it, no one can tell me otherwise.”

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